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Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the United Kingdom

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Introduction

People from various countries choose to leave their homes and live in a foreign country to seek refuge or asylum. Although both refugees and asylum seekers similarly look for residence in another country, they belong to different groups because they do not share similar goals, needs, and demands. Refugees are people who willingly or are forced to leave their own countries for fear of discrimination for reasons that are primarily related to social issues such as race and religion, among others. Refugees are also those who were displaced from their homes due to war, natural disasters, and economic deterioration. On the other hand, asylum seekers are those who are compelled to leave their country for fear of persecution, torture or death. Asylum seekers find safety and protection in another country (Norton 2003, p. 39). In the UK, “an asylum seeker is defined as a person who has submitted an application for protection under the Geneva Convention, and is waiting for the claim to be decided by the Home Office” while a refugee, on the other hand, “is a person who has been accepted under the Geneva Convention, and has been granted Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR), and therefore has permanent residence” (Oliviere, Monroe, & Payne 2012, p. 167).

In the UK, asylum seekers often come from conflict-ridden countries like China, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan. “Civil wars, boundary disputes, ethnic conflicts, genocide, coups and counter-coups, oppressive governments, political, racial or religious persecution, all throw up innocent victims who have to flee” (Kimble 1998, p. 15). While many of those who seek asylum fear being tortured or killed, others have already suffered persecution even before finding the opportunity to flee to another country. Others claim that their own families and friends were tortured and killed in front of them.

While asylum seekers find safety in other countries like the UK, there are many issues surrounding their quality of life, safety, and treatment that they experience in a foreign country. According to Orme, Powell, and Taylor (2007, p. 92), asylum seekers need security and shelter, social support, and access to various public services such as healthcare and education. However, social issues point out the lack and inadequacy of the treatment and services that asylum seekers receive. The Refugee Council is one of the most committed organizations in helping asylum seekers. The organization’s primary concerns include the safety and treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. The organization focuses on meeting “the human rights of children and young people seeking asylum in the UK, and the human rights issues raised by the experience of asylum seekers with healthcare needs” (Great Britain: Parliament: Joint Committee on Human Rights 2007, p. 201). Although there are various organizations, like the Refugee Council, that make sure asylum seekers are treated fairly and are provided with their basic needs adequately, certain issues come to light that underscore the problems they encounter while living in a foreign country like the UK. Considering these issues, one of the objectives in this discussion is to highlight those social issues and perspectives, as well as to identify policies responses that could effectively address those issues.

Statistics

The number of asylum seekers around the world has grown to millions throughout the years. However, only a percentage of those millions are able to leave their countries, while others choose to seek refuge in regions close to their home country, and an even smaller percentage travel to the UK to seek safety and protection. Since the 1980s, the UK is one of the countries with a large number of asylum seekers, Germany having the largest number. In 1985, while Germany admitted approximately 398 thousand asylum seekers, the UK hosted 55 thousand. The number gradually increased until the late 1990s (Langan 1998, p. 247). The number of asylum seekers in the UK also peaked during the 1990s but after a series of conflict resolution, the number of asylum seekers decreased prior to the emergence of the 21st century. Overall, “between 1990 and 2005 the UK received over half a million applications for asylum. In London, the proportion of asylum seekers and refugees within the population has been estimated to be as high as 1 in 20” (Stein & Wilkinson 2007, p. 763).

In the early years of the 21st century, the number of asylum seekers increased yet again as a result of the escalating conflict in the Middle East. “In 2000 and 2001… the increase in regional conflicts, especially in the Middle East, Asia Minor and sub-Saharan Africa, inflated the number of asylum seekers throughout the OECD area, particularly in the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom and Switzerland” (OECD 2004, p. 33). In 2002, the number of asylum seekers significantly increased from 57.3 thousand from 1990 to 2001 to 110.7 thousand in 2002 alone, making UK the first country that received the most number of applications from asylum seekers.

