Experiences of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK

“We came here just for life, we don't come for work, for anything else, we come just for life, because our life was dangerous” says an asylum seeker from Kurdistan, Iraq. He thinks that people in Swansea, where he lives, don't understand who asylum seekers are, why they have come to the UK and the danger that they have left behind. His is one of 12 voices of asylum seekers and refugees that were brought together by NACCOM and People's Voice Media to share their experiences of seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. All of the people who participated were trained as Community Reporters so that they are able to gather and tell stories from themselves and their peers in their own words. They focused on four broad categories: community, experiences with the Home Office, housing and destitution.

Living in my community: from isolation and intolerance to generosity and giving

As the powerful words above indicate, asylum seekers often feel that there is a general lack of understanding amongst their wider community of what it means to be an asylum seeker. One womansays that “I think it's a topic in our society that isn't spoken about a lot, you know people understand refugees or certain people from like Syria...but I don't think that they would really understand my situation.” They often feel like they have to myth-bust against prejudicial narratives about immigration that dominate public debate on this issue.An asylum seeker from Zimbabwe argues that “there is a lack of knowledge from the public...they think we are coming in this country to take their jobs, wives, everything. No, we don't. Some of us live in very dangerous countries and we're here for safety, not for money, or for food for any other reason, just for safety and the right to live a normal life.”

Many of the asylum seekers and refugees describe how these distortions of what it means to be an asylum seeker and prejudicial attitudes towards them spill over into hostility and outright racism within their communities. “I faced a lot of stigma and labelling”, one woman reveals, remembering in particular one incident where she was racially abused by a woman on a bus. 18 years later, she still finds travelling on public transport traumatic. Another woman recalls how she has been the victim of several incidents of hate crime, including having rotten apples and dog waste thrown at her house and garden. She found the police unwilling to help and it made her feel “really scared” and “vulnerable”.

On the other hand, many of the asylum seekers tell extremely positive stories of finding friendship, help and support within their local communities. One man speaks warmly of his home in Glasgow, which he describes as a “lovely place” where “people are friendly”. A woman, who has had negative experiences with neighbours elsewhere,enthuses about the change she has seen since moving to Aston, where “the neighbours are friendly, you can greet them, they have a smiling face”. An asylum seeker from Afghanistandescribes his local community in Swanseaas “really the kindest people”. One speaker, who originally comes from Zimbabwe andwas sent to Sheffield under the Home Office dispersal system, feels that he is “one of the luckiest asylum seekers to be living in the Sheffield community, which has been so supportive; very, very supportive in so many ways that I never imagined at all.”

Encounters with the system

“I just want people to know that the Home Office in the UK is horrible,” confides one asylum seeker. The stories that the asylum seekers tell about their experiences in navigating the British immigration service and dealing with the Home Office are overwhelmingly negative. “Terrible”, “rubbish”, and “cruel” are all adjectives used by asylum seekers to describe the immigration services. Often, their stories highlight the impact that dealing with the Home Office has had on their mental health, self-esteem and emotional wellbeing. One mandescribes the lack of support from the Home Office after his initial asylum claim was rejected as “really distressing”. A female asylum seekersays that she“used to get very disheartened and it was very depressing because you lose hope and you're very helpless”. The stories of the asylum seekers reveal a sense of powerlessness in the face of authority, one that is compounded in some cases by treatment that they compare to those of criminals. One powerful story is that of a woman who was forced by the Home Office to wear an electronic tag, which she had to keep for two years despite not having committed any crime. She describes her emotional reaction to this: “I didn't know what I did wrong, I felt so depressed, I felt so ashamed.” She also discusses how she tried to hide the tag under a bandage and how the shame she felt ultimately led her to stay inside more and isolate herself from her community as she didn't want to be questioned about the tag. The action of the tagging here has the unintended consequence of reducing this individual's ability to integrate into their new home, adding another barrier to community-building and mental wellbeing for people already living in a difficult situation. One man describes his treatment by the Home Office, as “like living in an open prison”, feeling that he has “no freedom”, but fearful that refusal to sign in with the Home Office will ruin his chances of appeal.

Not being allowed to work is a common frustration voiced by several of the asylum seekers, especially as they hold relevant qualifications and experience.An asylum seeker from Iraq says “I wasn't allowed to work as well, I was a qualified engineer from back home, and it was really sad I couldn't carry on with my job.” One woman's story demonstrates an insight into the fallacies of the system when it comes to highly qualified asylum seekers. “I'm a highly skilled person, well-qualified, I can work and contribute to the economy but I feel distressed because as an asylum seeker, I'm not allowed to work”, she says, an experience that has made her feel “not valuable” and “useless”. She highlights how the fact of being highly qualified can be used by the Home Office to “victimise” asylum seekers, describing how “they will use that as a way to tell you to go back to your country and use your qualification and you can get a job somewhere else where you are not going to be recognised”. She finishes her story by saying that she wishes that she was allowed to work and support herself. Stories such as these rebuke tabloid headlines and myths about asylum seekers coming to the UK with the purpose of accessing benefits. As these individuals tell us, people want to work, want to use their skills and qualifications and want to support themselves while contributing to their new home.

From homelessness to “huge bonds”: housing experiences of asylum seekers

When discussing their experiences of housing as asylum seekers, displacement is a common theme. One young woman discusses how her sister remembers all of the 12 addresses that the family have lived at during their time in the UK. Two maleasylum seekers both tell stories of coming back home to find the locks on their accommodation have been changed, leaving them on the streets with all their possessions locked inside. This displacement in housing situations led four asylum seekers tell stories of sleeping rough. One woman tells of her attempts to shelter from the winter in a local library, scared to sleep in case she got kicked out but desperately trying to warm up her body: “I was so cold, my feet were cold. I just couldn't get warm.” Another asylum seeker describes how he “lived in the park for two days” during the winter, borrowing his friend's jacket.

In contrast to this, some of the asylum seekers were also able to tell hugely positive stories of the experience of moving somewhere that felt safe, warm and homely. One woman describes how, after being kicked out of her house with no right to appeal, she had an anxious run up to Christmas “sofa surfing” at friends' houses, until finally on the 23rdDecember she was given the keys to a property via the charity Hope Project, “and from nowhere I ended up having a warm house, clean, better than the nice house I was chased away from. And somewhere to cook Christmas food for my family.” This is just one of numerous examples from the stories collected that demonstrates how the third sector steps in repeatedly to plug the gaps within state provision for people most in need. One male asylum seeker,who found accommodation with a host family, describes it as “a life-changing experience”. He speaks fondly of the “huge bond” that he has built up with his host couple, who also used to live in Zimbabwe, referring to them as his “surrogate parents”: “they treat me as their own child really and they are very, very supportive and protective of me and I'm deeply thankful for that”. The words of the stories here show the transformative power of a safe and comfortable place to live, and the fact that this is such an anomaly in the asylum seeker experience, when it should be a basic human right, reveals much about the hardships faced by asylum seekers when accessing housing in the UK.

These stories have brought together an overview of the insights and experiences that the asylum seekers shared, in their own words. Their stories paint a picture of a status that is misunderstood, full of bureaucracy and hardship, but blessed with charity, friendship and generosity, often from the asylum seekers themselves. It also offers a sense of the emotional toll of being an asylum seeker, how fear and despair mix with hope and friendship as people try to build a life in an environment that is sometimes hostile to their very presence. 

These stories were gathered in partnership with NACCOM, a national network preventing destitution amongst people seeking asylum, refugees and other migrants. The stories provided first-hand, lived experiences of asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants in the UK.

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