Reluctant Refuge: The Story of Asylum in Britain

October 16, 2008

In Reluctant Refuge, Edie Friedman and Reva Klein seek to provide an argument, accessible to the general populace, for an end to the dehumanisation of refugees and the negative rhetoric about asylum emerging from politicians and the media. The parallels between the experiences of, and attitudes towards, forced migrants of the past and present are used to dispel the myth of Britain as a humane country and to argue that to reclaim our national narrative of humanity we need a much more positive and constructive approach to dealing with refugees.

The book is presented in eight chapters with an additional section on the concept of asylum that sets out current thinking by theorists and non-theorists around the politics of asylum.

The first three chapters explore, in a largely descriptive fashion, the main refugee flows to Britain. The flight and the reception experiences of Huguenot, Jewish, Somali, Ugandan and Roma refugees are described. The role of the media and politicians in fuelling moral panic about the impact of forced migration on labour markets, resources and national identity is examined in some detail. Using a range of different sources the authors demonstrate how racism underpinned reactions to refugees even throughout the Second World War. Tensions between old and new migrant communities, the pressure to assimilate and the alleged need to restrict refugee numbers to prevent the rise of racism, all echo present-day debates around community cohesion and migration.

A chapter on claiming asylum in the UK sets out the context to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. Key points of the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004 are paired with responses from the Refugee Council to highlight the unreasonable nature of legislation. In this chapter, the authors begin to construct an argument, largely absent from the previous descriptive chapters, indicating the ways in which asylum seekers have been unfairly criminalised.

The following chapter on asylum experiences shows how deterrence has replaced protection and forced migrants into ever-more desperate, and illegal, means of escape. Stories of detention, destitution and social exclusion, and the mistreatment of children dispel myths about the preferential treatment of asylum seekers and refugees and highlight instead the inhumane dealings of many of those in need of protection.

The penultimate chapter focuses on the media and public opinion. This chapter brings together data including verbatim personal stories, policy, media excerpts, survey material and the opinions of experts to explore the ways in which media influence public opinion.

The book ends with a conclusion pulling together the main links between previous and current experience, arguing that the "unrestrained scapegoating of the other in general and asylum seekers, in particular echoes the anti-foreigner mindset against the Jews, Chinese and Germany in the early years of the 20th century". The impact of Islamophobia on those seeking asylum is also explored before arguments are made to replace deterrence with protection through the reimaging of the refugee experience, and a change to a positive approach to human rights while addressing the underlying causes of asylum.

Part polemic, part history, this book will contribute to understanding of the story of asylum in Britain for those unfamiliar with asylum law and policy. While it would benefit from a stronger argument linking the descriptive and policy chapters, it enhances understanding around the issue of asylum in a very accessible way. The use of verbatim personal stories, although sometimes at odd points within the narrative, serves as a powerful tool to bring the human elements of asylum, so often concealed by numbers and rhetoric, to the fore.

Reluctant Refuge will provide a useful antidote to the hype more commonly associated with forced migration, and would usefully be deployed in high schools and libraries across the UK.

Reluctant Refuge: The Story of Asylum in Britain

By Edie Friedman and Reva Klein

British Library, 148pp, £14.95

ISBN 9780712308878

Published 10 June 2008

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