Shine A Light

A green and pleasant land? The trauma of the British asylum system

The system of asylum in the UK pushes mental fortitude to its limits. 

Saphora Smith
9 February 2015
Refugee protests

Our government needs to listen. Flickr/Takver. Some rights reserved.

This article is the product of a Master’s project based on four months researching and writing, and four days with the Harbour Project in Swindon talking to refugees and asylum seekers. At the request of those interviewed, real names have not been used.

It is ten thirty A.M. and the volunteers at the Harbour Project are preparing the drop-in-centre for its visitors. Baskets are filled with fruit and tins of biscuits opened, while pots of tea stand brewing. It is early September and although it is not yet cold, it is not hard to imagine the temperature in that corrugated iron shed in January.

The Harbour Project, a locally run organisation providing advice and support for asylum seekers and refugees, stands behind St Luke’s Church in the Manchester Road area of Swindon. The neighbourhood is known locally for its struggle against drugs and prostitution.

Inside, the walls are covered with children’s paintings, information leaflets and posters on how to be active citizens. In one corner stands a pile of children’s toys.

Some people sit chatting, sipping cups of tea and dunking biscuits, some check emails and fill in forms, while others sit hunched over their English homework.

Toddlers hang around the legs of the visitors, tugging for their attention. Fatherly hands pick them up and swing them around, passing the children from one person to the next. It is unclear to whom they belong. However, this atmosphere is fragile. Visitors seem hesitant to unwind; their smiles are strained, weighted with bigger worries.

For others a smile is too much to ask.Abdul is one of the first visitors to arrive. He musters a mumbled hello, finds a chair in the corner of the room and sits down without taking off his coat.

In October Abdul will have been waiting two years for the Home Office to decide whether he can stay in the UK or if he has to return to Pakistan. With no history of depression or self-harm before arriving in the UK, Abdul has tried to commit suicide twice since being in Britain.The Harbour Project receives on average 30 visitors a day. Like Abdul, many suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, a trend that is worryingly prevalent in asylum seekers across the UK.

Higher rates of depression

According to the Migration Observatory, the isolation, loss of social status, poverty, insecure legal immigration status combined with the impact of government policies such as detention and dispersal, all contribute to deterioration in mental health.

Although definitive statistics are scarce, the Observatory cites “higher rates of depression and anxiety among asylum seekers and refugees compared to the national population or other migrant categories.”

Abdul is no stranger to trauma. Originally from the Northern Provinces of Pakistan he worked as a journalist mainly covering the army’s struggle against the Taliban. In 2012 he was forced to leave his country after the Taliban attacked him and threatened to kill his family.

Abdul is not the only visitor to the Harbour Project who has suffered trauma in his native country. Adebukola, originally from Nigeria, recalls how her mother was killed for having conceived a child with a Christian man. She was then forced to flee south where she lived on the streets with her three children, working as a waitress to make enough money to buy them food.

It was in Southern Nigeria that she met a man pledging to help her escape to England. Leaving her two teenage boys behind, she boarded a plane to somewhere she believed she could make enough money to spend on her sons’ education. Instead, on arriving in the UK, she was sold into prostitution. After being raped multiple times, her baby left unfed in an adjoining room, she managed to smuggle her child out onto the streets of London. 

For both Abdul and Adebukola the trauma of these experiences stays with them. But both have said that it is the indefinite and uncertain process of seeking asylum that has caused them to sink into a dark depressive cycle, exacerbating their past traumas and making recovery impossible. 

Lives on hold

In their new lives in Britain, both Abdul and Adebukola feel that they lack purpose or a reason for being. This is made worse by the fact that the majority of asylum seekers to the UK are not permitted to work or enrol at university. 

“I was full of hope when I arrived” Abdul says, “but since being in Britain it’s been two years of putting my life on hold.” This is particularly difficult for a man who already has a Masters degree in International Relations and had plans to study for a PHD. “I could be two years into my PHD by now. I’m educated, given a chance I could contribute to British society,” he says.

Adebukola also suffers from the feeling that her life lacks direction. Having escaped her captor Adebukola left London and came to Swindon managing to find work at a care home for people with dementia. She explains that despite the exhaustion associated with seven years working illegally, “I had a reason to get up and a reason to go to sleep… My life had structure.” Now without a job she feels lost: “I have too much time to relive the past, too much time to think.”

The shame of being an asylum seeker

Abdul explains that as an asylum seeker in the UK not only does your life lack meaning, as usually you are not allowed to work, but you are also seen to be a burden on British society – a leech feeding off hard-working British citizens.

For Abdul his loss of social standing is too difficult to bear. He suffers greatly from what he calls “the shame of being an asylum seeker.” He recalls that working in Pakistan he used to visit and write stories on the Afghan refugees in the Northern Provinces, “I knew their circumstances intimately, but I never imagined that I would become one of them.”  