In recent years, however, the number of asylum seekers who choose to live in the UK has also grown less in recent years. “The number of applications for asylum in the UK rose from 32,505 in 1997 to 84,130 in 2002, but has since reduced each year, with 25,715 applications in 2005 (Great Britain: Parliament: Joint Committee on Human Rights 2007, p. 7). According to Travis (2010), the decline in asylum seekers can be observed as well in other countries in Europe, like Poland. The decline in the number of asylum seekers could be attributed to the rapid resolution of conflicts in their country. However, in the UK, the declining number of asylum seekers could also be attributed to the existing rules and regulations for applying for asylum. The Asylum Act of 2002, for instance, set new standards and requirements for asylum seekers, which made it more complicated and difficult for people to send applications (Great Britain: Home Office 2007, p. 14).

In 2009, the UK received 24,485 applications from asylum seekers, which is comparatively lower to the 25,670 applications the country received in 2008. In 2007, the number of applications was even significantly lower at 23,430. Aside from the declining population of those who send applications for asylum, only a small percentage of the applicants will be granted refugee status. In 2008 alone, only 18 percent of the applications were granted, 11 percent were granted humanitarian protection and discretionary leave, while the remaining 70 percent were refused. Moreover, in 2008, 66,275 asylum seekers were removed or voluntarily departed the country.

Social Construction

As previously discussed, various issues and concerns surround asylum seekers in the UK. The media, society, and political institutions have distinctly contributed to the varied construction of asylum seekers to the public. Some representations of asylum seekers are supportive of their situation while others express disapproval over them. One of the primary reasons why some people express their disapproval of their own country receiving asylum seekers is because some of them do not genuinely need help. Fake or bogus asylum seekers exploit and take advantage of opportunities in developed countries like the UK by fraudulently posing as asylum seekers. The existence of fake or bogus asylum seekers has sparked a long and ongoing debate in British society and politics, the primary argument focusing on the fact that “some people claim refugee status when they are not entitled to do so” (Baker 2006, p. 91).

Major claims and arguments against fake or bogus asylum seekers also focus on the idea that these people steal taxpayer money and that they enjoy the benefits they receive even if they are undeserving. As a consequence, “the British media, and, in particular, the tabloids have intensified the pressure on the government to stop ‘bogus asylum seekers,’ ‘asylum shopping,’ the exploitation of the asylum system and waste of taxpayers’ money for accommodating ‘fake’ asylum-seekers” (Henke 2005, p. 84). In the media, those who are against the idea of hosting asylum seekers in the country emphasize that most times, bogus economic migrants are even treated better than British nationals (Cohen 2006, p. 62).

The increasing interest of the public over issues involving fake or bogus economic migrants brings to light another important issue – the blurred definitions between legitimate economic migrants, abusive migrants, and overstayers. Resolving the problems and issues brought on by bogus economic migrants, abusive migrants, and overstayers will be best addressed if there is a clear definition that cites the offenses these people would commit. According to Gordon, Scanlon, Travers, and Whitehead (2009), bogus economic migrants, abusive migrants, and overstayers are categorized as irregular migrants.

Categories irregular migrants: illegal entrants, overstayers, and children of irregular migrants

  1. Illegal entrants are those who “evade formal migration controls and those who present false papers.”
  2. Overstayers are those who stay in the country even after the permitted time of residence in the UK. Overstayers are also those people who were refused asylum but still choose to remain in the country.
  3. Children born to irregular migrants are not considered as migrants. However, based on the law, they are not permitted residence in the country as well. (Gordon, Scanlon, Travers, and Whitehead 2009).

One factor that makes it difficult for the government to resolve issues concerning irregular migrants is that it is hard to determine their patterns of behavior, goals, or plans. It would be easier for the government to find irregular migrants if the authorities know where they will likely stay or work, where they spend their time, among others. The goals, values, and behavior of irregular migrants are divers that it makes the government difficult determine how they should proceed in handling these groups of migrants. Moreover, the government faces enough problems with other illegal migrants, such as entrants who cross the border without proper and adequate documents (Gidley & Jayaweera 2010). The complexity of irregular migration presents a challenge for the government. Overall, the issue of illegal migration in the country affects the condition of asylum seekers because the government chose to limit the percentage of granted applications from them since the early 21st century.

