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Sophia Rainbird *


This paper explores the way in which service providers in East Anglia,
a region of the United Kingdom, in 2002 2003 represent asylum
seekers as problematic, isolated, and largely vulnerable dependents. In
doing so, support organizations assume an exclusive position of
expertise and knowledge of asylum seekers predicaments. This
exclusivity can be understood as the official explanation [Spivak,
G. C. (1987) In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, Methuen,
New York/London, p. 114] put forth by organizations in order to
ensure that they maintain a degree of influence in government policy,
as well as to ensure a competitive edge in the arena of service
provision, and to lobby and advocate the needs of asylum seekers.
This paper explores the paradox of an organized system of support
that works to assist asylum seekers to be independent and yet in
doing so represents asylum seekers as dependent and excludes them
from decision-making processes. However, by considering asylum
seekers speech-acts, we can recognize that what they talk about is in
itself a strategy employed to push the boundaries of their
predicament and to negotiate a possible future. In doing so, the
development of an active dialogue between asylum seekers and the
services that assist them can be considered.

*Address for correspondence: Sophia Rainbird, School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy,
University of South Australia, GPO Box 2471, Adelaide, 5001 South Australia, Australia;
email: sophia.rainbird@unisa.edu.au
Community Development Journal Vol 47 No 3 July 2012 pp. 405422


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Asylum seeker vulnerability:

the official explanation of
service providers and the
emotive responses of asylum


Sophia Rainbird


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This paper is based on fieldwork undertaken in 20022003 in East Anglia, a

rural region of the United Kingdom containing a predominantly AngloSaxon population. In November of 1997, over forty asylum seekers were
sent by the city of Westminster to Great Yarmouth in East Anglia in order
to relieve the strain on services in this London borough (Norwich and
Norfolk Racial Equality Council, 1998). Then, in 2000, the British Government, through NASS (National Asylum Support Service), initiated
another dispersal programme. Asylum seekers were dispersed to areas
throughout the United Kingdom, including East Anglia, where accommodation was more readily available, and access to services could be localized
(see, for instance, Robinson, Andersson and Musterd, 2003; Zetter, Griffiths
and Sigona, 2005; Hynes, 2009). In doing so, many asylum seekers were dispersed to parts of the country which were not in close proximity to the supportive networks of their own ethnic communities (Zetter, Griffiths and
Sigona, 2005). Additionally, the ethnic diversity of asylum seekers arriving
into East Anglia meant that there were not the numbers to form any substantial ethnic communities. This is an important point, as asylum
seekers arriving in East Anglia are increasingly socially and geographically
isolated where they do not have access to members of their own ethnic community who may also share the experience of seeking asylum and may have
played a mentoring role to newly arrived asylum seekers. At this point in
time, these networks of support were unavailable to asylum seekers in
East Anglia.
It is within this context that the needs of asylum seekers are addressed by
service providers, many of whom have grassroots beginnings, or are charitable or local government services who have adapted their services in
response to the increasing numbers of new arrivals. The purpose of this
paper is 2-fold: first, to explore how these services represent themselves
as holders of knowledge and expertise about asylum seekers and how
this knowledge is utilized; second, to explore the agency evident in
asylum seekers speech-acts as they await an outcome to their application
for refugee status. Speech-acts is a term derived from the work of
Austin (1962) and Searle (1969) that applies to different modes of expression
that both asylum seekers and service providers employ, including accounts
of conversations held amongst service provider representatives, between
asylum seekers, conversations recorded between service providers and
asylum seekers, monologues consisting of a long uninterrupted form of
speech with no expectation for the listener to comment, and stories recounting events. These varied modes of expression have been recorded in this
study and some are presented in this paper.

