The Portsmouth Review

The Untold Truth About Asylum Seekers and Refugees

Vanessa Azzopardi

A girl who was injured in a car bomb that exploded in Daf al-Shok district lies in a hospital in Damascus on October 26, 2012. (Sana/Reuters)
Image Freedom House Syrian Refugee

Asylum seekers and refugees: two terms that have generated much debate and controversy among British policy-makers and the British public itself. These people are thought by many to be flooding into the country, stealing Britain's jobs and sponging off Britain's benefit system.

There is a good deal of prejudice, misunderstanding and ignorance surrounding asylum seekers and refugees. But how much do we really know about these people and their lives?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines an asylum seeker as someone who has applied for asylum and is waiting for a decision as to whether or not they can be granted refugee status.

A refugee is a person who, according to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 'owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country'.

Whatever labels we attach to them, these people are often escaping from the terrors of war, torture or tyranny that exist in their respective homelands. They come to Britain for safety and to seek a better life free from oppression.

Many believe that they come to Britain only for the unemployment and housing benefits. However, the Refugee Council, the UK's leading authority on asylum seekers and refugees, claims that most asylum seekers know nothing about welfare benefits before they come to the UK and therefore do not expect such support when they arrive. In fact, most asylum seekers are not allowed to work here, and the state support they receive can be as little as £5 a day. Asylum seekers in other European countries such as Belgium, Denmark and Ireland receive far better benefits than their counterparts in the UK.

Those who enter the UK and claim asylum are often detained in special detention centres, which are much like prisons. Each year around 1,000 children seeking asylum with their families are detained in such centres. Rosy Bremer, a former employee of Bail for Immigration Detainees, explained to me that there are occasional suicides of asylum seekers held in detention.

She went on to say that other asylum seekers are accommodated in poor-quality houses that have been condemned by local authorities. The Refugee Council states that most asylum seekers are forced to live in so-called 'ghettos' in deprived areas - sometimes areas in which, so the research has shown, they are more likely to suffer from racial harassment.

Rosy has worked closely with asylum seekers and believes that the UK is too hostile towards them. “It is a very upsetting and disturbing situation for asylum seekers because many of them would have come from countries with political instability or civil war and then they arrive in the UK which is overwhelmingly hostile to them and they have very limited rights.”

The process by which a person claims asylum is a long and arduous one. Asylum seekers must provide legitimate reasons as to why they fled their home country and support them with evidence. Each case is scrutinised by a ‘case owner’.

The UK takes only about 2% of the world’s refugees and Europe accepts just 14%, while 80% of the world’s refugees live in the developing world, mostly in Asia and Africa.

Those asylum seekers whose applications are accepted, and who therefore gain refugee status, tend to bring benefits to the host country. Once they obtain the right to work, refugees often end up contributing more to the economy through taxation than what they take out. They often fill positions in the cheap labour market that others – mostly British citizens – are unwilling to take on.

As well as being considered an economic burden, asylum seekers are often associated with criminality. However, the reality is that asylum seekers are much more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators of it. A study conducted by Refugee Action found that one in five of their clients had experienced some kind of harassment while 83% of female asylum seekers do not go out at night for fear of being abused or harassed.

The fevered national debate about immigration tends to drown out the voices of refugees and asylum seekers themselves. We hear only one side of the story, and it's rarely theirs.

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Zimbabwe: Has its first coalition improved the country?

Maxine Mason

Today Zimbabwe is a devastated nation, but this wasn’t always the case. ‘There was a time when the country was so prosperous that people from neighbouring countries came to live out their dreams in Zimbabwe,’ says Kudzinetsa Sitotombe, a former citizen. However, many citizens now live in fear and discontent. An ex-resident who wishes to remain anonymous describes the horror: ‘I am a personal victim, having been beaten and had my home and possessions taken away. Many people have been victimised, burnt, tortured, and raped by the regime.’ Although the current government is an all-party coalition that has promised radical reform, Zimbabwe remains in turmoil.

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe by a-birdie

The coalition between the MDC and ZANU PF parties was formed in 2008 after ten years of autocratic rule by Robert Mugabe. At first there was hope among the Zimbabwean people. Now there is only disappointment. A former MDC parliamentary worker, who will be known as ‘Pete Jones’, argues that ‘wherever in the world there are remaining dictators … one can draw a parallel to Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean issue has nothing to do with race, it is about a repressive regime fighting to stay in power without the support of the people.’

When Morgan Tsvangurai of the progressive MDC joined the coalition, it was believed that he would exert a positive influence. Another interviewee, ‘Tom’, sees things differently: the joint government is ‘a dictatorship’ which has ,‘‘successfully ‘governed the country to its total collapse’.

‘Pete Jones’ adds that, at first, ‘the coalition between the MDC and ZANU PF never "fell" in to place, it came about as a result of the Zimbabweans people’s resolve and [desire] for change. In spite of violence and rigging, ZANU PF was defeated but Mugabe and ZANU PF refused to transfer power in order to create stability and ease the suffering of the Zimbabwean people. The MDC entered into an agreement that was to allow a period of reforms to be carried out in preparation for a non-violent free and fair election [whose] outcome would be uncontested. This period has passed and two thirds of the issues in the agreement have still to be implemented by ZANU PF. It is a difficult coalition with little agreement on policy issues.’

Another resident agrees. ‘The coalition is just a window to show the world that the parties are getting along.’ The coalition has failed to resolve the struggles of old. Another interviewee claims that ‘the situation continues because the people are completely disenfranchised and controlled by a ruthless and seemingly invincible regime that stops at nothing to retain power.’

‘Most Zimbabweans believe that the nations of the world, including African nations and especially Britain, have failed them.’ This is the view of a Zimbabwean who fled the country to seek refuge abroad.

The international media has largely ignored the abuses of the coalition and Zimbabwe’s worsening political and economic situation. Robert Dowden asserts that the ‘international media can sometimes view Africa as a brand through which it is characterised as riddled with war, famine and disease.’ Zimbabwe is part of such a ‘brand’ and receives little coverage abroad due to the international media’s attitude to African news stories. Author Susan Moeller states that ‘to forestall the “I’ve-seen-it-before” syndrome, journalists reject events that aren’t more dramatic or more lethal than their predecessors.’ Arguably, situations that haven’t changed much over periods of years are regarded as less relevant than newer, more rapidly-developing situations. ‘Editors and producer,’ continues Moeller, ‘don’t assign stories and correspondents don’t cover events that they believe will not appeal to their readers and viewers.’

It is evident that the coalition has not been covered by the global media as thoroughly as previous issues and events in the country.

‘Zimbabwe meant a lot to me,’ says a dismayed ex-resident. ‘It was my place of sanctuary and refuge in this world and where my family was and indeed some [members] still are’. Despite assurances of much-awaited change, the coalition has proven to be nothing more than a broken promise which has in no way lived up to the expectations of the Zimbabwean people. One can only hope for significant political progress to restore hope to the once bread-basket of Africa.

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