I would build… a humane asylum system

Dr. Victoria Canning
Thursday, 2 July 2015

There are arguably two key aspects to the criminalisation of people seeking asylum:

  • the use of criminal justice practices in responding to applicants;
  • and, the processes and practices by which people are treated or deemed punishable (Stumpf, 2006).

The former is perhaps the most easily recognised and controversial – the expansion of the immigration detention complex, and the increased use of indefinite custodial sentences for asylum seekers, economic migrants and foreign nationals more generally.

Since the early 1990s, the number of places in Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) has gone from around 250 to over 3000. In any given year, 30,000 people pass through IRCs in the UK (Girma et al, 2014).

The broader picture of seeking asylum is, however, arguably just as contentious and confining. The everyday experiences of asylum seekers are relentlessly intertwined with the criminal justice system and the widening net of criminal justice practices.

Asylum seekers face many social sanctions that mirror criminal justice: formal and informal surveillance strategies, monthly or bi-monthly signings at the Home Office, biometric identification, electronic tagging, dispersal patterns that mirror semi-penal strategies. This echoes the wider landscape of state responses to refugees, as Dauvergne points out,

‘Criminalisation of asylum seeking has been in train since the 1990s and is apparent in provisions such as safe third country agreements, carrier sanctions, visa requirements, safe country of origin requirements, restricted access to welfare benefits, and the imposition of ‘eligibility’ provisions as a precondition of access to domestic asylum systems’, (2013:76).

Seeking asylum is often a long and restrictive process. Time is a precarious entity: anxiously awaiting an asylum decision, unsure if you might be dispersed, always aware of the threat of detention or deportation.

Simultaneously, people are regulated in terms of their place in society. For example, most people seeking asylum are denied the right to work, a decision taken in 2000 supposedly to deter people moving to the UK for work purposes. Ironically of course, this has left people state dependent and thus made way for public discourse to focus on ‘welfare tourism’.

Keeping the focus on work and state dependency, this denial leaves many asylum seekers with one of two choices. The first is to live in poverty, bordering for many on destitution. Single asylum seekers currently receive around £36 per week which includes spends on travel, clothes, toiletries and food.

In 2013, Freedom from Torture undertook research with 85 survivors of torture who were seeking asylum in the UK. They found that more than half of the respondents were never or not often able to buy enough food that was able to reach acceptable standards of nutrition; 53% were never or not often able to buy clothes to keep warm or clean; more than half were never or not often able to buy medical necessities, such as over the counter pain-relief, sanitary towels or nappies (Freedom From Torture, 2013).

The second and obvious alternative to state dependency is to work illegally, a precarious option which leaves people vulnerable to exploitative employment conditions (see Burnett and Whyte, 2010) or, once again, criminalisation. For people seeking asylum working illegally, outcomes can even include imprisonment with the potential for deportation. Imprisonment and asylum detention thus remain contentious issues: the recognition of the harms of incarceration are well established and include the potential for depression, self-harm, suicidality, loss of support networks during detention and after release… The list goes on, and yet so does detention.

So, to get back to the original question, what would I build? I would build an asylum system that did not resemble the criminal justice system. I would build a system where indefinite detention – or any detention – did not exist in the context of Immigration Removal Centres. In this system, people would not be socially othered: left impoverished and forced to live in conditions of state dependency with all the political stigma that comes with it.

Instead, people awaiting asylum outcomes would have the right to work, to sustain themselves financially but also, perhaps just as importantly, to take part in aspects of society that are currently closed to them and which force restrictions on practically all aspects of women’s and men’s lives. People would be treated for who and what they are – people.

It’s time we took stock of our approach to humanity, and pulled back the punitive arm of criminal justice in responding to survivors of violence, economic harm and persecution.


Burnett, J. and Whyte, D. (2010) The Wages of Fear: Risk, Safety and Undocumented Work, Leeds: PAFRAS

Dauvergne C. (2013) The Troublesome Intersections of Refugee Law and Criminal Law in Aas, K. F. and Bosworth, M. (eds.) The Borders of Punishment: Migration, Citizenship and Social Exclusion, Oxford: Oxford University Press 

Freedom from Torture (2013) The Poverty Barrier: The Right to Rehabilitation for Torture Survivors in the UK available at  last accessed 31/03/2015

Girma, M., Radice, S., Tsangarides, N. and Walter, N. (2014) Detained: Women Asylum Seekers Locked Up in the UK, London: Women for Refugee Women

Stumpf, J. (2006) The Crimmigration Crisis: Immigrants, Crime and Sovereign Power American University Law Review Vol. 52, No. 2: 367-419

Waugh, P. (2000) Asylum Seekers Lose the Right to Work, The Independent, available at  last accessed 26/06/2015

As part of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies' Justice Matters initiative we are inviting submissions to the 'I would build...' series. We want people to tell us their ideas and thoughts on how to build alternatives and transform society so that criminal justice institutions as they currently exist are no longer necessary. Email us with your ideas.