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Who counts as a refugee?
Who counts as a refugee?

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6 Citizenship and access to welfare

6.1 ‘Maybe you can look, but you cannot touch’: asylum and restricting access to welfare

So far we have considered meanings of citizenship in terms of legal status, national identity and belonging. In this section we want to explore it in terms of ‘access to welfare’, recognising that people who flee from their country of origin are likely to require assistance and support when they arrive. There is a long history of the state linking controls on access to welfare and control of migration since the 1905 Aliens Act (Lewis, 2003).

Activity 4

Look again at Table 1 in Section 3. How would you describe the development of policy between 1993 and 2003 in terms of people's access to welfare services and benefits?


Successive pieces of legislation attempted to make it increasingly hard for people to enter the country, forcing them in many cases to try to get in illegally, to use agents to help them, or to resort to ‘traffickers’ (Table 2 describes the distinction between ‘agents’ and ‘traffickers’). Their access to welfare benefits and services has also been systematically restricted, on the grounds that welfare acts as an incentive, or ‘magnet’, to make bogus claims for asylum in the UK. Many asylum seekers are detained on arrival in the UK, despite having committed no crime.

This successive removal of welfare services and benefits has had an enormous impact on the personal lives of people who have usually fled terrible circumstances in their country of origin, with dangerous and frightening journeys to get to the UK, which they saw as a place of safety. Such policies and practices affect the most ordinary everyday practices such as whether or not they are able to get enough to eat and somewhere to sleep. The uncertainty of waiting for a decision adds to the level of psychological distress experienced.

We can illustrate this by considering two of the most controversial policies introduced by the 1999 Act – dispersal and the vouchers scheme. Both policies were co-ordinated by a new government body, the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), through which asylum seekers were to be removed entirely from mainstream welfare services.