The advent of slow violence and poverty for asylum seekers

Lucy Mayblin’s new book Asylum and Impoverishment. Social Policy and Slow Violence, Routledge 2020 revisits Britain’s policy towards asylum seekers and discusses how the insufficient financial support they receive puts them amongst the most deprived and impoverished in society. Dr Lucy Mayblin is Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield. Her previous work include the Asylum after Empire Colonial Legacies in the Politics of Asylum Seeking New York, Rowman and Littlefield 2017 awarded the Philip Abrams Memorial Prize for the best first-authored sociology work. The book Asylum and Impoverishment presented here draws on her ESRC funded project ‘Asylum. Welfare. Work.’ (https://asylumwelfarework.wordpress.com/about/ )

I caught up with Lucy and asked her to discuss what can social scientists learn about their sourrounding society by understanding comtenporary asylum conditions in Britain.

Blog editor Dr Roxana Barbulescu

RB: What are the main contributions this new books makes?

LM: The book starts from the observation that a shift has taken place in recent decades in which politicians and policymakers have stopped narrating asylum as a political and/or humanitarian phenomenon, and instead now narrate it as a primarily economic phenomenon. So people who are seeking asylum are commonly thought to be economic migrants in disguise, seeking to cheat asylum systems. The book explores the implications of this shift for asylum policy in the UK and shows how it leads to the purposeful impoverishment by the state of people who are seeking asylum. Empirically, the book focuses on three areas: government discourse (how politicians and policy makers imagine and narrate asylum as unwanted economic migration) and how this has led to a policy of purposeful impoverishment, civil society interventions which seek to ameliorate the worst effects of the policy regime, and the everyday experiences of people who are in receipt of asylum support and are therefore forced to live in poverty. The research as a whole is the culmination of a project that I have been doing since 2015 funded by the ESRC.

RB: When examining the situation in which asylum seekers live their lives you conceptualise this state deprivation as a form of ‘slow violence’. Could you tell me a bit more of why you interpret it as a form of violence and what is slow violence as opposed to violence suis generis?

LM: People who receive asylum support in the UK receive £37.75 per week which is supposed to cover all essential living needs. This is set in relation to what the poorest 10% of the British population spend on essential living items only, so it is about half of the weekly income of the poorest citizens and is puts such individuals below the poverty line. I conceptualise the asylum system as a form of slow violence because it allows me to draw a connection between very fast and immediate bodily violence, which we often see at state borders, and the way in which poverty and the social isolation produced through the asylum system is deeply harmful to bodies and minds, but that harm unfolds over long time horizons and becomes decoupled from any single individual perpetrator. I draw inspiration from Rob Nixon’s work in this area but I also situate this slow violence in longer histories, for example drawing on Robbie Shilliam’s work on race and the undeserving poor, and Achille Mbembe’s work on necropolitics as emerging from colonialism. So colonial ideas of racial difference are important here: It is the alleged economic motivation that casts people seeking asylum as undeserving of sanctuary, or indeed welfare. But it is their racialisation which makes the allegation seem plausible.

RB: Looking to the future, how could the situation be redressed and what role do simple citizens and civil society organisations have in bring about this change?

LM: People are always and already doing a lot. There are many charities and grass roots organisations supporting people who are going through, or have been through, the asylum system. With Poppy James I costed this work and found that £33 million is being spent every year on supporting people who have been impoverished in and through the asylum system. But the sector has lost £10million since 2010 in funding cuts. So I would say that on the one hand civil society is doing a huge amount to ameliorate the worst effects of the regime, but that this ameliorative effort is also probably separate to policy change. Only policy change can address the situation, even legal efforts have failed to make a significant impact. While in the present moment policy change seems far off on the horizon, charities such as Refugee Action continue to argue that, for example, people awaiting a decision on their asylum application, should be permitted to work. So ‘simple citizens’ can both contribute to ameliorative efforts (through volunteering or donating) and make the case to their MP (especially if they are Conservative) that making a group of people in society poor on purpose and making their lives as hard as possible, is probably not going to be good for society as whole. There is no evidence that welfare support acts as a ‘pull factor’ for ‘bogus’ claims, as politicians like to argue, this is a political decision and requires a political solution.

RB: Finally, what would be the main take out from your book if you were to address a person of a general public?

LM: Most people in Britain who have not been through the asylum system themselves will never meet someone who has, and very few people know or understand how the asylum system works. If a person from the general public unexpectedly read this obscure academic book I would like for them to take away a better understanding of how Britain treats people who are seeking asylum, that this is largely based on ‘common sense’ assumptions and not evidence, and that through unnecessary cruelty it devastates the lives of normal people who just want to get on with living as we all do. This isn’t about being kind or nice or charitable, it is about showing basic respect to other human beings and letting them get on with the rest of their lives.

RB: What would be the main take out from your book if you were to talk to a 10 year old?

LM: That we’re not showing basic respect to people who come here looking for safety and normality, but we could if we wanted to, so they should fight for that change.