Asylum Stories - the Reality of Living Life in the UK Asylum system
By Tekla Szerszynska /

We spoke to four women, who are asylum seekers based in Greater Manchester, to find out what their experiences of the asylum system have been, and how they feel about the treatment of asylum seekers in this country. All of the women have been living in the UK for a number of years and most of them are awaiting final decisions on their cases which have been significantly delayed. Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

Mary described the devastating impact the asylum system has had on her mental health from the moment she arrived in the UK. When she got to the centre where she was told to claim asylum, it was closed. Mary found herself alone and afraid in an unfamiliar city and eventually, after walking the streets and being turned away from a refugee centre, she found a church where she was allowed to sleep for two nights as she waited for the asylum screening centre to open. When it finally did, and Mary was able to begin her claim, her relief was short-lived and turned quickly to fear and distress as her interview began. ‘They tried to intimidate me’, she says. ‘You’re coming because of torture or traumatic events and you’re not really yourself… They try to confuse you and ask the same question again but twist it. Then they will use the answers against you. Sometimes they write something down that you didn’t say and when you start reading the interview sheet you think “I didn’t say this! How come this is there?”’

“There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.”

Refugee Council

After her initial interview, Mary was handcuffed and taken in a van to a place she didn’t know. She was given tiny portions of food and water and her photo was taken, like a police mug shot. ‘It was so scary. I thought, “What is happening to me?” And I said “I’m not a criminal, why do you do this to me?”’ Mary was then taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre and this is where she first experienced symptoms of schizophrenia, a mental illness which current research understands can be triggered by a stressful life event. Mary is now on medication for her schizophrenia, and though it has helped reduce her symptoms she is also suffering from its side effects. Now in the UK for seven years, Mary has been taken to Yarl’s Wood three times, one of which saw her spending Christmas and New Year there. Detention has been very traumatic for Mary and has always come unexpectedly – ‘I was supposed to be going to the tribunal but they just arrested me when I went to sign at Dallas Court’, the local immigration reporting centre. Most asylum seekers must report to one of these centres on a weekly or monthly basis and, because of experiences like Mary’s, people set off to report not knowing whether they will return. Mary’s case went to judicial review and has been handed to the Home Office. As she waits for news, Mary is overwhelmed with uncertainty and fear – ‘I don’t know what will be happening to me now. My situation is frightening. I’m even sick because of this whole thing. Inside I feel very lonely as if nobody’s there for me. It’s terrible.’ Her voice grows quiet as she says ‘sometimes I just feel like dying’.

The women we spoke to are all experiencing slightly different circumstances and concerns but Mary’s deep fear and despair resounded with them all. They explained that the regular trips to report at an immigration reporting centre are a major source of stress and humiliation in all their lives. Every time they report they are scared that this will be the day they are arrested and placed in detention or even deported. ‘This is a journey we must make every week, whether it is snowing, whether we are sick’ explains Rose. For Rose, an accidentally missed reporting resulted in a letter threatening jail or a large fine, despite the same system keeping asylum seekers in financial hardship. The frequency and significance of these appointments hang over the women. The fear of the consequences of missing one or being late means they often go early and are made to stand in the cold outside, while the centre sometimes opens late. ‘They don’t care about us’, explains Rose. For these women, the attitude of the centre staff demonstrates one example of a widespread double standard – the staff working in the asylum system make mistakes unapologetically, even when these mistakes seriously impact upon the people who are caught up in the system. Meanwhile, those seeking asylum know that any mistake they make may cost them their freedom, their safety and their mental health. Josie explains that one of her friends was overjoyed to receive a letter granting her indefinite leave to remain in the UK. She then received another letter to say it had been sent in error. Another friend received a ticket to go to Liverpool for an appointment but on arrival, she discovered it had been a mistake. This led to her being reprimanded for missing her normal appointment at the reporting centre. While these women’s futures hang in the balance, miscommunication and blunders such as these can feel like the final straw. ‘Our life – you never know what is going to happen. You know any time you can be taken.’

Rose’s story reflects how fear develops. Rose arrived in the UK 8 years ago, fleeing Zimbabwe. She didn’t know about the process of claiming asylum and came to the UK as her daughter’s visitor. It then became clear that if she were to claim asylum on arrival she would be detained because it would contradict her original stated reason for coming. Rose’s daughter tried to help her by applying for Rose to be considered her dependent but she was too young. Rose then applied for asylum and her application was rejected. She found herself with no benefits and no housing – she was destitute. Although the Home Office ruled that Rose was not allowed to work, she could see no other option but to look for a job. She began work as a carer, which she enjoyed, and found that the support she offered was valued highly by her clients. But this work came to an abrupt end when her home was raided by UKBA and she was detained in Bedford detention centre for three months. The raid was terrifying for her. ‘They sent six cars just for me,’ she explains. Since that day, years ago, the clients Rose cared for continue to contact her to plead that she returns as their carer. ‘It is so frustrating but I am too scared to go back’, she tells us. Her treatment in detention was ‘horrific. I’ll never forget that life and that I was a prisoner when I did absolutely nothing. Working in this country is a crime for us’.

