"Politically correct brigade strikes over word ‘asylum'" screamed the headline in the Sun following the Independent Asylum Commission's first report of conclusions and recommendations, Saving Sanctuary, in May. "Should we ban the word ‘asylum'?" the BBC asked.
Delighted as we were to see the Commission's report taken seriously by the nation's biggest-selling newspaper and most influential broadcaster, it was frustrating to see it reduced to a debate about terminology. Words are important, but Saving Sanctuary made 64 recommendations for action needed to secure the UK's proud tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution.
To put this into context, the Independent Asylum Commission has spent eighteen months conducting the largest and most comprehensive enquiry into the UK asylum system ever undertaken. The twelve Commissioners consulted with ordinary people about what sort of an asylum system they wanted in the UK. Their CITIZENS SPEAK consultation alone involved 520 citizens from across the UK taking part in ‘People's Commissions' - with groups as diverse as Oxford students, elderly people in a home in Somerset, Young Farmers in Herefordshire, a book club in London and trainee air cabin crew in South Wales recommending the core principles that should underpin UK asylum policy. They also commissioned a national opinion poll, and 16 focus groups in eight cities across the UK.
So what do the public really think about asylum? Well, for a start, they do not understand what the term means. One typical focus group response was that "...to most people the term asylum seeker just means anybody coming to live off our state system." The public often confuse asylum with economic migration, and there were frequent references to ‘Polish asylum seekers', and even ‘French asylum seekers' coming to the UK to work. One honest focus group participant, when asked to distinguish between asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants and illegal immigrants, said: "... all I know is that they are all bloody foreigners!".
Secondly, the word asylum has an image problem - it gives people negative vibes. The public more strongly associated the word asylum with mental health than with people fleeing persecution, and only 18% of people consider the term to be 'positive' or ‘very positive'. Furthermore, the public perceives that on the whole asylum seekers are treated better than they would like - another participant in the research commented: "Asylum seekers go to a car auction and get free housing, mobile phone, phone credit to search for jobs, and vouchers for a free car."
But it is not all bad news. The public are strongly committed to the idea of providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution and 65% of opinion poll respondents said they were ‘very' or ‘quite' proud of the UK's tradition of providing sanctuary to people fleeing persecution.
And sanctuary is the crucial word - not only do people understand what it means (unlike asylum), they can personally relate to it (unlike asylum), and they see it as a positive word (unlike asylum). When polled, 81% of the public said that sanctuary was a ‘positive' or ‘very positive' word, and over 50% had somewhere that they considered to be a personal sanctuary - ranging from reading a book in the bath, to walking in the country, and seeking refuge at Old Trafford!
The British public do want to provide sanctuary to those who are fleeing persecution, but there is a bleak outlook for this noble tradition unless we win back public trust and confidence. To do that we must have an asylum system that is in line with the mainstream, consensus values of the British public, and we must make that system more effective.
And yes, we must also mind our language. Asylum is a legal and technical term that will have its place in the courtroom. But for politicians, media, refugee advocates and anyone else who wants to convey messages to the public about people fleeing persecution, the term asylum is best avoided.
You can download the Independent Asylum Commission's
reports and opinion poll results here.
efeedback Research conduct opinion research using an online panel of more than 190,000 UK residents. A sub-sample representative of the UK population is drawn from the panel for each poll. The results of this opinion poll are based on 1,024 completes gathered online from respondents based across the UK. Data was weighted to the profile of all UK residents, not just those with access to the internet, over the age of 17. Data was weighted by age, gender, occupation and region. Fieldwork began on 2/5/2008 and concluded on 12/5/2008.