Aside from irregular migrants and bogus economic migrants in the country, another issue that cause people to attack the country’s asylum policies relates to the existing threats of migrants or refugees to national security due to terrorism. Other threats involve increased crime rates, health issues such as the spread of disease, and increased poverty that consequently increase the number of beggars and homeless people. Due to these threats, migrants and refugees have trouble in integrating themselves to British society. The government particularly finds the social cohesion as a problem due to the divide between migrants and refugees and those who oppose their residence in the UK. Some people associate the presence of migrants and refugees in the UK as a source of “crime, the infiltration of rebel groups, spread of disease and increased insecurity – thus destabilizing the social environment” (Davies 2008, p. 13).

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Despite the limitations for asylum seekers, the government prioritizes applicants who were victims of violence or trafficking. Some private organizations contribute to the government’s decision making when handling asylum seeker applications. The British Red Cross, for instance, supports applications where asylum seekers have been first hand victims of violence and trafficking. According to the British Red Cross, the organization is “deeply concerned about the victims of human trafficking because [the organization knows] that people who have been trafficked, are vulnerable to sexual and economic exploitation and abuse” (Great Britain: Parliament: House of Commons 2009, p. 127). Aside from the British Red Cross, other organizations like the Refugee Women’s Resource Project (RWRP) and the Asylum Aid also support the prioritization of asylum applications sent by women and those who are victims of human trafficking and exploitation (Great Britain: Parliament: Joint Committee on Human Rights 2006, p. 92). Private organizations who support asylum seekers contribute to ensuring the legitimacy of applicants, which then assists the government in making clear and effective decisions when granting applications.

While some people urge the government to abolish existing policies for asylum seekers, some individuals and groups aim to help in improving their situation and treatment in the UK. According to some support groups and organizations, one of the primary barriers to social integration of migrants and refugees is that some asylum seekers cannot work, as mandated by existing policies. “Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 does not allow asylum seekers to seek legal employment” (Great Britain: Parliament: Joint Committee on Human Rights 2007, p. 239). The problem is that majority of asylum seekers rely on their personal resources when staying in another country. However, since there are limited work opportunities available for them, they do not gain enough income to sustain their basic needs. Therefore, they primarily rely on social services and benefits that they can access in the host country.

Nonetheless, asylum seekers cannot expect to gain full support from local communities in the UK due to racism. Some describe the hateful attitude of people towards migrants and refugees as NIMBYism – NIMBY being the acronym for Not In My Back Yard. The media, on the other hand, use straightforward offensive language. In 2001, the racist language that the media used to describe asylum seekers has sparked debate concerning racism. Many people and support groups sent complaints and the issue of racism were widely debated in the media. “The debate centered on newcomers’ dependence on British people’s money and jobs, and the issue of begging” and asylum seekers were told “not to seek work and not to be dependent on the state” (Bhavnani, Mirza, & Meetoo 2005, p. 40).

Sociological Perspectives

The situation of asylum seekers is viewed from varying sociological perspectives. The British stance on asylum seekers is mixed. While some people say that the increasing population of immigrants in the country is disrupting post-colonial economy, other people are concerned about the maltreatment, abuse, and persecution of asylum seekers in their own countries. Since the beginning, the British Parliament made moves to limit the population of immigrants in post-colonial UK. The 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act is a proof that the government sought to prevent Africans and Asians from taking advantage of post-colonization policies and securing their passports to travel and reside in the UK. The Act, however, was criticized because while it prevented Africans and Asians from migrating to the UK, it allowed UK residents living in Africa and Asia to return to their country (Alcock, May, & Wright 2012, p. 416). Other post-colonial policies also proved the British Parliament’s denial of immigrants from previous colonies unless they are offsprings of British nationals.

