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

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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: The Guardian, 8 Oct 2010. For this pregnant woman from South Africa, married to a British citizen, it took two court orders before UKBA 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 (2004). 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”(2006:189).

Published earlier this year, 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.


Bauman, Z. (2004) Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. Cambridge: Polity.

Tyler, I. (2006) ‘Welcome to Britain: the cultural politics of asylum’ in Cultural Studies vol 9, no 2, pp185-202.

O’Neill, M. (2010) Asylum, Migration and Community Bristol: Policy Press. Maggie's book is available in our bookshop and can be found under 'Our authors'.


Maggie O'Neill, Professor of Criminology, University of Durham.

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