For well over a decade there has been strong ongoing opposition to asylum seeking in the UK, with around seven in 10 saying we should accept few asylum seekers. This means that there is popular opposition to the idea of providing safety to people who have experienced war, persecution, torture and sexual violence. In order to maintain a position that may well result in deporting people back to these situations and often death, arguments need to be made in a way that present opposition to asylum seeking as reasonable and not prejudicial. My research has focussed on the ways people attempt to do this and how asylum seekers respond to these arguments.
Perhaps the most commonly used anti-asylum arguments are those based around the costs that asylum seekers may bring. A typical Daily Mail headline states "Asylum seekers cost taxpayer £100,000 a DAY". This economic argument works by emphasising the costs of asylum seeking and presenting them as too high for the UK to meet. This type of argument works by presenting financial reasons as more important than other people's safety, which can be opened up to criticisms of unfairness, prejudice to outsiders and a lack of humanitarianism.
So, another layer is added to this economic argument to prevent this: the 'bogus asylum seeker' and the economic migrant. While this phrase is less common now, particularly after it was ruled that there is no such thing as an 'illegal' asylum seeker, the damage is done and there is now a common association with asylum seekers and the notion that they are not legitimate. By distinguishing 'genuine' and 'bogus' asylum seekers, opponents of asylum seekers are able to say that they support genuine asylum seekers. They can therefore avoid all the problems of looking unfair and prejudicial, while directing their opposition to 'bogus' or 'illegal' asylum seekers, and even presenting themselves as particularly caring for the 'genuine' asylum seekers. However, by doing this all asylum seekers come to be seen as - at least potentially - 'bogus'.
Some anti-asylum arguments link asylum seekers with terrorism. The initial explanation for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane was that asylum seekers from Iran were onboard and were terrorists. Although this was soon found not to be the case it does demonstrate how terrorism and asylum have come to be linked. Other examples of this link can be seen in calls to 'tighten up' the asylum system so as to prevent terrorism. By drawing on the war-against-terrorism rhetoric opponents of asylum are able to present themselves as acting in the country's best interests by challenging a security risk.
Controlling asylum seeking can also be presented as necessary to maintain good social cohesion which implies that having asylum seekers in the UK is somehow damaging to this. This type of argument presents its users as being caring about social cohesion, which implies that they are interested in challenging prejudices, while at the same time they promote exclusionary policies.
The talk of asylum seekers themselves can be seen as directly addressing these arguments. In terms of the economic and 'bogus asylum seeker' arguments, the asylum seekers I spoke to were destitute, often living on the floor of friends' houses to avoid sleeping on the streets. Despite this, they said that they would rather be destitute in the UK than return home, because they value safety over anything else and consider themselves to be safe in the UK. In addition, those asylum seekers I spoke to said that in the future they would like to pay taxes so that they could contribute to the UK. This directly challenges the ideas that they are in the UK for financial gain and that they do not want to integrate and contribute to British society.
Arguments against asylum seekers are therefore designed to present their users as caring about others, fair and non-prejudiced, while at the same time supporting policies which seem to be quite the opposite. Asylum speakers themselves can be seen responding to these arguments by saying that they are in the UK for safety, that they wish to integrate and that they wish to contribute to the UK. It is possible that they are lying and that they are not really fleeing persecution abroad, but are instead saving British taxpayers' money to plot a terrorist attack. What seems more likely is that opposition to any kind of immigration, including refugees, is currently politically popular and that as a result refugees are being forced to suffer.