“Just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening” is the tagline to Save The Children’s latest video, which depicts a British girl’s life being turned upside down by war in the space of a year.
It is part of the organization’s campaign to raise money for Syrian child refugees and has accumulated more than 25 million views in less than a week. To put that in context, the fifth most watched advert on youtube for the whole of 2013 has just over 20 million views.
Like the viral video of the Norwegian boy out in the cold without a jacket, the video has been successful because it effectively taps into the viewer’s sense of empathy. Its success shouldn’t be surprising: According to a YouGov poll, more than eight out of 10 British people believe that protecting the most vulnerable is a core British value.
Evidently the British are not only keen to supply aid overseas, but they are also happy to offer refuge to those seeking safety: An Ipsos mori poll in 2011 revealed that just over 70 percent of the British public said that they had a duty to protect refugees who needed a place of safety in Britain.
Compare that, though, with a report by The Migration Observatory, which states that over half the British public favour a reduction in the number of asylum seekers coming to Britain. There seems to be a paradox: How can it be that the British want to protect refugees but don’t want them to come here?
Emily Crowley, the project coordinator for Student Action for Refugees (STAR), believes that terminology is an issue: “The public feels like we should be providing sanctuary to people who are fleeing from persecution, but they sometimes don’t understand that asylum seekers are part of that – that an asylum seeker is just a legal term for someone who is waiting for refugee status”.
Crowley thinks that the negative media portrayal of asylum seekers is to blame for the confusion. A study by The Migration Observatory on British newspapers’ portrayal of immigrants seems to confirm this: Asylum seekers are most consistently described as ‘failed’.
Robert McNeil, Head of Media and Communications at The Migration Observatory, says: “Perhaps the reason that asylum seekers are characterised in this way is that most of the stories you read about them are those who are not successful or are of concern”.
The media often suggests that asylum seekers are coming with the sole intention of claiming benefits, and nearly eight out of 10 Britons believe that this is the main reason people seek asylum in the UK, according to a YouGov poll. “The belief that asylum seekers are scroungers is created by the media, but is also perpetuated by people’s first-hand experience of asylum seekers in the community who are not working – the fact is that they are not allowed to work and must rely on benefits to live”, says Crowley. People applying for asylum in the UK are only allowed to work once they have been granted refugee status.
Perhaps as a result of the media’s focus on failed asylum seekers, people also tend to exaggerate their number. According to an Ipsos mori poll, the British public thinks that asylum seekers make up more than 30 percent of immigration to the UK, whereas in reality it is less than 10 percent, and The Migration Observatory did a study where they asked people who they had in mind when the thought about immigrants and the majority replied with ‘asylum seeker’.
“A narrative emerged in the late nineties, when asylum seekers constituted a much larger part of net migration, that the welfare system was being flooded by immigrants”, says McNeil, “once a narrative has begun, it is much harder for it to be re-thought than it is for it to continue.”
The Migration Observatory report on public perception of asylum seekers reinforces this point: “It may take time for perceptions to catch up with changing realities. For example, although asylum seekers are a small proportion of the total now, they accounted for much of the rapid rise in migration in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when immigration became a highly salient issue”.
Then there is the tricky task of proving an asylum seeker’s claim. “The process of proving an asylum applicant’s claim is a costly and challenging thing to do because they often don’t have travel documents and there are cases where it is difficult to prove their stories”, says McNeil.
Crowley agrees: “Sometimes it is quite hard to believe the stuff that is happening to people, but I think that’s often because it is not a situation we have to live in and the idea that the majority of claims are bogus is just not true”.
With public opinion favouring a reduction in the number of asylum seekers coming to Britain, the government has come under increasing pressure to act – but this is not an area of immigration that they can put targets on: The Refugee Convention requires that asylum seekers’ claims be processed before they are accepted or refused.
“The government can’t control the influx of asylum seekers, so they have created a situation where it is difficult to live as an asylum seeker in the UK – they don’t really have access to welfare and are not allowed to work” says McNeil.
There are also reports that UK Border Agency staff are being pressurized to refuse asylum applications. In 2010, whistleblower Louise Perrett claimed she was advised at the Border Agency office in Cardiff to turn down difficult asylum claims and that staff kept a stuffed gorilla which would be placed as a badge of shame on the desk of any officer who approved an asylum application.
The Home Office interview practice was again called into question two months ago after a document leaked to The Observer revealed that gay and lesbian asylum seekers were being asked degrading questions, including: “When x was penetrating you, did you have an erection?”. At the time, immigration barrister Colin Yeo said: “The underlying problem is that officials believe everyone is a liar. It leads to a fundamental lack of respect for the people they are dealing with”
According to Cowley, the only way to alter this kind of practice is to change public opinion: “We must raise awareness of the facts and work must be done to bring people to account for using confusing and wrong terminology. There also needs to be a greater number of positive, human interest stories about asylum seekers”.
She also says that the UK could accept more refugees: “We are in a much better position to accept asylum seekers than countries such as Lebanon, who are taking in far more. We have to do our bit”.