Post by Amy Cross. Amy is a PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on the victimisation of refugees and asylum seekers. In particular, the project explores how experiences of victimisation shape psychological stress and coping mechanisms. This project is funded by a University of Manchester scholarship.

This post summarises my masters’ thesis, which aimed to understand how the asylum process in the United Kingdom affected stress levels and coping mechanisms used by asylum seekers. Having fled their country of origin, asylum seekers arrive in the UK where they endure a complex and often lengthy asylum process, which can last for years and sometimes decades. With scarce resources available, they are forced into poverty and accommodation is often substandard. Asylum claimants can be moved between accommodations frequently by housing providers, making it difficult to build external support, and are at risk of detention or deportation, leaving them in a constant state of uncertainty and instability. My research suggests that waiting for the outcome of an asylum case and the insecurity following a positive decision are the most stressful periods for asylum claimants. In response to these stressors, the asylum seekers interviewed used distraction and cognitive restructuring coping styles. These findings emphasise the need for the Home Office to meet its target of processing asylum applications within 6 months. In addition, my research adds further impetus to the calls for the government to address the lack of support for newly recognised refugees.

I adopted a qualitative approach, and more specifically narrative interviewing to obtain rich accounts. The asylum process itself follows a procedure, which is designed to be the same for everyone. Although all participants had experienced the same process, by using narrative interviews they were able to attach their own meanings and individual interpretations of the process. The participants were four males from Libya and Iran. A further participant was interviewed but later withdrew consent and was excluded from the analysis. All four participants included in the study had been granted leave to remain after claiming asylum in the UK, and were recruited by Refugee Action, a charity that supports refugees in the UK.  

Findings

The participants had varying experiences of the asylum system, from being granted status very quickly to being refused and then accepted following the submission of a fresh claim. Despite the differences, several key themes emerged with regards to the stressors they experienced and the coping strategies they employed.

Stressors

Research has previously shown the asylum process to have a detrimental effect on the mental health of asylum seekers. In particular, the waiting period between applying for asylum and receiving a decision has previously been found to cause a great amount of stress for asylum seekers. While I identified a number of stressors, below I discuss two of the most prevalent: (1) Waiting for decisions, and (2) the insecurity arising during the period immediately after a positive decision.

Interviewees described feelings of fear and insecurity, as they did not know what was going to happen to them during the process. They described living in a state of ‘limbo’, often likening their living conditions to being imprisoned:

‘You have everything – internet, TV, what else, any kind of food. Also, we still in prison. You don’t have the freedom to do everything. This is one of the problems.’ (Mahmoud)

As well as the stress of limited freedom, this period was fraught with mental and emotional pressures. One participant described the anxiety of checking his mail every day, not knowing when the decision is going to arrive, and the shared expectations between friends that they will be refused:

‘Everybody knows is that the mission from the Home Office just to refuse you, not to give you so that means that you waiting for the refusal decision and you’re just waiting for it and you don’t know for how long.’ (Rahman)

Although the participants described the waiting period as the most stressful time, three out of four participants talked at length about the difficulties of being granted status. At this time, rather than feeling relief, they face a risk of homelessness and destitution as Home Office funded asylum support is discontinued within 28 days:

‘I need to leave the accommodation by Friday and until now, until this hour I couldn’t get alternative accommodation. The council asked me to come Friday, same day, morning. Bring the kids, bring the family and they will try to find me emergency accommodation’ (Mahmoud)

This participant had recently been granted Humanitarian Protection and had spent his first 28 days following the decision frantically chasing the necessary paperwork required to seek alternative accommodation and benefits. During this time, he lived with the fear of what might happen to his family if they were destitute and as the 28 days went on, he became increasingly stressed.

Coping

Coping strategies mediate the effects of stress on long-term health and wellbeing. Participants described various coping strategies they employed in the face of these stressors. Means of coping require the use of resources, which can be external or internal. Two of the most prominent coping mechanisms used by the participants were distraction and cognitive restructuring.

Distraction involves using external resources to displace attention from a source of stress to something else. This strategy not only distracts from stress, but being in another environment amongst others and overcoming isolation also contributes to the facilitation of coping with stress. Participants discussed the importance of ‘keeping busy’ by attending English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, engaging in sport activities or voluntary work. One of the participants described why he engaged in such activities:

‘For me, I started volunteering because I don’t have the right for any kind of employment as you know and I start studying ESOL which is the only thing that you should, or that you can study.’ (Ibrahim)

Ibrahim mentioned limited rights and restrictions on freedom placed on asylum seekers, most of whom are legally prohibited from working in the UK. Ibrahim was already fluent in English and in fact was so competent he volunteered as a teaching assistant. He kept himself busy not only to distract himself from the stress of waiting, but also from the pressure, arising from the limitations placed upon him by immigration policies. Therefore, these limitations not only cause further stress but restrict resources which facilitate distraction as a method of coping.

In addition, participants used internal resources to cognitively reappraise (or change the way they think) about a stressful situation. One of the ways in which asylum seekers used internal coping strategies was by positive reappraisal of either their stress or their situation, often by comparing their present with their past or future, or themselves with others:

‘But its ok. But the end its ok, we are still alive. Surviving, struggling but its ok. At least I’m looking at the future of my daughters you know and how they are thinking and how they are thriving.’ (Ahmed)

This participant acknowledged the difficulty of the situation yet minimised it by contrasting it with the dangerousness of the place he had fled. Another participant did this by comparing himself to a friend who was destitute. In doing so, they are able to reduce the negative emotion related to the stress felt.

Conclusion

The stressors and coping strategies identified in my research can be addressed. If the Home Office made decisions within the target time of 6 months, this would reduce the amount of time asylum claimants live under such stressful conditions. However, it is also important that the correct decision is made first time around to avoid lengthy appeals processes. One solution would be to offer a new, temporary status which allows asylum seekers who are waiting over 6 months increased rights, including the right to work. In addition, extending the length of time for asylum support following a positive decision would reduce the risk of destitution and homelessness and therefore the emotional strain. Increasing ESOL provision will not only facilitate distraction-based coping, but will also encourage integration. Finally, the provision of cognitive behavioural therapy featuring cognitive restructuring would encourage the use of this form of coping, thus reducing the negative effects of stress. This two-pronged approach of stress reduction and the increase of coping resources would ultimately increase the wellbeing of asylum claimants in the UK.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Cross, A. (2019) Coping with the UK Asylum Process. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/02/coping-uk-asylum (Accessed [date])