Guest post by Monish Bhatia, Lecturer in Criminology at the Abertay University. His research interests lie in the areas of border controls, asylum, race, crime and criminal justice. Monish was awarded his doctorate in 2014 and in 2015 he was granted prestigious Carnegie Trust funding to carry out a study on harms of destitution amongst asylum seekers. Monish’s most recent article can be found here. Monish is on Twitter @DrMonishBhatia. This is the final instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'Seeking Refuge in Europe' organised by Monish.

On 31st March 2017, a 17-year-old unaccompanied Kurdish asylum seeker was brutally attacked in Croydon, London by a group of approximately thirty men and women and left unconscious, with a fractured skull and blood clot in brain. The attack was strongly condemned by leaders across the mainstream political parties and refugee organisations, such as the Refugee Council. Several media outlets covered the story (here, here and here), and some claimed that hate crimes were a direct consequence of growing anti-immigration backlash triggered by the Brexit vote. The emerging critical reports on Brexit have also confirmed this link, highlighting the legitimisation of racism and rise in hate crimes. However, attacks on asylum seekers are not new. While extreme cases like this attract media attention, other hate incidents go largely unreported, unnoticed and unrecorded. British criminologists have not addressed this particular issue in sufficient depth, nor explored the strategies that can be introduced to tackle crimes and prevent those seeking asylum from becoming victimised. In this post, I will discuss some of the reasons as to why and how asylum seekers become victims of hate crimes and outline the problems in putting a stop to them and protecting the victims.

For my research, I spent 18 months at three separate refugee organisations in England, conducting 3000 hours of observation and (repeat) interviews with twenty-two asylum seekers and those whose claims were turned down. I also interviewed two social workers, a lawyer, doctor, psychiatrist and homeless shelter manager, and gathered documentary evidence wherever possible. The aim of my research was to investigate the impact of Britain’s racialized immigration policies and procedures. Those claiming asylum were subjected to a complex set of rules and legislations, and their access to the welfare state and labour market was severely restricted, if not completely denied. Individuals were increasingly pushed in a bureaucratic limbo, rendered destitute and kept in a de facto statelessness, where they suffered harms and violence(s). My study highlighted how asylum seekers and ‘illegal’ migrant experienced these policies and the ways in which they used their agency to resist and overcome controls that sought to render them as ‘bare-life’. A significant part of my research looked into ‘crimes’ committed by asylum seekers (breaking immigration regulations, drug use, shop lifting and public order offences) and their experiences of imprisonment, punishment and life post-release.

During my fieldwork, I encountered several cases of hate-crimes directed at those seeking asylum. Through analysing these incidents, I noted a direct link between asylum policies and procedures and increased vulnerability to hate crime. For example, a couple from Sudan applied for asylum and were dispersed to the North-West of England and granted sub-standard accommodation in a remote area. A few days after their arrival they were chased by a group of teenagers, who directed racial slurs, and told them to ‘go back’. The couple were afraid the attack could turn violent. However, due to a fear of reprisal and lack of trust in authorities, they decided not to report the incident. Instead, they chose to stay indoors and left the flat only when absolutely necessary to buy food or visit their doctor.

After living in constant fear for few weeks, the couple approached the refugee charity organisation where I was conducting fieldwork, and sought assistance to make a formal request for relocation to the relevant agencies. The charity support worker contacted a private housing contractor on their behalf, and a request was lodged to relocate them to a different area. Their request was immediately refused as the private contractor explained that, fear of a possible physical attack does not constitute as sufficient ‘proof’ that a crime has occurred or likely to occur again. The contractor asked them to furnish evidence in form of a Crime Reference Number, which they did not have (since they had not reported the crime), along with a detailed letter describing the attack. It became clear that, to be considered for relocation for reasons of personal safety and security, they to prove they were ‘genuine’ victims and had been ‘genuinely’ targeted. Similarly, in cases where relocation was requested due to health reasons, private contractors, sub-contractors and the UK Border Agency (UKBA) asked for a doctor’s letter outlining the medical history. Broadly speaking, within refugee studies literature, it is widely documented that burden of proof is always passed on to those seeking asylum, who at every stage of the process have to repeatedly demonstrate their ‘genuineness’, or risk being considered as ‘bogus’. Due to the persistence of the charity case-worker, the couple were eventually relocated to a different area. 

Dispersal policies trump efforts to prevent hate crime. Dispersal was initially designed to place individuals according to their language groups or nationality clusters, but was superseded by a drive to secure cheap, unpopular, low demand and vacant properties in economically deprived and (on occasions) less tolerant areas. A Primary Care Trust doctor and a senior social worker I interviewed, raised serious concerns about the ways in which hate related incidents were handled by the immigration system. They gave in-depth examples of individuals who had suffered harm and repeat victimisation: threatened with knives, physically assaulted, had burning objects forced through their letter boxes, dogs set on them as they walked outside their properties, and in one case, stones thrown at a heavily pregnant refuge seeking woman whenever she opened her door or window. In all the cases, private contractors (or sub-contractors) and the Home Office had been contacted. However, requests to relocate followed an inconsistent pattern of acceptance. Even when crimes were reported to the police and responded to appropriately, if individuals were not relocated to another safer area immediately, the chances of them becoming re-victimised were significantly higher ( see the red door scandal).

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-29141406

People seeking asylum often find it hard to trust authorities and people in uniform because of prior traumatic experiences in their countries of origin. A few participants repeatedly questioned my motives and asked whether I was ‘part of the Home Office or police’. Similarly, one of the research participants mentioned that he never entered institutions and buildings that had a visible presence of security officers, as that made him overly anxious and reminded him of the past. A large number of those experiencing such anxieties were fleeing from persecution. In other cases, individuals (as the couple above) who were victims of torture in their home countries, often spoke about lack of trust in government officials. It is these particular circumstances and fear of becoming re-victimised at the hands of the authorities that prevents them from reporting hate crimes to British officials. Therefore, a safe environment needs to be created where victims could confidently report racial violence and seek justice.  

Others may be put off from reporting due to their fear of deportation. One participant whom I shall call Inam (pseudonym) turned up at an interview with a black eye and bruised nose. Inam’s case was refused, he was rendered destitute and slept in parks or homeless night shelters. When questioned about the injuries during the research interview, he mentioned that a group of white men had pinned him to the ground and repeatedly punched and slapped his face. Inam had not reported this crime because he was in the process of filing a Fresh Claim, and he wanted to stay away from the authorities due to fear of detention and deportation. This fear also stopped him from seeking medical attention and treatment, as he had heard of people being deported after visiting the hospital. Matters are also gendered. In another case, for example, a woman whose asylum case had been refused, was repeatedly harassed by her abusive ex-partner but chose not to report it, due to her fear of forced removal.

The Tory government’s ‘hostile environment’ agenda makes it hard to create a safe and secure environment for migrants or to take action against hate. Instead, it is likely to create an unsafe environment, and an environment of fear and insecurity amongst migrant groups. Hate is trickled down through media and political discourses. In this situation, achieving a robust reporting system, reduction in hate crimes and victim protection becomes even more challenging and perhaps a distant dream.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Bhatia, M. (2017) Racist Hate Crimes Against Those Seeking Asylum. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/05/racist-hate (Accessed [date]).