Defining and demonising asylum: A brief history of UK refugee discourses

One of the recurring tropes in politics in Australia, as well as across the Western world, is the contested nature of the processing of refugees and asylum seekers, with many critics from the right declaring that the definition of refugees according to the UN 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol being out of date in an era of global migration. Most recently Bob Carr, Australia’s Foreign Minister, has claimed that most people seeking asylum in Australia are ‘economic migrants’, but similar debates are occurring in Canada, New Zealand and the UK (where there is a Select Committee investigating the asylum seeking process).

From a recent campaign by the Red Cross in the UK
From a recent campaign by the Red Cross in the UK

Below is something that I wrote back in 2009-10 on the definition of asylum and the processing of refugees in the UK context (for this book chapter), which I thought might be relevant (if not a little out of date):

The history of Britain as a port of asylum stretches back to the French Huguenots and prior to the 1980s, as Robin Cohen has noted, ‘[i]t is often asserted and widely believed that Britain has an exemplary record of offering hospitality to those fleeing from political and religious persecution’.[1] From the late 1980s onwards, the number of refugees seeking asylum in Britain rose dramatically. Despite a peak of approximately 9,900 applicants for asylum in 1980, the decade saw the number of applications steady at around 4,000 per year in most years.[2] This increased significantly to 44,840 in 1990, which then fluctuated between 22,370 in 1993 and 80,315 in 2000, before reaching a peak 84,130 in 2002, then decreasingly considerably to 23,430 in 2007, although the number of successful applications has been drastically lower.[3] Britain is a signatory of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which categorised a refugee as any person who:

owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.[4]

However this definition is limited, as there are numerous reasons for persecution not included in this definition, for which people flee their homeland and seek asylum, such as persecution on the grounds of gender or sexuality, as well as other reasons, such as fleeing war zones, natural (or manmade) disasters and abject poverty. As Frances Webber wrote in 1991, at the beginning of the massive influx of refugees into Britain:

The Convention’s definition of refugee is very narrow, covering only those fleeing because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’… Western governments have consistently rejected calls from refugee organisations to extend the definition of ‘refugee’ in the Convention to include victims of war, civil war, natural disaster or serious disturbance… Even if the criteria were applied with care and generosity (which they are not), they would exclude those who have lost their family or home through war or civil war…; who have lost their home and their livelihood through forced resettlement… or the creation of military buffer zones.[5]

The result, Webber predicted, was that ‘[t]he number of people who, having not qualified under the strict definition of refugees… is to be severely reduced’.[6] The last two decades have shown Webber’s predictions to be correct as the limited scope of the official definition of a ‘refugee’ has seen many within the Government, the immigration control system and the popular press view many people escaping immense hardships in their own countries as ‘bogus’ asylum seekers with no genuine claim to remain in Britain.

Also included within the Convention is the internationally recognised (and moral) obligation of the host nation to provide legal and welfare assistance to refugees that seek asylum within their nation. This has further fuelled the suspicion that many of the people who are seeking asylum in Britain are ‘bogus’, who fall outside the UN Convention definition of a ‘refugee’ and actually ‘economic migrants’.  Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the dichotomy between the ‘genuine’ refugee and the ‘bogus’ asylum seeker has been a prominent discourse in Britain. As Robert Winder has written:

[P]ublic opinion regarded the migrants as a mere pest. The new term ‘asylum-seeker’ rapidly acquired a sarcastic prefix: ‘bogus’. The British public came to believe that all migrants were false: none had a right to be here; all were helping themselves at our expense. There was sharp political pressure on the government to get tough.[7]

The tabloid press, particularly the Daily Mail and The Sun, ran numerous articles on how ‘bogus’ asylum seekers were abusing the system, who were falsely presenting themselves as refugees, but were actually ‘economic migrants’. A number of scholars have documented the portrayal of refugees as ‘bogus’ asylum seekers by the tabloid press and how this populist anxiety over the issue of asylum in Britain was appropriated by the Government and developed into official policy. This negative portrayal of refugees as ‘bogus’ asylum seekers and illegal ‘economic migrants’ seeped into Parliamentary discourse and the Conservatives, who were in power as the influx of refugees increased, responded to this anxiety by declaring that ‘something’ had to be done to prevent ‘bogus’ migrants seeking asylum. Michael Howard, Home Secretary from 1993 to 1997, repeating the consensus that ‘fair but firm and effective immigration control is a necessary condition’ for ‘preserving good race relations in this country’, stated:

For far too many people across the world, this country is far too attractive a destination for bogus asylum seekers and other illegal immigrants. The reason is simple: it is far easier to obtain access to jobs and benefits here than almost anywhere else. That is the problem that these measures are intended to remedy.[8]

The measures introduced by the Conservatives were legislation, the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 and the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which ‘applied harsh new measures to asylum seekers, designed to reduce the numbers arriving in Britain’.[9] This focus on ‘bogus’ refugees dominated the debates on the 1993 and 1996 Acts in Parliament, with Emily Fletcher calculating that in Parliamentary debates on the 1993 Act, the word ‘bogus’ was used 53 times and 122 times in the debate on the 1996 Act.[10]

In May 1997, Tony Blair’s Labour Government came to power under the banner of ‘New Labour, New Life for Britain’ and similar to Wilson’s election in 1964 and 1974, many believed that a Labour Government would design a more ‘humane’ immigration policy. As Schuster and Solomos wrote, ‘[t]he election of a Labour government… led to expectations of an asylum policy more concerned with social justice than narrow national interest’. [11] However this was not to be the case. Although New Labour may have softened the language utilised by the Conservatives (Fletcher notes that the word ‘bogus’ was only used 19 times in Parliamentary debates on asylum between 1997 and 1999)[12] and spoke of ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice’ in immigration control policy, New Labour still focused heavily upon distinguishing between ‘genuine’ (and deserving) refugees and ‘bogus’ (and undeserving) asylum seekers. Labour’s 1998 White Paper, Fairer, Faster and Firmer – A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum, stated that ‘[t]he Government is committed to protecting genuine refugees… But there is no doubt that large numbers of economic migrants are abusing the system by claiming asylum’.[13]  The Government promised to assist ‘genuine’ refugees, but emphasised that ‘new arrangements are needed… which minimise the attractions of the UK to economic migrants’.[14] The policy changes outlined in this White Paper formed the basis of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1999, which strengthened the Acts introduced by the Conservative during the mid-1990s and continued the bi-partisan dichotomy between the ‘bogus’ and ‘undeserving’ asylum seekers and the ‘deserving’ refugees.[15]

Many critics saw the Labour Government’s actions as a renunciation of its commitment to social justice and pandering to popular racism.[16] However the architects of New Labour, such as Tony Blair and Jack Straw, had conceded the ground to the Conservatives on the need to detect and deter ‘bogus’ asylum seekers long before the introduction of the 1999 Act. In 1995, Blair declared, ‘We oppose bogus [asylum] applications and fraud and we recognise the need for immigration controls’, and a few months later, Straw admitted, ‘No one doubts the need to tackle the problem of bogus asylum seekers’.[17]

Over the next decade, Labour introduced several additional pieces of legislation to further restrict the amount of migrants seeking asylum and refugee status in Britain. This was accompanied by a relentless campaign in the popular press, the tabloids in particular,[18] to further demonise and criminalize refugees seeking asylum. It cannot be said that the Government (under both Labour and the Conservatives) and the press have worked together to promote stricter policies regarding asylum seekers, but the discourse has seen the negative portrayals of refugees echoed by both sections, a ‘feedback loop’ of moral panic[19] that has seen policy decisions and public/media responses seek ever increasing restrictions upon potential refugees. As Tony Kushner wrote in 2003:

In Britain at the start of the twenty-first century, the government, state, media and public have intertwined in a mutually reinforcing and reassuring process to problematize and often stigmatise asylum-seekers. It is through this combination of anti-asylum sentiment finding legitimacy from the top down, alongside the sustenance provided by the daily press campaign and the encouragement of ordinary people from the bottom up, that enabled a poll carried out in February 2003 for The Times to suggest that the number of asylum-seekers was ‘the most serious problem in Britain at present’.[20]

Numerous studies have been conducted over the last decade, which have demonstrated that the popular press has routinely portrayed asylum seekers as undesirable, undeserving and deceitful ‘economic migrants’ and that the discourse on refugees and asylum in Britain has been skewed towards negative stereotypes. A 2000/01 report by Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme in Scotland found that coverage of refugee and asylum issues in the Scottish press was ‘characterised by negative imagery, hostility towards asylum seekers, and a “culture of disbelief”’, with 44 per cent of 253 articles classified by the study as ‘negative’.[21] The report found that the press had created a ‘climate of fear’ through the ‘use of unsubstantiated claims about the numbers of people claiming asylum in the UK, their motives, and alleged anti-social behaviour among asylum groups’,[22] which had a serious impact on the Government’s policy towards refugees. Tony Kushner noted that over a six month period, ending in March 2003, an electronic search using Lexis-Nexus yielded over 400 articles in the Daily Mail on asylum seekers, who ‘relentlessly reminded its readers’ that asylum seekers were ‘swamping’ Britain.[23] On the subject of this supposed ‘swamping’ of Britain (a phrase at echoes Thatcher’s 1978 infamous statement), a 2004 study by the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees (ICAR) detailed the negative language repeatedly used to describe asylum seekers and refugees in the popular press:

‘scrounger, sponger, fraudster, robbing the system’, ‘burden/strain on resources’, ‘illegal working, cheap labour, cash in hand, black economy’, criminal (unspecified or non-violent’, ‘criminal violent’, ‘arrested, jailed, guilty’, ‘mob, horde, riot, rampage, disorder’, ‘a threat, a worry, to be feared (terror, but not terrorism)’.[24]

These depictions of refugees and asylum seekers as undesirable, criminal and potentially dangerous, the report found, ‘imply that Britain is under attack from migrants, particularly asylum seekers and refugees.[25] The report asserted that an outcome of this negative press reportage is the ‘potential to give rise to extreme feelings of fear and hostility’ and an ‘increase [in] the likelihood of harassment of asylum seekers and refugees’.[26]

The ever-tightening restrictions on asylum seekers in government policy, as well as the menacing presence of the BNP and the EDL, seem to vindicate these 2004 predictions by the ICAR. The discourse on refugees and asylum seekers has been overtly defined by the negative stereotypes of the popular press and reinforced by both major parties, as well as several extra-parliamentary groups and minor political parties on the right. For refugee advocates and anti-racist activists, the discourse seems irrevocably skewed. In their ‘Just.Fair’ campaign for an ‘end to the unjust and unfair treatment of refugees’, the Refugee Council declared:

the asylum debate has become so distorted that the right to asylum in the UK is now under threat. Increasingly harsh government policy is eroding the protection we offer to those in need. British politicians are even talking about withdrawing from the 1951 Refugee Convention altogether.[27]

And this debate seems set to continue. The Conservatives have proposed cracking down on ‘bogus’ asylum claims and limiting access that asylum seekers have to services, including legal aid, and on the other side of Parliament, there is little evidence that Ed Miliband’s Labour will move away from the immigration control policies of the Blair years, particularly as several key Labour MPs view the party’s ‘softness’ on immigration to be a key reason for their defeat in 2010.


[1] Robin Cohen, Frontiers of Identity: The British and the Others, Longman, London, 1994, p. 72

[2] Liza Schuster & John Solomos, ‘The Politics of Refugee and Asylum Policies in Britain: Historical Patterns and Contemporary Realities’, in Alice Bloch & Carl Levy, Refugees, Citizenship and Social Policy in Europe, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1999, p. 62

[3] Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, Key Statistics about Asylum Seeker Applications in the UK, ICAR Statistics Paper 1, February 2009, p. 6,, accessed  21 November, 2009

[4] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, UNHCR, Geneva, 2007, p. 16

[5] Frances Webber, ‘Refugees: Countdown to Zero’, Race & Class, 33/2, 1991, p. 81

[6] F. Webber, ‘Refugees’, p. 80

[7] Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, Abacus, London, 2006, p. 419

[8] Hansard, 20 November, 1995, col. 335; col. 338

[9] Alice Bloch, ‘A New Era or More of the Same? Asylum Policy in the UK’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 13/1, 2000, p. 34

[10] Emily Fletcher, ‘Changing Support for Asylum Seekers: An Analysis of Legislation and Parliamentary Debates’, Sussex Centre for Migration Research, University of Sussex, Working Paper No 49, May 2008, p. 17

[11] L. Schuster & J. Solomos, ‘The Politics of Refugee and Asylum Policies in Britain’, p. 69

[12] E. Fletcher, ‘Changing Support for Asylum Seekers’, p. 17

[13] Jack Straw, ‘Preface by the Home Secretary’, in Fairer, Faster and Firmer – A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum, Cm 4018, HMSO, London, 1998,, accessed 30 October, 2009

[14] J. Straw, ‘Preface by the Home Secretary’

[15] Rosemary Sales, ‘The Deserving and the Undeserving? Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Welfare in Britain’, Critical Social Policy, 22/3, 2002, p. 463

[16] Patrick Barkham, ‘Beginner’s Guide to the Refugee Crisis’, The Guardian, 27 August, 1999

[17] Hansard, 15 November, 1995, col. 17; 22 February, 1996, col. 545

[18] While the tabloids demonstrate the most explicit examples of this, that is not to say that the broadsheets and other media outlets are free from encouraging these negative depictions of refugees and asylum seekers. Majid KhosravNik has argued recently that ‘the Daily Mail  generally perpetuates the existing known stereotypes and thus reproduces negative attitudes…, whereas The Times is more creative and refrains from reproducing the stereotypes explicitly’. But both newspapers ‘hardly recognise [refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants] using their names or other qualities, unless they can be positioned inside or adjacent to one of the negative topoi available, e.g. violence’. Majid KhosravNik, ‘The Representation of Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Immigrants in British Newspapers during the Balkan Conflict (1999) and the British General Election (2005)’, Discourse & Society, 20/4, 2009, p. 49; Italics are in the original text.

[19] For a description of the phenomena of ‘feedback loops’ and ‘moral panic’, see: John Muncie, ‘The Construction and Deconstruction of Crime’, in John Muncie & Eugene McLaughlin (eds), The Problem of Crime, Sage Publications, London, 2002, p. 53

[20] Tony Kushner, ‘Meaning Nothing but Good: Ethics, History and Asylum-Seeker Phobia in Britain’, Patterns in Prejudice, 37/3, 2003, p. 261

[21] Ceri Mollard, Asylum: The Truth Behind the Headlines, Oxfam, Oxford, 2001, p.4; p. 9

[22] C. Mollard, Asylum, p. 11

[23] T. Kushner, ‘Meaning Nothing but Good’, p. 258

[24] Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, Media Image, Community Impact: Assessing the Impact of the Media and Political Image of Refugees and Asylum Seekers on Community Relations in London, ICAR, London, 2004, p. 35

[25] ICAR, Media Image, Community Impact, p. 42

[26] ICAR, Media Image, Community Impact, p. 42

[27] Refugee Council, Why Asylum is a Human Right,, accessed 29 November, 2009

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