Punished Through Policy: How Asylum Seekers are Criminalised in the UK


Despite the fact that seeking asylum has long been established as a right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UK immigration policy continues to punish those who are in need of refuge. With the nation’s current political climate, migrants – and particularly those claiming asylum – have been demonised by both media and senior politicians across the spectrum in a cruel attempt to sway and manipulate public opinion. To the dismay of many, this scapegoating of migrants has devastatingly succeeded, playing a significant role in the UK’s divided decision to exit the EU.

With the frontpages of right-wing tabloids often dominated by vicious anti-immigration rhetoric set on sensationalising the desperation of those fleeing war and persecution, asylum seekers are made to suffer the additional blow of being deceitfully brandished ‘illegal’ immigrants. A fact often wilfully omitted from this condemning narrative is that those residing in the country as they await a Home Office decision on their asylum claim are not doing so ‘illegally’.

Similarly, myths surrounding the ‘Dublin Regulation’ are continuously peddled. Misinformation is circulated asserting that asylum seekers ought to seek refuge in the first safe country they pass. This simply is not true. In a 1999 landslide case, Lord Justice Simon Brown granted that asylum seekers are permitted ‘some element of choice’ on where they claim asylum. Travelling through one country in the process of reaching another does not create an obligation to claim asylum in the first country.

It is grossly short-sighted to suggest that those who continue to travel further to reach a particular destination cannot be in real danger; a whole host of factors can inform such a decision including family reunification and language capabilities to name just a couple. However the Home Office is keen to scrutinise, with former Home Secretary Sajid Javid questioning whether those who make the decision to reach a further destination are ‘genuine’ asylum seekers.

Disappointingly, it is not only widespread misconceptions which contribute to such cruel criminalisation of asylum seekers. The UK’s asylum policy seems set to impede and punish those claiming asylum at every step of the way. A Migration Observatory briefing found that, in 2017, a staggering 68% of those who had their asylum claims initially rejected by the Home Office went on to have this decision overturned upon appeal. This suggests that the Home Office needlessly reject asylum claims - perhaps in the hopes of deterring those who may be unaware of the appeal process and thus will feel they have no option but to leave the UK.

The very nature of this high rejection rate dehumanises asylum seekers, treating them as a problem to be passed elsewhere. The UK government attempts to delegate responsibility of asylum claims at every opportunity, with Boris Johnson recently making the unlawful threat to ‘send back’ any asylum seekers attempting to cross the Channel to reach the UK and Priti Patel, the new Home Secretary, continuing to hail ‘reduced immigration’ as a desirable component of future policy. The depressing reality is that, in 2018, the UK received 37,730 asylum claims. This, in comparison to Germany which received 184,180; France which received 120,425; and Italy which received 59,950, puts into perspective the pitiful efforts of the UK government amidst the current ongoing global refugee crises.

Sadly, the criminalisation of asylum seekers does not end at the initial stages of asylum claims. This deplorable maltreatment seeps into the entire asylum process, with indefinite detention often unnecessarily utilised in a cruel exploitation of government powers. A 2018 Parliamentary report found that, between 2012 and 2015, the government paid £13.8 million to over 550 people who were wrongfully detained.  Between 2015-2017, there were a further 314 cases of wrongful immigration detention, generating a further £7.4 million in compensation payments. Such statistics point to an abuse of power as over one hundred individuals are wrongfully detained each year in Britain.

The same report found that more than 50% of those detained are released back into the community. Evidently, a substantial amount of those detained by the Home Office do not pose any risk. And yet thousands of asylum seekers are forced to endure this loss of liberty in brutal environments which have been widely exposed as negligent and deemed unsuitable for vulnerable individuals, leading to both harrowing suicides and hunger strikes in a desperate attempt to demand better conditions. The most recent victim to such negligence within UK detention has been named as Oscar Okwurime, who tragically lost his life after having allegedly complained of feeling unwell for weeks leading up to his death. This occurred only a couple of weeks ago. 

It is a sickening betrayal of humanity to treat those who have already escaped traumatic circumstances as criminals to be locked up and stripped of their dignity. Even for those who are eventually granted refugee status and may one day become British citizens, the government offers such restricted financial and emotional support that many are left in destitute conditions – further stigmatised and deprived of the care they need.

It is often left to the VCSE sector to fill the government’s gaps, relying on the voluntary help and support of compassionate individuals and organisations who refuse to dehumanise those seeking refuge. Social enterprises often help to tackle unemployment by helping refugees to improve their job prospects – crucial in preventing destitution.

Similarly, organisations offering volunteering opportunities can be essential in helping refugees to feel welcomed and a part of the community. Asylum seekers and refugees are able to volunteer both during the asylum process and once they have gained refugee status, offering a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dire situation since the government prohibits asylum seekers from working during the processing of their claim. Such voluntary work can really help to restore a sense of purpose and aids with social integration.

However, the fact of the matter is, it should not be down to the VCSE sector to tackle and compensate for government downfalls. Providing asylum seekers and refugees with the attentive care they require should be an utmost priority and one which is ingrained within the UK’s immigration policy. Yet, from the moment an asylum seeker reaches the UK border to the processing of their asylum claim, they are treated as an inconvenience; a nuisance to be purged. As one of the most developed countries in the world, there is simply no justification for the government’s cruel criminalisation of those who just want the opportunity to live safely and freely.

Holly Barrow is a political correspondent and content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of UK immigration lawyers providing free advice and support for asylum-seekers and victims of abuse.