Asylum seeker vulnerability


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In representing asylum seekers as vulnerable and problematic, the

support organizations assume an exclusive position of expertise and knowledge of asylum seekers predicaments. This exclusivity can be understood
as the official explanation (Spivak, 1987, p. 114). The official explanation
is put forth by organizations in order to ensure that they maintain a
degree of influence in government policy, as well as to ensure a competitive
edge in the arena of service provision and that they can lobby and advocate
the needs of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers may be incorporated into this
process only to the extent that they might aid in its reproduction and consistency. That is, asylum seekers understand the politics of presenting to an
organization as vulnerable and isolated. Thus, support organizations
represent asylum seekers as dependent on their support in order to
survive, and in doing so rationalize and ensure their own sustainability.
Sustainability does much to perpetuate social exclusion of asylum
seekers. Knowledge about asylum seekers situation is controlled and regulated; this is evident in debates as to whether asylum seekers should be considered dependent or independent. This paper explores the paradox of an
organized system of support that works to assist asylum seekers to be independent and yet in doing so excludes asylum seekers from decision-making
processes, assuming knowledge and perpetuating isolation.
It is vital to recognize that asylum seekers are not solely the vulnerable
recipients of aid in Britain. Rather, asylum seekers actively respond to a
stereotype that may prove to assist them throughout their predicament.
Equally, support organizations are dependent upon the engagement and
response of asylum seekers to their knowledge base in order to build an
official explanation that will ensure their own sustainability. In saying
this, I do not discount philanthropic motives of individuals working for
asylum seeker support organizations, but instead point to the broader
context of these organizations sustainability as well as their political and
moral role in this historical juncture.
Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted through participation with
service providers in a voluntary capacity. This work involved a volunteer
case worker role with two grassroots asylum seeker support organizations
and an internship with the Refugee Council. The internship role involved
research for a needs analysis of services supporting asylum seekers in preparation for the first NASS dispersed into East Anglia and allowed me to
work closely with a multi-agency in the region.
Participant observation was carried out at a drop-in centre for asylum
seekers in the towns of Great Yarmouth and Peterborough. Interviews
were carried out at a later stage in informants homes in East Anglia
as well as in London. Many of the informants had been in Britain for
at least three years, and had a good grasp of English. Considering the


Sophia Rainbird

Dependency theory originates from the field of economics and is now
largely applied within the field of development studies in order to refer
to, for instance, the treatment of refugees in the refugee camp setting. The
term dependency syndrome refers to social behaviour in the refugee
camp context. Horst describes dependency syndrome as:
[. . .] the provision of assistance [. . .] on external aid [. . .] when refugees
accept handouts without taking any initiatives to attain self-sufficiency.
The syndrome is characterized by symptoms of excessive and
unreasonable demands, frequent complaints, passivity and lethargy.
(Horst, 2001, p. 9)

Dependency syndrome, Harrell-Bond (1986) argues, is referred to by

the support organizations in explaining group behaviours, and in
doing they ignore personal and individual experiences and needs.
Harrell-Bond (1986) and Knudsen (1991) point out that dependency is
encouraged by the support organizations themselves because of the
way they depict refugees as a vulnerable commodity. Knudsen suggests

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numerous different language groups amongst asylum seekers in East

Anglia, it would have been very difficult to choose one language to
attempt to engage with. To my benefit at least, English was the common
language spoken.
The asylum seeker informants in this study originate from a number
of different countries, including Iraq, Iran, Kenya, Albania, Guinea
Bissau, Armenia and Kosovo, Congo, Lebanon, Senegal. Of the thirtyseven informants, eight are couples with children, while seven asylum
seekers have children but have been either widowed or have lost
contact with their partner. Fifteen of the thirty-seven asylum seekers
are single, having arrived in Britain independently. All of the asylum
seekers in this study are aged between eighteen and thirty-five and
are at various points in the immigration process, from waiting for a
decision to appealing against a negative decision. The majority of
these asylum seekers had been smuggled into the country without the
required visa documents.
As a researcher, I had access to both camps; I was able to not only observe
the multi-agency meetings in which asylum seekers needs were discussed,
I was also able to observe the interactions between asylum seekers and
service providers. And I was also able to develop relationships with
asylum seekers that granted me an insight into their perspective and
positioning within the support system.