“It’s humiliating,” he says. “From day one of the asylum process I was made to feel like a criminal or prisoner of war.” “We stand there in a queue at the police station, at the post office, like criminals, like slaves.”

“I have done nothing wrong,” he says. Abdul has never once been in trouble with the police in Pakistan or in the UK. “My crime is that I ran for my life, my safety and that I chose England.”

Green and pleasant land

Many asylum seekers and refugees feel disillusioned by the reality of life in Britain. For Blerina, a refugee from Albania, England is nothing like what she expected. She explains how she came to Britain in 2005 to join her husband Bashkim, who had been granted asylum after the Kosovo war. “I believed we were going to start a new life, together, in England, England! Can you imagine? No more cleaning jobs, no more rubbish wages!”

Ten years on both Blerina and Bashkim suffer from depression. Despite having each other and their two young daughters, they both feel lonely, missing the network of support they had at home in Albania.

Things reached an all time low a year ago when Bashkim threw himself out of their bedroom window, almost ending his life. “I was screaming, shouting, crying, but I couldn’t stop him,” Blerina says. Ever since, Bashkim does not work and rarely leaves the house. “I can’t cope, I have no support” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I will never be happy.”


Perhaps one of the greatest and most damaging shocks for asylum seekers on arriving in the UK is the policy of dispersal. This sees asylum seekers relocated across the country to so-called “dispersal” towns, to alleviate pressure on local councils of immigration hot spots such as Dover and London.

Many asylum seekers come to the UK in search of friends and family. By relocating individuals across the country they are isolated and deprived of the support system offered by their acquaintances in the UK. They cannot live with their relatives but are often forced to take residency in government accommodation far away from anyone they know.

For Abdul living in government accommodation has greatly affected his mental well-being. He explains that he wanted to go to London, where he knows people, but that he had no choice but to come to Swindon. “Now I live with drug addicts and criminals” he says, explaining that many of the other residents wear police monitoring tags around their ankles.

Loss of liberty

The policy of dispersal has caused Abdul’s mental health to deteriorate. Yet dispersal is far from the worst scenario. Up to 4,000 asylum seekers can be detained in British removal centres at one time.

The British charity Medical Justice points out that this loss of liberty can have a serious negative impact on mental health, often triggering reminders of past trauma. Detention, moreover, means that the individual’s story has not been believed and thus the threat of returning to one’s country is all the more real. Lastly, unlike in prison, the majority of detainees have no idea when they will be released compounding their feeling of helplessness and depression.

According to Medical Justice “mental illness is the greatest health issue for detainees,” while Mary Bosworth, Professor of Criminology at Oxford, says that over 80% of the detainees she studied in Britain suffered from depression.

Impossible to contribute to society

The feeling among many asylum seekers is that the lack of opportunities in Britain has made it difficult for them to integrate into society. And yet those at the Harbour Project are the lucky ones.

Pubudu, also from Sudan, spent a month in an immigration removal centre outside Dover. This is all he says, as if any elaboration on what happened there would be too painful to bear. Audrey, a volunteer at the Harbour project, sensing Pubudu’s difficulty to explain, says that she used to volunteer at a removal centre in Oxfordshire but had to give up because it was too depressing.

Abdul, who is more vocal, blames the British asylum system for his mental state. “I know I had to come here for my safety, but now I’m broken,” he says.

Similarly Adebukola often feels like she doesn’t exist. She likens being an asylum seeker to having dementia, reminding herself of her former patients. “We are like the living dead” she says. “You are physically but not mentally present, and then all of a sudden you come round and thing where am I, who am I?” Adebukola has attempted to commit suicide multiple times since arriving in the UK.

Greater Hostility

For Khatidja Chantler, a Professor of Social Work at the University of Central Lancashire, the crisis in mental health for asylum seekers and refugees is only going to get worse. ‘The harsher the asylum system, the more mental health problems are likely to increase,” she says. Khatidja argues that the system is undoubtedly harsher today: “just listen to all the anti-immigration rhetoric, the issues in Calais, the asylum seekers drowning in the Mediterranean – none of this points to the ease of gaining asylum despite wars in country of origin.”

Judy Ryde of the Trauma Foundation South West agrees, citing recent government policy on immigration as evidence of “greater hostility towards asylum seekers more generally.” In 2005 the British government stopped granting immediate indefinite leave to remain to asylum seekers, only allowing them to stay for a maximum of five years, at the end of which they could re-apply for permanent settlement. Ryde concludes that for those asylum seekers arriving in the UK today, the system and living environment is much more hostile than it was ten years a go.

 A safe place to harbour

“At least there is Harbour” Abdul says, a sentiment which echoes throughout the visitors to the drop-in-centre. “Harbour is the safest place in the world” says the Sudanese visitor, “this is my village.”

“My life is in that room” Abdul says, pointing towards the main room in the corrugated iron shed behind St Luke’s Church, Swindon. “I thank my God for Harbour.”

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData