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Refugees and Health: Part 1

With the recent news that 52% of the UK voted for a Brexit, and the increased interest around immigration in the UK, for the next two weeks, we at MedSin are going to focus on a particular class of immigrants - refugees. This week we will be deconstructing the myths surrounding asylum in the UK.


So let’s start with Myth 1: A refugee is the same as an asylum seeker

This is a frequent misconception. The truth is that an asylum seeker is not the same as a refugee.  A refugee is someone who may be fleeing from unrest and persecution, and has hadtheir claim for asylum accepted by the government, while an asylum seeker is someone who has left their country of origin and has formally applied for asylum in another country. 

As a result, a refugee would not be supported financially, but is eligible to work and obtain benefits. An asylum seeker may be supported financially (up to 70% of income support) and would be housed, but would not be able to work. Understanding these differences is important before we look at other myths surrounding asylum seekers.


Myth 2: Asylum seekers come to the UK to claim benefits

Much of the general public think that immigrants are attracted to the UK’s “soft touch”, but this could not be further from the truth.

Various studies, such as Koser’s (1997) study of Iranians who went to seek asylum in the Netherlands, have suggested that many refugees choose their destination based on the situations they face having fled their homes as refugees, and are not determined by their ‘ideals’ they think will be present in their country of destination. This particular study showed how these refugees paid agents to get to Europe, and did not know until they got to Western Europe where their final destination would be.

For the third of people who did want to go specifically to the UK, reasons cited are often the presence of existing family members and the ability to use an existing visa, meaning it would be cheaper to come over to the UK. These reasons are important when thinking about how to help refugees and when considering existing immigration levels.


And finally Myth 3: Asylum seekers are living comfortably in the UK

This is a statement often said by policy makers and politicians for various campaigns. But just how true is this? 

The Children’s Society Briefing highlighting the gap between asylum support and mainstream benefits (2012) and the Independent Asylum Commission citizens’ inquiry in The Independent have looked into this. They found that most asylum seekers live in poverty and experience poor health and hunger, not being able to pay for the basics such as clothing, powdered milk and nappies. 

As asylum seekers are not allowed to work, they are forced to rely on state support (which can start from £5 a day to live on). For example, one single parent with a 16-year-old child could receive £83.74 per week, a third of what would be needed to be pulled out of poverty. In addition, asylum seeking women who are destitute are vulnerable to violence in the UK - with a fifth of women accessing our services having experienced sexual violence, this is a scary reality for many, and something which needs to be addressed.


So as we’ve seen, these myths about refugees can be dangerous. By tackling them, and looking at their complex health needs in more detail, we can create a better environment for these vulnerable members of society. So join us next week when we look at refugees and their health needs, and what exactly we can do about it!

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