She has now been waiting on a response to a fresh claim – a submission of new evidence to support an initially rejected claim – that she submitted two and a half years ago. The other women tell her that she should be eligible to apply for a work permit as she has been waiting over a year. Rose explains that although you can apply, they will only allow you to work in specific, high level areas, such as engineering, medicine and law. You just need to look at the ‘Shortage Occupation List’, which outlines the possible jobs for those who have permission, to see that they exclude huge numbers of people. Rose doesn’t have the skills for these jobs and, what’s more, her education and work experience have been held back by the years she has spent in the asylum system, barred from seeking employment. Most importantly though, whatever Rose’s skills and education, the trauma of the raid and her period in detention along with regular news of other asylum seekers being arrested, detained and even deported without warning, have left her living in fear. Now she has learnt the potential consequences of putting a foot wrong, Rose wouldn’t dare draw attention to herself by trying to navigate a system that has her life in its grip. She can only hope to hold on long enough for some good news; good news which may never come.

So as these women wait to learn their fates, with no idea when or if they will, they are held in a state of limbo; unable to improve their lives by earning a living and in constant fear of being snatched from their own homes. A further limitation on their freedom to improve their situations or exert any control over their day to day lives comes in the shape of the Azure card. The small benefit payment they are provided with, £35 per week for single asylum seekers, is held on this card and can only be spent in specific, large shops. Card users cannot use the card to buy store/gift cards, fuel, tobacco products or alcohol, its cashless format rules out travel costs or school trips and the balance cannot be saved and carried over above five pounds per week. These restrictions are only the beginning. All of the women I speak to have experienced humiliation and rejection when using the card. Shop staff ‘say they don’t know the card. They call the manager in front of a long queue who are all listening. The manager asks me what I’m buying. I may have toiletries, sanitary pads, and sometimes they say I’m not allowed to buy these things. So many times I’ve been refused to buy a cheap five pound pair of shoes.’ Often this is because staff aren’t trained in how the card works and the consequences of this are summed up by Sara – ‘that’s the only money you can use to buy food for the week so you’re stuck.’ What should be a simple shopping trip to meet a basic need – such as groceries or a school uniform – often results in embarrassment and distress. Josie then explained that her card credit has recently been reduced to only £2.43 per month because the Home Office noticed a payment into her bank account from her sister. The payment was to pay for Josie and her son to make a rare visit to their family in the South of England over Christmas. Josie’s son doesn’t even qualify for free school meals because of her asylum status. They are now relying on emergency food parcels from the health visitor. 

All of the women we spoke to live in government provided housing which is managed by Serco. They describe cold and damp houses with no lights, broken furniture, and no hot water, shower or heating for extended periods. ‘You would be shocked by the house,’ says Rose. ‘I wish I could take pictures and show the world the house I’m living in.’ She describes her attempts to improve her home – trying to decorate her living room with flowers and a carpet her neighbours didn’t want any more. The manager of the housing told her they had to be removed. There is a sense that these daily struggles have a particularly significant impact, as they demonstrate that the lack of control these women have over their lives even extends to the one place they should be able to feel safe and comfortable. Their requests for repairs and improvement are dealt with slowly and badly, if at all and the management ‘only start acting when you write a letter to the National Asylum Support Service.’ Many of them also feel further isolated by women they share their house with, who often don’t share their religion, language or background, and have experienced racism in their own homes. ‘We are afraid. There are some people who don’t know their rights. Some house managers want to treat people as if they’re in prison.’