In recent years, the British parliament implemented similar policies for asylum seekers. “The third phase of immigration control [in the UK] focused on limiting the entry of asylum seekers and their exclusion from social and economic participation in society” (Alcock, May, & Wright 2012, p. 416). Existing policies were criticized, however, because they prevent asylum seekers from integrating themselves to British society. Moreover, asylum seekers were excluded from seeking support outside their personal resources. “Asylum seekers in Britain are no longer granted the possibility of employment, and ‘late-claimers’ may be denied support, though the provision of maintenance has been endorsed by British courts as necessary for the pursuit of the claim” (Morris 2006, p. 91). The level of control that the British government practices are supported by the idea that with control, the government could consequently address the issue of social cohesion. In 1965, the incumbent Labour Home Office Minister Roy Hattersley said, “Integration without control is impossible, but control without integration is indefensible” (Favell 1998, p. 103).

Immigration policies that were implemented then during the 1960s were the British parliament’s response to problems relating to social cohesion. During those times, reports of racial discrimination against immigrants escalated. In the beginning, the actions of white British nationals against refugees were tolerated by the government. However, when racial tension increased, the British Parliament stepped in by implementing policies to control immigration. The rationale behind the policies to control the rate of immigration is that if the number of immigrants could be controlled, then social cohesion is more probable. On the other hand, if the British Parliament remained lax when it comes to immigration, it would lead to social unrest. Ultimately, the policies followed the idea that “without integration, limitation is excusable, without limitation, integration is impossible.”

The Geneva Convention

Although various policies that control immigration are in place, people who support asylum seekers base their arguments on the policies from the Geneva Convention and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). One of the main focuses of the 1951 Geneva Convention is the status of refugees. With the amendment by the New York Protocol in 1967, the Geneva Convention “places an obligation on the States which have ratified the Convention (including Ireland) to determine the presence of a refugee and to provide the necessary and appropriate protection” (Watt 1998, p.48). On the other hand, UNHCR policies support the idea that “asylum seekers should have access to the appropriate governmental entities ‘when they require assistance so that their basic support needs, including food, clothing, accommodation, and medical care are met” (Chadbourne & Human Rights Watch 2003, p. 29). The policies encapsulated in the Geneva Convention and implemented by the UNHCR mean those countries, especially those that ratified the Convention, are bound by international law to ensure that they help out asylum seekers and refugees to the best of their ability.

The European Convention on Human Rights also supports the needs of refugees and asylum seekers. Although the Convention is aligned with the policies in the Geneva Convention and the UNHCR, it supports the control of immigration, like the existing policies of the British Parliament. The European Convention on Human Rights, unlike the Geneva Convention and the UNHCR policies, does not directly address the concerns and issues of asylum seekers and refugees. Based on the European Convention, the European community sought to implement new policies that strengthened border controls. The Fortress Europe is a policy that supported this cause. Asylum talks among members of the European community sought to “tighten up immigration procedures, to ‘harmonize’ application of the criteria for determining refugee status, to put pressure on countries (such as Italy) which are reluctant to detail or expel illegal immigrants, so as to bring them into line with stricter controls elsewhere, and generally to reinforce the borders of ‘Fortress Europe’” (Kimble 1998, p. 42). Fortress Europe is viewed as a form of racism or denial of the rights of asylum seekers and refugees because these countries do not consider their territories as safe or proper places for immigration. Furthermore, Fortress Europe is considered a threat to asylum seekers and refugees. “Western Europe has historically responded to ‘threats’ from migration through… controls on entry… through integration to remove any cultural or political threats posted by migrants to the host” (Graham & Poku 2000, p. 200).

