Modern British politics is being shaped increasingly by single issue topics such as Brexit, independence, and most notably at the moment, immigration.

We often hear in the media about immigration, both ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’, and are subject consistently to the opinions of political commentators and politicians about their personal opinions on immigration. Some views are more extreme than others, something on display in the debate about the Government’s Rwanda Scheme.

We are routinely told about how the asylum process works (or doesn’t), how ‘homelessness is a lifestyle choice’, and how immigration is apparently detrimental to the host nation.

But can you remember the last time you heard from an asylum seeker yourself?

Before continuing, I feel it is important to make a distinction.

Although the term “illegal immigration”  very much exists and it is repeatedly used within the British media and political sphere, it typically refers to those individuals who enter the UK through irregular means and with the intent to claim asylum, a right that they are legally entitled to under the United Nations Refugee Convention, ratified in 1951.

Using the term “illegal immigration” is a political choice that indicates a position on the matter.

Through working with an asylum seekers charity in St Helens called Our Warm Welcome (OWW), a group of Edge Hill students were recently able to meet with and interview two asylum seekers to discuss their backstories, their current situations and gain an understanding of the asylum process, from two individuals who are living through it.

The two individuals we had the pleasure of speaking to were Abdelrahman and Ahmed (not his real name). These individuals are both in their thirties. Both are of African origin and arrived in the UK by commercial flight on travel visas and claimed asylum on arrival. Both Abdelrahman and Ahmed cited ongoing political turbulence and violence in their home countries as the motivating factor behind their decision to leave. Abdelrahman already has family here In the UK and stated that coming here felt like the natural choice.

Ahmed does not have family here, but explained that they thought that the UK seemed to be their best choice as they wanted to work here in the NHS as a doctor, a role they are already qualified in and practiced in their nation of origin.

Abdelrahman and Ahmed spoke at length about how grateful they are for the charity that has helped them to integrate (OWW), and also to the people of St Helens, for accepting them into the community.

Due to restrictions placed on them via the asylum process, both individuals are currently unable to work.

Asylum seekers in the UK have no right to engage in work until their asylum claim is processed and accepted. If they are turned down, they are still unable to work, unless they lodge an appeal which then succeeds. Both individuals explained to us that even whilst living here for several years their claims are still in progress, and expressed that because of this lengthy process, they feel disenfranchised and without agency.

To occupy themselves and contribute to the society that they are grateful to live in, they both engage in voluntary work, with Abdelrahman volunteering his time as a translator and Ahmed working on a programme that will help them train and top up their already existing skills as a medic, to become a qualified doctor for the NHS, should their asylum claim ultimately be accepted.

Abdelrahman explained to us that asylum seekers in the UK are entitled to a sum of £7 a day to live on. Both individuals are currently living in shared accommodation settings.

When asked about the issues they have faced within the asylum system, both Abdelrahman and Ahmed expressed frustration with the convoluted and disorganised nature of the process. They agreed that as refugees they felt they exist in a state of limbo, with no solid idea of when their status may change.

They also claim there is very little information regarding deadlines or feedback from the asylum system and that because of this, they have no idea how far away a decision on their claim is. When asked about this, they both agreed that this contributes to a great level of stress and anxiety for them and they feel that until they have an answer, they don’t believe they can begin to build for a future in the UK.

Asylum claims in the UK are supposed to be settled within 6 months, but increasingly claimants can find themselves waiting several years for an answer.

Another source of great stress for them both is the rhetoric in the UK surrounding refugees, more specifically rhetoric from political figures and government ministers around the “Stop the Boats” discourse and the Rwanda Plan.

The plan intends to send asylum seekers to Rwanda whilst waiting for a decision to be made on their claim.

The Rwanda Plan has met with various hurdles in its legislative process, such as the UK Supreme Court ruling the plan ‘unlawful’ and claiming Rwanda not to be a safe country for refugees to be sent to.  Although hindered in the process, a revised version of the Plan received royal assent and officially became law in April this year.

In June, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated that should the Conservative Party win the general election in July, flights to Rwanda will begin that same month.

It has been estimated that if successful and operational, the Rwanda Plan would cost around £1.8 million for every refugee sent to Rwanda.

Labour have promised, should they win the general election that they would scrap the Rwanda Plan and replace it with their own ‘Border Security Command’, a new department composed of several intelligence agency personnel working cooperatively to ‘smash criminal gangs and strengthen our borders’.

Through discourse and policy proposals from both main parties, it is clear that some redesign of the asylum system is underway in the UK. What remains to be seen, given the outcome of the upcoming general election, is what form this change ultimately takes.

When discussing such issues, it is important to remember that we are not simply discussing statistics or numbers on a screen. Through our meeting with Abdelrahman and Ahmed, we have been able to further understand the extremely personal, and very real human consequences of discussions and policy setting in Westminster on the lives of real people.

Written by Zac Clark

Notes below:

We would like to thank Kevin Duffy from Our Warm Welcome for facilitating this meeting with Abdelrahman and Ahmed, and for the work he does in the St Helens community.

I would personally like to say a special thank you to my lecturer Paula Keaveney for organising and chairing the meeting and for advising on this article. I would also like to thank my fellow students Lillymae Hadley, Ella Weatherburn, and Jess Dunn, who contributed verbally within the interview, and whose written records of the interview in combination with my own, formed the basis upon which I was able to write this article.