Asylum seeking is now widely construed as a primarily economic rather than political phenomenon. Lucy Mayblin explores how the ‘pull’ factor of economic migration is exaggerated in the British context, and unpicks some of the myths behind it.
Since the early 1990s asylum policy in wealthy states, particularly in Europe, has become increasingly dominated by the concept of the ‘pull factor’. That is, the idea that the policy context on asylum in a particular country can act as a migratory pull, and will therefore have a bearing on the numbers of applications for asylum received.
Economic pull factors have been a particular focus of attention, as the assumption that many asylum seekers are not real refugees but are instead economic migrants has become mainstream. This idea is underpinned by the assumption that asylum seekers are rational economic actors who are able to execute their migration plans relatively straightforwardly unless national governments step in with policy interventions to both physically stop them moving, but also importantly to disincentivise migration. As the numbers of asylum applications from non-Europeans increased at the end of the twentieth century, these sorts of assumptions around asylum seekers not being ‘genuine’ or as deserving as those in the past, have become ever more popular.
However, focus has been on the ‘problem’ of reception rather than of population displacement. Indeed, the asylum system in many wealthy countries has been construed as under threat from economic migrants in search of financial opportunities in the form of welfare and/or work. Under this rationale, policies which significantly restrict the economic rights of asylum seekers should take away the pull and decrease the numbers of applications made. The upshot of this for asylum seekers in the UK, where my research is focused, is that almost none have the right to enter the labour market, making them dependent on welfare payments called ‘asylum support’. Asylum support in the UK is set at around 50% of Job Seekers Allowance –the welfare benefit paid to unemployed citizens. Job Seekers Allowance is already not generous; the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for example has been arguing in recent years that it is too low to keep people out of poverty at just 40% of the minimum income standard.
But of course this isn’t just a problem for asylum seekers, who as a consequence of living in poverty (on top often of having experienced persecution in countries of origin), commonly experience severe mental and physical health problems, high infant and maternal mortality rates, hunger, and struggle to access legal support. This is a problem for us all because people living in this kind of poverty is bad for society.
At the University of Warwick we have calculated that in total, asylum support cost the Home Office £234 million in 2014-15. We have also calculated that the cost associated with reducing poverty among asylum seekers by increasing asylum support would be low. Currently, asylum support is capped at approximately 50 per cent of the income support rate. If asylum seekers were entitled to 70% of the income support rate, the level required to meet basic living standards as judged by the JRF, the asylum support bill would increase by £4.7 million. If asylum seekers were entitled to the full level of income support, the cost would increase by £11.7 million. When set within the context of a £146 billion welfare bill these figures appear relatively low.
But it also costs third sector and civil society organisations who support asylum seekers. We have calculated that charities spent £13 million in 2014 supporting asylum seekers. This is a massive underestimation, however, as it does not include the spend of religious organisations, or very small organisations, who do not have to submit their accounts to the Charity Commission whose data we used in making this initial calculation. Indeed, the policy also incurs indirect costs to the state in health services and other support measures which people living in poverty are more likely to need.
In short, it wouldn’t cost the treasury very much to lift asylum seekers out of poverty, and that firefighting role of third sector organisations could be reduced so they could focus on integration support, legal advice etc. But as we know, impoverishing asylum seekers is the policy aim, because welfare and work attract disingenuous asylum applicants to the UK.
When we conducted a systematic review of the evidence base for the economic pull argument, we found that despite there being a lot of research in to why asylum seekers choose one country over another, not one study has found a causal link between welfare and work policies and numbers of asylum seekers. The policy rationale, repeated in parliament and press statements over and over again for two decades, is based on nothing.
And in part it is not backed up by evidence because using large scale datasets and attempting to show correlations between numbers of asylum seekers and particular policy interventions in particular countries at particular points in time is not possible. Forced migration isn’t necessarily a complicated phenomenon, made up of many solvable parts, it is a complex phenomenon with high degrees of contingency and uncertainty. We are talking about people from a range of countries, ethnicities, languages, religions, education levels, genders, ages, sexualities, access to resources being forcibly displaced for many reasons in many country contexts; and they are usually making journeys with imperfect information, changing migration plans on the way, encountering other migrants, humanitarian actors, border guards, media personnel, and smugglers, who change things for them in various ways. It is just extremely complex and importantly ever changing, and that complexity cannot necessarily be solved by suggesting that would-be asylum applicants in general migrate from A to B because of variable X.
But it’s in research interviews with policymakers and politicians where we really get to the heart of this because civil servants -policy advisors who have worked in the Home Office- tell me they know there is no evidence for the economic pull factor. To put it very briefly, they explain that though there is no research evidence to support the policy, they have a clear steer from the Home Secretary (speaking here of successive Home Secretaries since 2002) about appropriate policy approaches. Appropriate policy approaches are those that will be well received by the public, not those that are grounded in research evidence. What this really means is that through building up my own body of research evidence (discourse data, interviews, systematic review, statistics) I now know that asylum policy is based not necessarily on what works, but on what the Home Secretary perceives the public to favour. In this case, the public are perceived to favour the impoverishment of asylum seekers.
But what the public favours has to be based on highly simplified analyses of extremely complex phenomena because the general public does not contain many people who are experts on forced migration, or who have ever met an asylum seeker or a refugee. And, as I noted earlier, the existence of people wanting to seek asylum is not something that can be necessarily solved using national level policy measures, and policies around welfare and work are not significant in determining destination choice. It is likely that asylum policy will always be based on simplified analyses of public opinion. This may accord with democratic principles, but the continued erosion of the rights of forced migrants undermines the claim that human rights are a core British value, and we may find that the erosion of fundamental values for those on the margins of society is bad for us all.
Note: This blog is based on the author’s recent article in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.
Lucy Mayblin is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick.