From persecution to humiliation: the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK

Last month a pregnant woman who was detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration centre was told by a midwife she could not find her baby’s heartbeat and was refused a scan for four days. For this pregnant woman from South Africa, married to a British citizen, it took two court orders before UK Borders Agency took her for a scan. This case is a prime example of the lack of humanity in our treatment of people seeking asylum.

An enormous amount of time and money is spent securing the borders of western states, erecting stronger and stronger barriers to entry. The construction of the ‘asylum seeker’ as deviant is well documented. Indeed, government responses to asylum seekers are framed by law and order politics represented by the media, law and the courts. Yet, in order to be recognised as a refugee under the terms of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees a person must make a claim for asylum at the port of entry or the UK Borders Agency offices in Croydon or Liverpool as soon as possible on entering the UK. Most asylum applications are refused and if the authorities refuse an asylum application, an applicant is able to appeal against the refusal, although some asylum seekers will only be able to appeal once they have left the UK (Applying for Asylum, Refugee Action, 2008).

Hence, the social and cultural context that asylum seekers experience is marked by a culture of disbelief, underpinned by law and order politics. This is combined with a focus upon strengthening and protecting borders which places responsibility on the asylum seeker for their situation. This impacts upon the experience of seeking safety for people fleeing persecution, human rights violations, violence and war. Their experiences are marked by humiliation, shaming, racism and mis-recognition.

For Zygmunt Bauman the existence of this group is much less the result of personal tragedy than the result of a global system that classifies some as without worth, as human waste. Their very disposability is created through discourses of abjection. Indeed, as Imogen Tyler notes “the figure of the asylum seeker increasingly secures the imaginary borders of Britain today”.

Published last month, Asylum, migration and community argues that we need to face up to our global responsibilities towards the displaced, address the causes of ‘the misery of growing refugee movements’ and foster dignity and egalization in the institutions, policies and practices towards people seeking safety in the asylum-migration-community nexus. Creative, cultural and participatory methodologies can support this process as can networks such as the global humiliation and human dignity network as part of a public sociology or criminology that helps to build communities of practice to challenge and change such gross inequalities and keep open spaces for critical thinking.

Maggie O’Neill, author of Asylum, migration and community

4 Responses to “From persecution to humiliation: the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK”

  1. 1 nicole westmarland October 15, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    This case is terrible Maggie, thanks for drawing it and your book to my attention. The way some women asylum seekers are treated is an absolute disgrace.

  2. 2 Maggie October 29, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Thanks Nicole

    there are clear connections with your work on sexual violence and the inequalities the gender biased asylum system – and the need to challenge the inequalities through feminist research, public criminology/sociology and activism.

    Check out the campaigns to end the immigration detention of children. Michale Morpugo has recently castigated the coalition government for stalling on their pledge to end the detention of children. He writes in the independent “We’re simply talking about respect for fellow human beings. The notion that children who live here can be put behind bars, behind barbed wire when they are convicted of nothing, when they’ve never even been through a criminal process”.

    On 26th October a high court challenge was launched to end the immigration detention of children. Alan Travis writes in the Guardian: “More than 1,085 children were detained during the course of 2009. One child was held for 158 days but the average period was two weeks”

    “The case, which is expected to last three days, is being brought by Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), with the human rights group Liberty and the campaign group Bail for Immigration Detainees also intervening.

    The Home Office said it was fighting the case as it remained committed to the removal of those found by the courts to have no right to remain in the UK.”

    Sign up for Outcry! the Children’s Society Campaign to end Child Detention!/19866.asp


  3. 3 Aneesa May 6, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    Dear Maggie,
    Having read your blog post, we were hoping you would be interested in our video, “Don’t stop me now: The Calais ‘jungle’ and No Borders Camp”. It reveals the hell that was the Calais ‘jungle’ and the incredible journeys migrants staying there had made.

    We have uploaded the film on the Citizen TV talent site in the hope that it may receive sufficient 5 star votes to make it a video with an award winning message which will help spread the word.

    The film is available to watch and vote for here:!tab=top-talent&week=week-18-2014&month=&boc_month=&vo=%2Fdon-t-stop-me-now-the-calais-jungle-and-no-borders-camp-rvmp9Jeovj.html

    We would be delighted if you would watch the video, vote for it and share it.

    Many thanks,
    Aneesa Syed
    WORLDbytes Volunteer

  1. 1 Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies » Blog Archive » From Persecution to Humiliation: The Treatment of Asylum Seekers in the UK Trackback on October 29, 2010 at 5:24 pm

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