Policy Responses

As a result of existing policies for immigration in the UK, asylum seekers felt excluded over the last ten years. Since the 1960s, the border and immigration controls have limited the opportunities for asylum seekers to find residence in the UK. Some reports surfaced about the injustice of border controls in the UK because sometimes, when asylum seekers cross the border but declined for residency in the country, they are locked up in prison without due to the process (Cohen, Humphries & Mynott 2002, p. 107). Therefore, the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act is being criticized is inhuman to asylum seekers. “The Act introduced many punitive measures including purpose built detention centres used to lock up asylum seekers without trial or charge. In 1993, the number of asylum seekers detained inside the UK more than doubled to over 10,000” (Cohen, Humphries & Mynott 2002, p. 107). Due to the widespread complaints about the Asylum and Immigration Act enacted by the British Parliament, humanitarian groups have urged the nation to “reconcile their right to control national borders with the right of every person to seek asylum” (Great Britain: Parliament: House of Commons 2007, p. 102). Moreover, other responses to the policies of the British Parliament on asylum and immigration include the following:

  1. Government action to make access to asylum less dangerous for refugees.
  2. Transparency in demonstrating the compatibility of all migration control activity with human rights, laws and obligations.
  3. Responsibility upon the intercepting state to identify any individuals with international protection needs and to ensure that they have access to an effective refugee determination system and durable solution.
  4. Flexible immigration controls that can respond to the fact that it is important for many refugees to obtain valid travel documents and visas prior to fleeing persecution.
  5. Guidelines and training for immigration and airline liaison officers to ensure they do not prevent people from exiting a country where they have an urgent need to flee but lack the required documentation.
  6. Absolute respect for the concept of responsibility-sharing, which underpins the 1951 Refugee Convention.
  7. Scrutiny of interception activities, including states facilitating UNHCR and NGO presence at interception locations.
  8. The provision of information about their interception activities by states to UNHCR, as well as to national parliaments and, where EU legislations are concerned, to the European Commission and the European Parliament (Great Britain: Parliament: House of Commons 2007, p. 102).

Aside from immigration and border controls, migrants in the UK have suffered due to the limiting policies of the UK for refugees. As previously discussed, asylum seekers are not allowed to apply for jobs in the UK, thus, they are forced to live on their personal resources. However, their existing personal resources are not enough to sustain their daily needs especially when they continue to be unemployed. Other issues that make the lives of asylums and refugees difficult are their poor treatment. Due to existing policies enforced by the British Parliament, refugees heavily rely on social services and benefits, which are inadequate. The inadequacy of housing leads to refugees living in cramped or overcrowded spaces. Most of the refugees are also forced to live in places that are non-conducive to their health. The groups that are assigned to provide social services and benefits to refugees, on the other hand, are instructed to provide second-class products and services, like food vouchers. Refugees also suffer extreme racism. In 2002, one of the detention centers for refugees was burned down (Cohen 2003, p. 16). The British Parliament responded to growing social unease with the implementation of the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, which increases control over asylum seekers and refugees. The Act was created to “instigate a managed system of ‘end-to-end credibility’, proceeding from induction and reception to increased reporting and surveillance procedures and terminating in either ‘fast-track removal or integration’” (Griffiths, Sigona & Zetter 2005, p. 49). Asylum seekers were not granted residency if they do not speak English and pass the citizenship test. Moreover, those with pending applications are detained in cells and are not entitled to social services like food vouchers and healthcare.

Conclusion

Since 2002, the number of asylum applications plummeted, which could be mainly attributed to the 2002 Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act enacted by the British Parliament. In this debate, there are two opposing sides – the British Parliament, which seeks to establish social cohesion by limiting the rights and entitlements of asylum seekers in the country vs. the asylum seekers and the human rights organizations that support their entitlements, as guided by the Geneva Convention and UNHCR. Although the primary issue that must be addressed is the unjust treatment of asylum seekers because of racial discrimination, at the heart of the conflict is the country’s current economic condition. If the economy of the country were strong, then people would have steady jobs and thus, gain economic security, leaving them with no reason to complain about the benefits and entitlements of asylum seekers. Therefore, addressing the problem of social cohesion should start with the restoration of the country’s economic condition. The British Parliament should also be more considerate of asylum seekers by enforcing human rights policies and acknowledging the contributions of immigration to the economy. However, in order to practice fairness and consistency, the British Parliament should continue combating illegal entry of refugees, which should be fair to its citizens. Overall, the problems underscored in this report would only be solved through the resolution of economic issues in the UK.

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