Asylum seeker vulnerability


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that organizations treat a refugee as a stereotype rather than in response

to the persons real self (1991, p. 35). In doing so, the refugee subscribes to the stereotypical notion that the support organization wishes
to promote, such as poor and vulnerable, in order to receive assistance
(Shepler, 2005, p. 203).
The production of vulnerability has consequences that are 2-fold. On the
one hand, the perceived vulnerability of asylum seekers justifies interventions by support organizations (Stewart, 2005, p. 499). On the other hand,
the perceived vulnerability of asylum seekers provides an ideal context in
which they can be easily commodified (Dos Santos, 1971, p. 226). Commodification involves the reauthentication into the right way of being an
asylum seeker (Lao-Montes and Arlene, 2001, p. 418). In other words,
organizations are able to put forward a generalizable account of asylum
seeker vulnerability and by presenting asylum seekers as such, they
become a commodity in need of a particular form of intervention and
support which the service providers have promoted as being their area of
Playing the ideal asylum seeker is very much understood by asylum
seekers themselves. In a humorous moment, Mr Z, an asylum seeker originally from Iran, who was in the process of moving from one housing
location to another, reflected on this point. He said that he and his family
looked like refugees with all their possessions with them and not
knowing where they were going: he joked all we need now is a blanket
around us. However, Mr Z and his family required the intervention of
support organization in assisting them to find accommodation and to transport them. Therefore, it was necessary to be perceived as vulnerable and in
need of assistance.
Asylum seekers are inadvertently drawn into this process of commodification, becoming a standardized product from which government funding
can be obtained. The commodification of asylum seekers by support organizations is one way in which further funding can be sought, pressure can be
put on both domestic and international political agendas and asylum seeker
issues can be lobbied further (Rajaram, 2002, p. 263). For example, support
workers highlighted the issue of increasing incidents of racism in Norfolk.
In providing numbers of these incidents, they were able to produce an argument that asylum seekers were at risk in the wider community. They were
therefore successful in acquiring funding to promote equality in schools
(Multi-Agency Meeting, 2003). Consequently, an emphasis on asylum
seeker vulnerability provides support organizations with an authoritative
position from which they can commodify asylum seekers to further
ensure their stake in the asylum seeker industry.


Sophia Rainbird

The official explanation

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In presenting asylum seekers as vulnerable, as described by dependency

theory, the support organizations assume an exclusive position of expertise
and knowledge of asylum seekers predicaments. This exclusivity can be
understood as the official explanation adapted from Spivak (1987).
I argue that the official explanation is put forth by organizations in order
to ensure that they maintain a degree of influence in government policy, as
well as to ensure a competitive edge in the arena of service provision. At the
same time, the official explanation and position of expertise allows support
workers to lobby and advocate the needs of asylum seekers. Asylum
seekers may be incorporated into this process only to the extent that they
might aid in its reproduction and consistency. The official explanation not
only gives a greater understanding of the complexity of the relationship
of dependency between asylum seekers and support organizations, it also
provides a deeper insight to the notion of sustainability.
Here, my intention is not to discredit the dedication and commitment of
support workers. In fact, the majority of support workers have entered the
asylum support industry as a personal commitment to supporting those
struggling to find a safe haven in Britain. From my observations in the
field, these people work within a highly stressful, outcome-based and
greatly under-resourced environment. What I am trying to do, however,
is to highlight the dependency structure of asylum seeker support in the
organizations that I came across in East Anglia. It is in building and applying these structures of intervention and support that issues of sustainability,
vulnerability and commodification inadvertently arise.
So, just how is the official explanation evident within the asylum seeker
support industry? Multi-agencies were facilitated by national bodies such
as the Refugee Council who helped to promote partnerships between
local public, private and voluntary agencies. Most support organizations,
such as the Refugee Council, play a large role in defending the rights of
asylum seekers by lobbying the government. However, the government is
able to restrict the force of their power to a great extent by contracting
them to provide government-funded services to asylum seekers (Fisher,
1997, p. 451). Consequently, at times, the type of relationship that a
support organization has with the government may dictate the extent to
which asylum seekers are referred to as dependent or independent. This
is because the official explanation is also greatly influenced by the issue
of sustainability. During my fieldwork, the conflation of asylum seekers
needs with the sustainability of support organizations inadvertently
became a point of contention during a multi-agency meeting amongst
support organizations in East Anglia.

Asylum seeker vulnerability


Charity representa- Asylum seekers need to feel empowered and to do

things for themselves. People need some of their independence back.
CS representative: But the reality is asylum seekers have no idea where
to go therefore they need clear direction.
Charity representa- Its about personal choice widening the scope a little
College representa- Yes, asylum seekers need as much information as
CS representative: We provide our own information to asylum seekers
otherwise if there are others available we lose total
control. It undoes what were doing. (Multi-Agency
Meeting, 2003)
The above conversation draws attention to the importance that support
workers place on retaining control of information and its provision.
Despite their disagreements, this debate reveals the official explanation as
espoused by the support organizations: that asylum seekers need information, and that there should be defined and delineated ways of providing
it. In sum, it is the support organizations who determine the asylum
seekers access to information. Negotiations surrounding empowerment
are largely within and amongst the support industry and have no input
from asylum seekers themselves, hence their dependency. In order to maintain this relationship of dependency, the dissemination of information

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A representative of the Refugee Council came to the multi-agency

meeting to discuss a leaflet which listed all East Anglian support organizations in health, education, and so forth. He was preparing this information
to give to newly arrived asylum seekers and wanted to confirm that the
members of multi-agency were in agreement with his list. At first, the
response was positive, but then it became quite a heated debate. CS, a
private housing company, had secured the Home Office contract to
organize housing for dispersed asylum seekers in East Anglia. CS had provided their own information pack to new asylum seekers who were being
dispersed directly into their care, and were determined that they would
be the sole provider of such information.
A local charity representative reminded the group that there were
seventy-six asylum seekers arriving in East Anglia per week and not all
of these people were being dispersed by the government. In other words,
he argued that there were different avenues for arrival and consequently
CS did not have a monopoly over them. The conversation continued:


Sophia Rainbird

within the support industry must then be carefully managed. If information

becomes too freely available amongst organizations, then there is the possibility that they could lose their stake hold. Consequently, at the same time as
providing an explanation as to the needs of asylum seekers, the workers
also must maintain their own needs to ensure their sustainability. As one
support worker succinctly explained to me:
Survival is also important for organisations. They [the methods of
assistance] cant work or there will be no work. (Anonymous, asylum
seeker support worker, 2003)

Selective consultation
It could be argued that one exception to the representation of asylum seeker
vulnerability is the consultation that is often sought with asylum seekers.
However, I argue that more often than not, asylum seekers are only consulted when their input will reinforce the official explanation. In this
case, the notion of the official explanation is reinforced and therefore inadvertently further represents asylum seekers as dependent. The decision of
whether or not to consult is often made on behalf of asylum seekers. This
selective consultative approach is bound by the official explanation.
At the time of my fieldwork, few asylum seekers and refugees played an
active role within the support industry in East Anglia. However, there were
some organizations who may rely on asylum seekers in consultative roles.
It is through selective consultation that some asylum seekers are included.
Mr X is one of these people who became a member of the board of directors
at an asylum seeker support organization after playing a consultative role.
I noted in my field diary his explanation of why he was consulted:
Mr X was telling me that he is going to the community cohesion
conference in June and that he had been to the one last year and that it was
really good. He says that he goes to the police constabulary meeting every
so often and they ask his opinion about different issues. He also said that
he had been to a meeting with Mr D and a government minister. He told

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This comment highlights the underlying issue of sustainability. Various

support organizations sustainability depends on asylum seekers being problematic, and on maintaining control of the official explanation of the issues
and how they should be addressed. This is not to say that methods of assistance are sabotaged by the workers and their organizations. In fact, resources
are so far stretched that it is often impossible for support programmes to
function to their full potential. Reliant on government funding, these organizations are constituted largely on the problems and difficulties of asylum
seekers and also on the success of the assistance which they provide.

Asylum seeker vulnerability


me that he has also been invited to give a talk at a housing conference held
in Norwich by the council. Mr X says that he has got a lot out of it. He has
gained much more confidence and the ability to speak in front of people.
He said that once he asked Mr D why he takes him and not Mr A. Mr D
said that it was because Mr A was too political and wanted to relate his
experiences to the asylum system, Blair and the government, whereas
people just want to know about the life of an asylum seeker, and this is
what he saw himself as offering.

I am really concerned about consulting. You know that this was one of the
findings of the Fleming report! You cant expect to ask asylum seekers
their opinions about things that would probably not even make any sense
to them and they wouldnt necessarily understand. You have to remember
that asylum seekers have been interrogated by immigration, they are
frightened and vulnerable, and consultation would be just as bad.

This quote clearly shows the difficulty that support workers have in combining the representation of the vulnerable asylum seeker with the
empowered asylum seeker. Ultimately, the worker makes the decision
on behalf of those asylum seekers who they consider to not have the adequate knowledge and confidence.
It could be argued that this discussion about consulting asylum seekers is
reminiscent of an Occidentalist perspective of the other (Said, 1978), in
that the support organizations determine what can be said or done about
asylum seekers. Support organizations make statements about asylum
seekers, authorizing views about asylum seekers, describing asylum
seekers, teaching asylum seekers, and settling asylum seekers (Said,

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Although Mr X was satisfied with his consultative role, what he told me

highlights the strategic selection process to find suitable asylum seekers
with whom to consult. If Mr A had been consulted, his voice would have
diverged from the intended outcome of the consultation process. Therefore,
those who are consulted have often been strategically chosen, in that they
are not politically motivated and can convey their experiences in relation
to the official explanation.
The notion of dependent asylum seekers, and the mandate of support
organizations to empower them, contributes to the question of whether or
not to consult. Generally, supporting organizations are concerned about
taking advantage of vulnerable asylum seekers. Ironically, the decision of
whether or not to consult is made without consulting in the first place.
Thus, often decisions are made on behalf of asylum seekers.
An example of this is evident in a multi-agency meeting when the
question of consultation was raised. The chair voiced concerns about
consultation and argued:


Sophia Rainbird

[. . .] to date, within the East of England, it [integration] has been a

haphazard process from which refugees themselves have been largely
excluded, despite the growing focus on social inclusion that is stressed by
policymakers. (Fleming, 2003, p. 5)

It seems that the Guild report finds that social exclusion is recognized as a
major issue. In order to address a problem such as isolation, organizations
often approach consultation as a way of reinforcing what they already perceive to be a foregone conclusion. In fact, this comment was made to me by
one worker during the gathering of data for the needs analysis that was
commissioned by the multi-agency: I already know what the findings
will be. As Arce and Fisher (2003) point out, much of the information gathered from participants is often done with the outcome already in mind.
The only way for asylum seekers to take part in such discussions is to
bring them into this sphere under their own terms, conditions, and
perspective. Consequently, it seems that consultation is the key factor in
recognizing and therefore addressing issues such as isolation and
support. And yet, if consultation is not incorporated as a knowledge
component for the official explanation, then isolation is not addressed.

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1978). The rhetoric that I witnessed stemming from many of the support
workers was authoritative and represented asylum seekers as a singular
homogenized ethnic grouping, whereby we had to decide how they
would be kept, approached, included/excluded. Even talk about how to
include asylum seekers via a reference group was determined during
such meetings according to whether it was feasible, necessary, possible,
or allowable.
However, my point here is that the issue for asylum seekers is not primarily the sphere of rhetoric, language, or action about asylum seekers, but the
relative powerlessness of the recipient vis-a`-vis the helper (Harrell-Bond,
1999, p. 3). Or, to be precise, it is about the positioning of the asylum seeker
vis-a`-vis the official explanation, which has repercussions for asylum
seekers access to networks of support.
While the discussion with the steering group was taking place, isolation
was increasing and was fast becoming the major problem amongst asylum
seekers entering East Anglia. Asylum seekers were to a great extent dependent on a network of support in order to navigate their way into an asylum
seeker community. Through consultation with asylum seekers, support
organizations identified social inclusion and integration as the solution to
isolation. However, social inclusion and isolation were not necessarily
addressed. This was the finding of the Fleming report:

Asylum seeker vulnerability


The silent voice?

(1) The illusion about the West;

(2) Culture shock;
(3) Confusion;

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Asylum seekers are not merely an oppressed minority, rather, they do not
have a fit within the hegemonic discourse the official explanation of
asylum seekers as espoused by support organizations. Asylum seekers
cannot speak within the dominant discourse because their response to
the official explanation does not hold the social or cultural capital for it to
be valued or comprehended independently by the dominant discourse of
the support organizations. Support organizations continue to treat asylum
seekers as lacking knowledge about the asylum system and their opinions
were not including in policies and procedures that affected their welfare.
Consequently, asylum seekers cannot take part in the decision-making
process. Like the subaltern referred to by Spivak, they have to remain in
their role as the subject onto which assistance and benevolent support
could be handed down (Spivak, 1987). As Tomlinson and Egan (2002)
point out, the identity of asylum seekers is largely reliant upon the discussions in which asylum seekers are able to participate, with whom they can
engage, and the nature of the discourses drawn upon in these conversations (2002, p. 1025). In the case of asylum seekers in East Anglia, service
providers did not engage them in such discussions, which ultimately
impacted on their self-perception and identity construction. Cambridge
and Williams point out the distrust towards authorities is intensified
when asylum seekers enter official systems that use alienating language,
concepts and rules (2004, p. 99). Asylum seekers may also attribute that
same distrust to service providers when asking for assistance and often
there is a mutual sense of distrust arising from support workers
(Cambridge and Williams, 2004, p. 99).
So, do asylum seekers remain entirely voiceless? I argue that they do not.
Asylum seekers draw on their own knowledge and experience to devise
new spaces of resistance and to build possible futures. Asylum seekers
have a considerable amount to say (see, for example, Blommaert, 2001;
Maryns and Blommaert, 2001; Maryns 2005a, b; Blommaert, 2009) about
their predicament of seeking asylum and of receiving support from the
British government and associated support services. Take, for example,
the list of issues that Mr Z, an asylum seeker from Iran, came up with.
This list encapsulates the way in which an asylum seekers discussion of
their predicament and relationship to service providers can be a means to
considering their perception of self.


Sophia Rainbird

Long wait;
Contact difficulty;
Lack of communications;
Labour exploitation by unscrupulous employers;
Home office;
Educational problems;
Language barriers;
Shortage of proper leisure and recreation;
Poor and substandard accommodation;
Poor living area;
Fear and intimidation;
Lack of understanding of the asylum system on the part of the
(18) Opportunistic accommodation managers. (List of issues, Mr Z,
Iranian asylum seeker, 2003)
Mr Z produced this list for his own benefit, in an effort to make sense of his
predicament. However, when discussing the above list of issues with me,
Mr Xs speech-act was emotive in that he conveyed the links between the
practical and the emotional affects of seeking asylum with a voice that
was not silent. Asylum seekers emotive speech-acts are a strategy that
they employ to push the boundaries of their predicament and to negotiate
a possible future. What asylum seekers do have to say is largely in relation
to an asylum seeker identity and the extent to which asylum seekers wish to
relate to this identity or emphasize other aspects of their identity, or, more
likely, a combination of both according to their needs at a particular time
and context. Asylum seekers emotive speech-acts centre on perceptions
of self, often by exploring themes relating to their objectification, community perceptions, their understanding of the system, and in critique of the

Community perceptions
For some asylum seekers, avoiding interaction with locals is one way of
avoiding stigmatization. The external categorization makes many asylum
seekers sensitive to interaction, therefore causing them to limit and
control such contact. As Fuglerud points out, It is when someone has to
speak . . . that conflicts flare up [his emphasis] (1999, p. 105). For example,
when I asked Mrs Q if she thought that people in Great Yarmouth were
friendly, she seemed to think that this was a silly question. She said it

