Zohrab, a young asylum seeker in his 20s, sits nervously as he retells the challenges of his life as a person seeking refuge in the UK. It is an unusually sunny spring afternoon for Belfast, in Northern Ireland, but any brightness in our day is eclipsed as he details with poignancy a young life of persecution, border crossings, detention and waiting. He fled his home country because he is gay, a member of an ethnic minority, and was involved in political activism. He has seen – and lost – too much.
Now in the UK waiting to be granted refugee status, some might assume Zohrab has found a kind of sanctuary. Instead, his life has become one of suspense and suspicion, constant interrogation through an invasive asylum system, and occasional detention. He cannot work. He lives in a badly deteriorated shared house with men of different ages and nationalities. He does not feel safe or secure. His sense of insecurity, loss and lack of hope for the future have all combined to contribute to his feelings of depression and loneliness.
A policy change introduced in March by the home secretary, Amber Rudd, now means that even if someone like Zohrab is given the right to remain in the UK, their case can be reviewed after five years, which could mean possible deportation to their country of origin. This policy puts an end to the sense of security people or families once had when they acquired refugee status. Campaigners have called this policy – known as the safe return review – “beyond basic morality”.
Life in limbo
For a number of years, we have researched asylum seekers and refugees, and migration processes in the EU. Our most recent research in Northern Ireland allowed us contact with asylum seekers and refugees from more than ten different nationalities, including men and women of various ages. We conducted this research for the executive in Stormont, the Northern Ireland parliament, to help develop its first refugee integration strategy, which will be published in 2017.
We have met many individual asylum seekers and families who feel “stuck”, isolated, frustrated and demotivated because of a lack of certainty around their status and their future. Zohrab told us:
I can’t make plans; I don’t know what the future holds. I want to have dreams like other young men. At every corner, someone is there to take my hope away even after everything bad that has happened me. I’m just left with this painful depression.
The safe return process is likely to make these issues worse, increasing the sense of uncertainty and precariousness for those attempting to remake their lives in the UK. The official five-year review will decide whether it is “safe” for a person or family to return to their country of origin.
But who defines what is safe for any given individual or family, and how, is a critical point here – particularly where the information about their country of origin has been deemed by scholars of migration to be unreliable or insufficient when it comes to making decisions on asylum seeker’s applications in the UK. This has the potential to put people’s lives in danger, if they are returned home to places which are actually unsafe for them.
A person’s safety can only be determined by a deep understanding of the personal, societal, cultural and even historical pathways and connections in a particular country or town. Such complex decision-making about the safety of those seeking refuge requires a range of expertise, which to date has not been deployed in the asylum system.
Asylum seekers and refugees flee their countries of origin, often fragile or conflict-ridden states, for a very long list of reasons including persecution, gender or ethnic based violence, and conflict. Coming to the UK is a new start, the opportunity to once more make a liveable life.
In five years, people settle into neighbourhoods and communities. They volunteer, meet partners, have children, progress in their careers. In short, they “integrate” and live the “normal” lives we all aspire to. Putting a five-year cap on people’s plans for the future will lessen their chances of rebuilding their lives, strip individuals and families of hope and future opportunities and weaken their path to integration.
For Zohrab, and many others like him, the possibility of being returned to the place he had to flee because of persecution means he lives in constant fear and insecurity. By allowing refugees to only live in the UK temporarily, the government is pursuing a political agenda to withdraw the rights of refugees to stay and settle in the UK. This is no way to respond to fellow global citizens when they are most in need of safety and security – and it’s no way to encourage social inclusion and integration once they arrive.