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

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8.1.1 What kind of evidence has been used in this course?

We have used personal stories as evidence to support arguments about the mutual constitution of personal lives and social policy. The people in our stories all came to, or stayed in, the UK primarily because they saw it as a place of safety, not because of the welfare benefits or services they hoped to receive, and we have contrasted this with dominant discourses about (bogus) asylum seekers for whom welfare in the UK is said to act as a magnet. These dominant or official discourses, echoed by the media, focus on evidence, often described as ‘facts’, which is used to justify ever harsher procedures and removal of welfare services and benefits. A typical example, shown in Extract 6, is taken from a Home Office press release from February 2003; it presents the ‘asylum statistics’ for the final quarter of 2002. The government used these figures as a benchmark to measure its progress in meeting its declared target to ‘cut asylum claims by 50 per cent’ (Home Office, 2003).

Activity 6

Have a look at Extract 6.

  • What might we learn from the data in this extract?

  • Given the purpose of the figures as stated above, what implicit assumptions characterise this approach to obtaining evidence?

Extract 6: Some asylum statistics for the final quarter of 2002

The key findings of the publication of the 4th quarter statistics are:

  • There were 23,385 applications for asylum in the 4th quarter of 2002;

  • There were 85,865 applications in 2002 (estimated 110,700 including dependants). Since peaking in October at just under 9,000 there has been considerable progress, falling to 7,815 in November and 6,670 in December as the NIA Act [The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002] began to come into force and the effects of increased security with the French reduced the number of illegal immigrants entering Britain;

  • In 2002 8,100 (10 per cent) people were granted asylum, 19,965 (24 per cent) were granted ELR [exceptional leave to remain] and 54,650 (66 per cent) were refused asylum;

  • A record number of failed asylum seekers were removed in this quarter (3,730). 13,335 failed asylum seekers were removed in 2002 – a record annual figure. …

  • NASS received 10 per cent fewer applications for support in this quarter (17,450);

  • By the end of December 2002 37,810 asylum seekers were receiving subsistence only support and 54,070 were supported in NASS accommodation.

(Home Office, 2003)


We identified the following assumptions:

  • Apparently neutral phrases like ‘asylum statistics’ mask the fact that the statistics imply that ‘the real reasons’ people want to come to the UK are to take advantage of the UK's ‘lax’ asylum laws and generous welfare state.

  • ‘Facts’ always refer to numbers, which are assumed to be too high.

  • The language of the statistics shown in Extract 6 gives no insight into people's experiences or the reasons for their applications.

  • The term ‘record number of failed asylum seekers’ assumes that most of the claims were not ‘genuine’.

  • The idea of setting a target on a reduction in the number of claims is based on this same premise. It takes no account of the circumstances in the world that cause people to flee. Nevertheless, in commenting on the ‘provisional figures for 2002’ as ‘deeply unsatisfactory’ the Home Secretary referred to such world events, suggesting it was ‘no surprise, with applications from Iraq and Zimbabwe accounting for nearly all the increase from 2001’ (Home Office, 2003).

  • The use of labels like ‘asylum seeker’ serves to homogenise people's experiences.

‘Statistics’ do not always support such dominant views. A counter example comes from a challenge by the Refugee Council to the association made between asylum seekers and ‘terrorists’ in early 2003, following the shooting of a policeman in Manchester. They refuted this association with their own ‘facts at a glance’ (see Table 3).

Table 3: ‘Facts at a glance’
22.8 million
The number of people who came to the UK in 2001 for stays of up to one year, including tourists, business travellers and overseas students
The number of asylum applications made in the UK during 2001
The number of asylum seekers being held under anti-terrorist legislation
(Source: Refugee Council, 2003b, p. 1)

Research that is interested in the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees does not collect statistics, but uses qualitative methods such as interviews or focus groups. For example, Robinson and Segrott (2002) conducted interviews with 65 asylum seekers to understand the decision-making of asylum seekers. The choice of in-depth interviews as the research method arose from the researchers'

beliefs about human agency and its complexity and rootedness in individual biographies … this was the only way that the practical consciousness of the respondents could be explored, and the depth and quality of information that is needed be gained … given the potential complexity of the decision making process.

(Robinson and Segrott, 2002, p. 8)

Recruitment of respondents, through contacts and organisations, was not straightforward. Not surprisingly, asylum seekers, whose status is still uncertain, may be quite anxious about participating in research, and wary of trusting anyone who seems at all ‘official’. In particular:

there was reluctance to participate in a study being funded by the Home Office, even though it was emphasized that this research was independent … the Home Office's role was solely as funders … The research met considerable suspicion about its motives, rooted in a belief that Home Office involvement in the project reflected a hidden agenda.

(Robinson and Segrott, 2002, p. 9)

People were persuaded to participate because the researchers gained their trust, partly through personal contacts, and partly through their credibility as researchers. In addition, the asylum seekers believed that they ‘would have an opportunity to speak directly to the Home Office through this research’ (Robinson and Segrott, 2002, p. 10).

Robinson and Segrott found that people's overwhelming concern was to find a place of safety. Factors influencing their final destination included: their ability to pay for long-distance travel and whether they were dependent upon ‘agents’ who made the decision for them. If in a position to choose, they were influenced by having relatives or friends in the UK, the belief that the UK is a safe, tolerant and democratic country, previous links between their own country and the UK, including colonialism, and the ability to speak English or a desire to learn it. There was little evidence of prior knowledge of UK immigration or asylum procedures, of entitlements to benefits or availability of work in the UK. There was even less evidence that asylum seekers had comparative knowledge of how these varied between different European countries. Most wanted to work and support themselves during the determination of their asylum claim rather than be dependent upon the state.