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Asylum seeker vulnerability


was the same anywhere. But when she elaborated, I realized that she was
able to remain on good terms with locals by keeping a low profile:
I think that some friendly and some are not. But mostly friendly. Always
I am quiet and smile and say thank you, then there is no problem. Some
refugees only want to make trouble. I no make trouble if I am quiet and
smile and say only please and thank you. I do not want trouble so I say,
no, sorry my English is not good, or I no speak English because I only
want to say hello, you alright? And goodbye! (Mrs Q, Kosovan asylum
seeker, 2003)

The college wants me to be in their newspaper as someone because they

say I am an asylum seeker who has achieved so much at college. I dont
want to be known as an asylum seeker! They can say Im a black woman,
an African immigrant who is at college, but not an asylum seeker! Why
should they say that? (Miss P, Angolan asylum seeker, 2003)

Miss P was outraged that her success was attributed to her asylum seeker
identity, rather than other aspects of her identity which she felt were
more congruent to her sense of self.
A Kurdish Iraqi asylum seeker, Mr J, and a Congolese asylum seeker,
Mr E, discussed the use of such labels:

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One day, I observed Mrs Qs behaviour to be distinctly altered when speaking to a Zimbabwean student from when she had been speaking with a local
service provider. I observed the service provider speaking in English, very
slowly and carefully to Mrs Q in a manner that emphasized her English as a
marked point of difference. In response, Mrs Q indicated that she could not
understand what the service provider was saying and avoided interacting.
Later, I observed Mrs Q chatting away very easily in English with the
student, who even commented on her excellent use of English. Mrs Q
had no difficulty in understanding the student who spoke to her in a
relaxed and casual manner, and yet she chose not to understand the
service provider at all.
Consequently, Mrs Q employs a low profile for the majority of the time
when interacting with people who reinforce her asylum seeker identity
through their communications with her. Her identity moves within a hierarchy of need, depending on the particular way that she is communicatively
Thus, the asylum seekers constantly attempt to negotiate and contest
their asylum seeker label despite the lived-reality that binds them during
this liminal period. In some cases, interaction with service providers is
one of suspicion and difference. For example, Miss P was starkly aware
of this despite her efforts to move beyond the constraints of an asylum
seeker identity:


Mr J:
Mr E:
Mr J:

Mr E:

. . . if you say that you are a refugee or an asylum seeker, they will
treat you differently.
Yeah, we either say we are you know like immigrating to here, or we
are students. Thats all. So we dont say oh we have student visas,
thats all.
But people can be good. But, theyll be treating you like you were
poor, and theyll always want to help you and stuff.
. . . which is quite annoying.
It is annoying! Because I want to live normal, you know.
Yeah. (Mr J Iraqi asylum seeker and Mr E Congolese asylum seeker,
Peterborough, 2003).

When attending a local college, calling oneself a student is one way of

avoiding the negative connotations and concretization of the label
asylum seeker. Other people tend to avoid the label as much as possible
when interacting with locals, and only communicate this identity with
selected people. The example of the exchange highlights asylum seekers
efforts to either blend in or to keep a low profile work to avoid an
asylum seeker label.

Understanding and critiquing the system

In the case of asylum seekers in East Anglia, information exchanges operate
to find alternative strategies which circumvent the standard routes of negotiating the immigration and bureaucratic system. When asylum seekers
exchange and act on such information, the greater are both the collective
and individual benefits. Take, for example, the speech-acts between three
asylum seekers, Mr and Mrs Z and Mrs K, as I documented it in my field
I went to visit Mr and Mrs Z, after some time Mrs K dropped by to meet
me so that we could travel home together. She was asked by Mrs Z to stay
for tea and during which the conversation centred on one commonly
experienced topic housing and the treatment of asylum seekers by
Newham Council and the Home Office. They all have much to say on the
topic and I was happy to sit and listen. It was interesting to observe that
the most important aspect discussed was not how they came to be in this
predicament, or what might happen to them, but their current situation.
The general speech-act tone was one of surpassing this through a greater
understanding of the system. Mrs K said:

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Mr J:
Mr E:
Mr J:

Sophia Rainbird

Asylum seeker vulnerability


You do not get rightful treatment unless you know your rights and you fight for
them. Now, when I walk into Newham, I will not speak to or even see a clerk. I will
go straight to the manager! The big wigs! And if that does not work, the press!

In this paper, I have shown that the relationship between support organizations and asylum seekers seems to be very much dominated by the
support organization vis-a`-vis the representation of asylum seekers as contradictorily vulnerable and yet capable individuals. The support industry
and asylum seekers are embroiled in a relationship of mutual dependency
in order to sustain their respective existences. Support organizations must
build knowledge about asylum seekers predicament in order to form the
official explanation, the official ideology, the structure of possibility of
knowledge whose effect is that very structure (Spivak, 1987, p. 108).
I have drawn attention to the complexity of the asylum seeker/support
organization relationship. As part of the representation of asylum seekers,
support organizations put forward a conflicting notion of asylum seeker
identity as being simultaneously dependent and independent. Acting as
gatekeepers in the representation of asylum seekers, support organizations
can inadvertently perpetuate their social exclusion. It is vital to recognize
that asylum seekers are not solely the vulnerable recipients of aid in
Britain. Rather, asylum seekers actively respond to a stereotype of the
poor, vulnerable asylum seeker through their emotive speech-acts by

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This statement reveals the kind of collaborative speech-act that is of great

value amongst asylum seekers. Mrs K had secured employment in the
housing sector in the United Kingdom seven years earlier, before asylum
seekers lost their right to work. She had seen the system change over the
years and was by now very familiar with it. Mrs K brought into play
personal experiences, a stock of knowledge as well as temporal, spatial
and sociobiographically differentiated perspectives (Schutz and
Luckmann, 1989, p. 65). Mr and Mrs Z, who had been in the country for
only two years, were confounded by their position within the immigration
process. Therefore, receiving information that had been tried and tested by
another asylum seeker was of immense value to them. The information
exchange between Mrs K and Mr and Mrs Z provided an opportunity to
actualise [. . .] goals and offer different approaches in either resisting or
yielding within these interactions (Schutz and Luckmann, 1989, p. 6).
Therefore, I suggest that speech-acts involve a struggle but also strategies
for making sense of the life-world.


Sophia Rainbird

The author would like to thank the people seeking asylum and the service
providers of East Anglia for their invaluable contributions to this research.
The author is also grateful for the advice and comments provided by
Professor John Gray and Dr Andrew Skuse, University of Adelaide.

This research was funded by the Australian Postgraduate Award (APA) and
the Department of Anthropology Research Grant, University of Adelaide.

Sophia Rainbird is an anthropologist who specializes in the field of migration, in particular,

asylum seekers and refugees and their interaction with host communities. She is predominantly
interested in how settlement services and integration are conceptualized and implemented and
how broader themes of speech-acts, ethnicity, whiteness, identity, and social justice intersect.

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exploring themes relating to their objectification, community perceptions,

their understanding of the system, and in critique of the system.
In conclusion, I have argued that service providers espouse an official
explanation of asylum seekers depicting them as vulnerable and dependent, to which asylum seekers conform to a certain extent in order to
receive assistance. However, I have referred to the strong undercurrent of
emotive discourses coming from asylum seekers themselves, which is a
strategy used to push the boundaries of their predicament and to negotiate
a possible future. As Kirkman says, people have the crucial ability to
envisage alternatives, and to conceive of other ways of being or acting
(2002, p. 32).
Testament to this is that, in recent years, some asylum seekers in East
Anglia, having received refugee status, have gone on to be strong leaders
of refugee community organizations (Zetter and Pearl, 2000) and have
become active participants in the provision of service provision to new arrivals in this changing socio-political and ultimately emotive landscape.
As researchers, it is vital that we seek asylum seekers speech-acts and
contribute to the growing body of scholarship in this area (Blommaert,
2001; Maryns and Blommaert, 2001; Maryns, 2005a, b; Blommaert, 2009)
which may help us to be reflexive about the inherent power imbalance
and the corresponding counter discourses. I argue that ultimately what
must be encouraged is an active dialogue between service providers and
asylum seekers as a necessary step towards active integration and participation in a changing society.

Asylum seeker vulnerability


She currently holds the position of postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Psychology,
Social Work and Social Policy, University of South Australia.


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