The women we spoke to concluded in emphasising that the way asylum seekers are treated in the UK is as though they are being punished for a crime they haven’t committed. They can’t understand why they were given the legal option to claim asylum if this would be the consequence. These women have found vital support in small, local asylum seeker groups and organisations – who they note have been invaluable in helping them when they have had nowhere else to turn, such as when they have been unable to find legal aid, or when they need support to make long journeys to the reporting centre with their children and no travel money. They have also found strength in the solidarity of the asylum seeking community, without which they may not have made it this far. But they know that many other asylum seekers have not been able to access this support; they are hidden and extremely isolated. And ultimately, through each exhausting and humiliating day, they feel that they are fighting a losing battle in which the Home Office and the UKBA are powerful assailants. ‘Some of the people are just regretting that they came to this country – truly speaking, I’m one of them’ says Rose. ‘The whole world should know, don’t ever come to England to seek asylum… the way asylum seekers are treated in England is horrific.’ But these women also want to explain that they don’t just wish to draw attention to the oppression of the asylum system, they want to be recognised as human beings who want to make an active and positive contribution to the society they are living in. ‘We ran away from persecution and we came here to find a safe place, to find shelter, not just to sit,’ Josie explains. ‘We want to help this country, we want to go to work, we want to be normal people and do everything that normal people do. We didn’t come for benefits.’ While they remain under the stifling control of a system which treats them with suspicion, cruelty and condemnation they have no means of controlling the mundane elements of their day to day lives, let alone of improving their circumstances for themselves and their families. ‘If they said ‘go and work on your own’ that would be the best thing – then we’d work for ourselves. This is destroying us – they’re destroying us… Some people think dying is better. The only thing that is keeping me going is the fact that I have a little boy now.’

Some facts about asylum, a system in the UK which is severely distorted through a mainstream media lens, resulting in mistaken prejudice about some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

  • 2003 Press Complaints Commission guidance ruled that the phrase “illegal asylum seeker” is inaccurate.
  • There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.
  • Charities have made complaints for over a decade to the PCC on what has been agreed as widespread inaccurate coverage.

“Media outlets often inflate or speculate about numbers of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. Newspaper and TV images play into the dominant stereotype of the young dangerous man breaking into Britain and threatening ‘our’ communities. 31 percent of headlines and 53 percent of text about asylum across all newspapers has negative connotations. Language used to describe immigration is highly hostile across all newspaper types, with ‘illegal’ and ‘bogus’ the most commonly used terms to describe immigrants and asylum seekers.

“In addition to mis-reporting, there is also ‘over-reporting’. In 2002, for example, 25 percent of Daily Mail and 24 percent of Daily Express articles were about asylum.”

Chitra Nagarajan,  How Politicians and The Media Made Us Hate Immigrants, 20 September 2013

Image: Tell It Like It Is - Refugee Council

(Following facts taken from Refugee Council report: ‘Tell It Like It Is: The Truth About Asylum’)


  • The UK is home to just over 1% of the world’s refugees – out of more than 15 million worldwide. (UNHCR Global Trends 2012)
  • Over 509,000 refugees have fled the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including about 52,000 during 2012. Only 205 of these people applied for asylum in the UK in 2012. (UNHCR Global Trends 2012 & Home Office quarterly statistical summary, asylum statistics 2012)
  •  About 80% of the world’s refugees live in developing countries, often in camps. Africa, Asia, and the Middle East between them host more than three quarters of the world’s refugees. Europe looks after just 16%. (UNHCR Global Trends 2011)


The likelihood that a refugee will be recognised as being in need of asylum depends on the country where they apply. In the UK in 2012, 30% of the people who applied for asylum were granted it. In some countries, such as Switzerland and Finland, over 70% of applications succeed. (UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2010)

  • The UK asylum system is strictly controlled and complex. It is very difficult to get asylum. The process is extremely tough and the majority of people’s claims are turned down. (Home Office statistics from 2006-2012)
  • A high number of initial decisions made by the Home Office on asylum cases are wrong. In 2012, the courts overturned 27% of negative decisions after they were appealed. (Home Office asylum statistics fourth quarter 2012)
  •  here is a particular problem with decisions on women’s claims. A 2011 study found 50% of negative decisions were overturned by the courts. (Asylum Aid, Unsustainable: The quality of initial decision-making in women’s asylum claims 2011)
  •  Asylum seekers do not come to the UK to claim benefits. In fact, most know nothing about welfare benefits before they arrive and had no expectation that they would receive financial support. (Refugee Council, Chance or Choice? Understanding why asylum seekers come to the UK, 2010)
  • Many asylum seekers live in poverty and many families are not able to pay for the basics such as clothing, powdered milk and nappies. (The Children’s Society Briefing highlighting the gap between asylum support and mainstream benefits 2012)
  • Almost all asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are forced to rely on state support – this can be as little as £5 a day to live on. Asylum seekers are not entitled to council housing. The accommodation allocated to them is not paid for by the local council. Some asylum seekers, and those who have been refused asylum, are not entitled to any form of financial support and are forced into homelessness. This includes heavily pregnant women.
  • Asylum seeking women who are destitute are vulnerable to violence in the UK. More than a fifth of the women accessing our therapeutic services had experienced sexual violence in this country. (Refugee Council, The experiences of refugee women in the UK, 2012)

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Asylum Stories - the Reality of Living Life in the UK Asylum system