Guest post by Stephen Meili, University of Minnesota Law School. In this post, Stephen discusses his research on comparative approaches to the detention of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). He is particularly interested in the way that media portrayals of, and public opinion towards, asylum seekers may affect public policy.

Having recently spent a year on sabbatical in England, I became fascinated with the way in which the British press demonizes asylum seekers. In the first two weeks of January 2014 alone, headlines like these appeared in British tabloids:

Asylum seekers cost taxpayers £100,000 a DAY: 2,000 refugees with no right to remain in Britain have been claiming handouts and free housing for more than a year.

More asylum seeker chaos of foreign athletes after our Olympic legacy - Britain is facing an asylum hang­over from the Olympics with dozens of foreign athletes refusing to leave.

The so-called ‘broadsheets,’ usually considered more moderate and respectable, were not immune, with TheTelegraph proclaiming that:

‘Destitute' asylum seekers had iPads and luxury goods, says report by government auditors.

UK asylum seeker accommodation
Of course, the tabloid presses in the UK have been railing against refugees for many years. But what was particularly striking to me was that many of the UK refugee lawyers whom I’ve interviewed for research projects in the last two years believe that such press reports influence judicial decision-making. The following comments from three different London lawyers (two barristers and one solicitor) are illustrative:

'…judges reflect popular imagination. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes just because they read the papers like everybody else…. And sometimes they explicitly say that they consider that it’s their duty to respond to public concerns. Which is a kind of judicial way of saying I read the Daily Mail. It is a judicial way of saying that I read the media and I’m freaked out by all that I’m reading.'

'Absolutely, no doubt at all that [the media affects judicial decisions]. It is very hard not to. Even the most liberal invincible judge can’t not unconsciously take account of the atmosphere that, of the whole country really. Some of them will be responding quite consciously to it I think. Indeed some of the less subtle or sophisticated ones will let their prejudices spill out onto the page. Less of a problem in the upper tribunal or court of appeals obviously but certainly some of the first tier judges are pretty naked about their prejudices.'

'… I suspect if I were a judge reading an article about how horrid my decision was, I’d have to be a brave judge not to let that affect me... I think we see that level of attack all too frequently.'

I found a similar sentiment while recently interviewing refugee lawyers in Canada. One Toronto attorney referred to this as the ‘Toronto Sun factor:’ judges gauge how their decisions will be portrayed by the tabloid press. (For example, the Sun’s online headline regarding major changes in Canada’s refugee determination program in December 2012 declared: ‘Feds Crack Down on Bogus Asylum Seekers.’)

In the United States, on the other hand, asylum seekers are generally spared animus from the media. The term ‘bogus asylum seeker’ is not part of the common parlance. Most of the public and media hostility towards immigrants in the US is directed at undocumented persons generally, rather than asylum-seekers in particular. Although even in this regard, attitudes in the US seem to be softening: the 18 May 2014 edition of The New York Times reported that the percentage of Americans who think that recent immigrants to the United States contribute to the country, as opposed to ‘cause problems,’ rose from 49 per cent in 2010 to 66 per cent in May of this year (the figure was only 29 per cent in 1994). In contrast, IpsosMORI polls conducted in the UK found that while 54 percent of respondents felt there were too many immigrants in the UK in January 2001, 70 per cent felt that way in early 2012, the most recent time that question was included in the same poll. While these polls ask different questions and don’t gauge public opinion toward asylum seekers per se, the trends over time suggest contrasting attitudes toward immigration generally.

These discrepancies in media coverage and public opinion have made me interested in the question of the differential treatment of asylum seekers in the US and the UK, particularly with respect to detention practices. In a 2005 article in Punishment & Society entitled ‘Detention of Asylum Seekers in the UK and USA,’ Michael Welch and Liza Schuster compared what they called the noisy moral panic over so-called bogus asylum seekers in the UK (which created a loud and public outcry) with the quieter, but equally insidious official reaction to asylum seekers in post-9/11 America. The result in each country was the increased detention of asylum seekers.

At least 48,000 asylum seekers were detained in the US between 2003 and 2011.  Most of these were defensive asylum seekers, meaning that they had asserted asylum as a defense to removal. Those who are awaiting credible fear interviews after having crossed the border into the US without documentation can spend up to 60 or 90 days in detention waiting for these interviews. According to statistics from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the percentage of defensive asylum seekers in the US who were detained each year between 2006 and 2010 ranged from a low of 40  percent in 2008 to a high of 75 per cent in 2007. The percent of asylum seekers detained during that entire period was 46.9 per cent. Moreover, the percentage of the entire immigrant detainee population in the US who were asylum seekers in each year between 2006 and 2010 ranged between 1.0 per cent and 1.9 per cent. Thus, although nearly half of all defensive asylum seekers in the US are detained at some point, less than two percent of the entire detainee population is comprised of asylum seekers.

View from Colnbrook IRC to Harmondsworth IRC which operates a 'fast track' provision for certain asylum seeker (Photo: MF Bosworth)
In the UK, between 2009 and 2012 alone, 55,000 asylum seekers were detained. Moreover, in the UK, the percentage of asylum seekers who were detained was 65.5 per cent, a significantly higher rate than in the US during roughly the same period (46.9 percent). Asylum seekers also constitute a higher portion of the total detainee population in the UK than in the US. In the years between 2009 and 2012, asylum seekers made up about half of the immigrant detainee population in the UK, while the US rate for a similar (though not identical) period was less than 2 percent. Of course, the latter comparison may say more about the US’s unprecedented emphasis on detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants in general than it does about its attitude toward asylum seekers in particular.

In any event, it seems that the UK detains asylum seekers far more readily than does the US. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is the apparent greater hostility toward asylum seekers in the UK, both within the media and the public generally. But, of course, the simple number of asylum seekers detained tells only part of the story. The more intriguing question, and one I plan to address through empirical research in both countries, is the comparative duration and conditions of that detention. While the UK’s detention policy may affect a larger portion of asylum seekers than in the US, the contours of that policy and its impact on asylum seekers may be on a par with the US.

One of the intriguing aspects of this kind of comparative research is the interplay between media coverage, public opinion, and public policy. How much does one of these factors affect the others? As those scholars who have addressed this vexing question would attest, there is no easy answer, but it’s a question I plan to address in the context of the detention of asylum seekers in the UK and the US.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Meili S (2014) Comparing the Detention of Asylum Seekers in the UK and the US. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/comparing-the-uk-and-the-us/ (Accessed [date]).