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Why asylum seekers have only themselves to blame

Tony Blair yesterday said that his government needs to do more to tackle the issue of “failed asylum seekers”. As a phrase to describe people whose requests for asylum have been turned down, “failed asylum seekers” may at least be accounted an improvement on “bogus asylum seekers”, a term introduced by the Conservative government in the mid-1980s during controversy over the admission of Tamil Tigers, and later adopted enthusiastically by the incoming Labour government. According to the law’s presumption of innocence and what you might call a humane assumption of sincerity, there can be no such thing as a “bogus asylum seeker”: one is simply an asylum seeker until the point when one’s request has been granted or refused.

But the phrase “failed asylum seeker” is also doing some subtle Unspeak work. At first it might look like mere shorthand for what the Public Accounts Committee’s report calls “asylum seekers whose initial application to stay in the United Kingdom fails”. But in the construction “failed asylum seeker”, what has failed is not the application to stay in the UK, but the asylum seeker himself or herself. When we refer to a failed parliamentary candidate, or a failed musician, as it might be, we damn them with the odour of a kind of moral defeat. And so too with “failed asylum seekers”, who, one might be led to think, are failed people. Frankly, if their request for asylum has been turned down, it can only be their own fault.

Perhaps we might find this plausible if we had absolute faith in the justice of every decision to refuse asylum. However, given the remarkable fact that Jack Straw refused an Iraqi man’s asylum application in January 2001 on the grounds that he could be assured of a “fair trial” under Saddam’s regime, we might not have such faith. We might also remember that an initial judgment of “failure” may be reversed, as it is with the 20% of asylum refusals that are overturned on appeal . . .

Never mind, though; “failed asylum seekers” can only have themselves to blame. The phrase’s subtle redirection of responsibility, indeed, is a further refinement of the way “asylum seeker” replaced the old term “refugee”. It might have seemed that “refugee” placed too much emphasis on the persecution the individual was fleeing. “Asylum seeker”, on the other hand, concentrates on the demands they are making demands on us. We may still use the word “refugee” for those who are not likely to come here, such as the people displaced by the 2004 Asian tsunami; but as soon as they arrive on our shores they are incorrigible seekers.

It is worse even than that, of course. Because once we have determined that they are “failed asylum seekers”, we then face the problem of getting them out of the country. This is difficult because they are masters of disguise and dispersal: as shadow home secretary David Davis put it on the Today programme yesterday, they threaten to “disappear into the community” by “cutting off a tag and running away”. In their propensity to “disappear”, then, “failed asylum seekers” are not merely failed people, but a kind of faceless virus that threatens to infect us all: they are the enemy within who look confusingly like ordinary people, a bit like the Arctic scientists infected with an alien plague in John Carpenter’s horror film The Thing. David Davis and editorial writers on newspaper such as the Mail like to picture “disappearing into the community” as a threat; on the other hand, the threat is sometimes that we will be “swamped”, as David Blunkett famously once said.

Do not try to reconcile the two, by wondering how we might be swamped by invisible people. The threat will change daily as the demands of tougher-than-thou political rhetoric require. All you really need to remember is that it is their fault for being here, and failing, in the first place. 

  1. 1  SW  March 15, 2006, 2:22 pm 

    I am reminded of the one bumper sticker I have ever purchased for a car: “There is no such thing as an illegal human being.”

    What is particularly disturbing about the construct “failed asylum seeker” is that it reduces people to a nothingness. As you say, the term refers to the person himself or herself, although it does so only as somebody who wants something from “us” and has “failed” to make a convincing case that “we” should give it to him or her. And so, as you say, yes, they have failed; not us. But a failed politician remains a politician, just not an elected one (and many a failed politician has become a successful one – think Nixon and Lincoln for two failed Republicans who eventually won a big election); a failed musician can still presumably strum Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, just not very well. If you are a “failed asylym seeker”, you are nothing more than somebody on a quest whose quest has failed. Nothing. No professional identity, no ethnic identity, no political or social status (other than as somebody who requested a political or social status and has been denied it), and certainly, as you point out, no reference to the circumstances that resulted in seeking asylum. There is nothing to latch onto; hence the ease with which a case can be made that they are “invisible” and will “disappear”. It would be somewhat more considerate to call the person a “failed refugee”, nasty as that is. The point is this: by appending “illegal” to “human being” as opposed to “immigrant”, the bumper sticker changed the perspective and showed how “illegal immigrant” was, dare I say it, “unspeaking” the humanity of the person; the use of “asylum seeker” specifically allows the convenient modifier “failed” that “refugee” or “human being” does not.

    How does one “damn somebody with an odour”? It sounds rather revolting.

  2. 2  Steven Poole  March 15, 2006, 3:46 pm 

    As it happens, many politicians in Ireland refer to the “illegal immigrants” in that country with the spectacular Unspeak phrase “non-nationals”. The people in question are, of course, nationals of somewhere; but “non-nationals” concentrates on the fact that they are not one of “us” – and then goes even further, to imply that they don’t even belong anywhere in the club of nations. Essentially, non-people.

    A damning odour, I imagine, might smell something like goat’s cheese.

  3. 3  SW  March 15, 2006, 5:01 pm 

    Ah, I see. I had rather imagined that Jack Straw got into a lift with a group of refugees and, as soon as the doors closed, farted energetically. Hence, damning them with an odour.

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