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

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7 Citizenship as ‘participation in social life’

If ‘citizenship, as social practice, is manifested by direct or indirect participation in public life, by both individuals and groups’ (Kastoryano, 2002, p. 143), then opportunities for asylum seekers and refugees to participate is crucial. Young unaccompanied asylum seekers in Milton Keynes (not one of the government's ‘cluster areas’) were very clear about what participation meant for them: ‘secure housing, full-time education, special language training, friends and community support, leave to remain and a secure future: “To learn English … To go to school … To marry an English girl … To learn about computers … To become a doctor … To be useful for the society”’ (John et al., 2002, p. 6, original emphasis).

Policies on vouchers, dispersal, accommodation and detention actively discouraged participation in public life. However, in 2001 the Labour Government gave an election commitment to assist the settlement and integration of refugees into UK society, though integration was only to be facilitated for people with refugee status or indefinite leave to remain in the UK, even though the greatest need for help is immediately after arrival. Thus, free English language classes were only available in England for people with three years’ residence or refugee status (the situation is more flexible in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). The education of children within accommodation centres has particular consequences for women and children, since involvement with schools is a good way of making friends and feeling part of a community.

Engagement in paid employment has long been seen as a key aspect of citizenship, both as a responsibility and as a right guaranteed by the state (Mooney, 2004). However, this opportunity has been limited for both asylum seekers and refugees, exacerbated by dispersal policies and removed entirely for asylum seekers by the 2002 Act. From Table 1 we can see that structural barriers to employment stem directly from immigration and asylum legislation, and asylum seekers themselves find it paradoxical that they are accused of sponging off the state but denied the right to work. At the time of the 2002 Act the government was also developing a ‘Highly Skilled Migrant Programme’ to encourage people with exceptional skills and experience to come to the UK to work. This had very little impact on those asylum seekers and refugees eligible to work, who have consistently found it hard to obtain employment. Most experience downward mobility, despite many of them being highly qualified in areas of serious shortage such as teaching and medicine. Discrimination by employers is seen as the main barrier to participation in work (Bloch, 2002). Many asylum seekers have been forced into the informal economy, working in unpopular jobs in catering, cleaning, building, farm labouring and food production. They are poorly paid, greatly exploited and further demonised for doing these jobs.

In a survey of 400 asylum seekers and refugees from five different communities, Bloch (2002) investigated the experiences of participation and employment of people eligible to work. Some of her findings are set out in Extract 5.

Extract 5: Participation and employment experiences of some asylum seekers and refugees eligible to work

  • Most people had made new friends since arriving in the UK; this was important for participating in activities and feeling less marginalized. Women were more likely than men to have friends only in their own community. Kinship and community networks were very important; those who had moved had done so largely to be near family or friends or because of the existence of a community.

  • Most people were literate in their first language and more than half were multi-lingual; most people's English language skills were not good when they arrived, but improved rapidly through language courses; access to language classes was harder for women with children.

  • There was a low level of labour market participation even though 96 per cent had had formal education, 56 per cent had a qualification on arrival and 42 per cent had been working before coming to the UK; more men were employed than women, but in a much lower diversity of work than before coming to the UK; few people had professional jobs; most had poor terms and conditions of employment.

  • Few people were studying or in training; this was due to insufficient language skills, not knowing what was available or they were entitled to, lack of child care or family commitments.

(based on Bloch, 2002, pp. 1–3)

These findings spell out clearly some of the barriers to citizenship as participation in social life.