By Thanges Paramsothy –
Statelessness in a ‘Modern Era’: The Everyday Life of Sri Lankan Tamil Failed Asylum Seekers in the UK
We often hear of people from conflict and post-conflict settings enter into the borders of industrialized or Western countries as ‘illegal travellers’ to seek asylum or refugee status. Travelling without legal permit from one state to another is not a new phenomenon, but it has increasingly become a legal and global issue following the stringent policing of the borders separating one state from another in the ‘modern Era’. The UNHCR adopted a convention in 1951 relating to the status of refugees with a view to protecting a person fleeing his/her country of origin, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion and/or membership of a particular social group. This is usually called the ‘1951 Geneva Convention for Refugees’. A person who suffers generalised repression, violence and poverty does not qualify as a refugee. Asylum or the status of refugee is the protection granted by a state to a person who cannot return to his/her home country due to fear of prosecution. It is obvious that most Western countries reject asylum migrants stating that their claims for asylum do not satisfy the definition of the refugee.
Contemporary asylum migration challenges this narrow definition, which sees persecution as a precondition for one to claim refugee status. For many asylum migrants, being a refugee means more than having to leave or escape home due to insecurity or potential threats. At present, many see leaving home and becoming an asylum migrant as a pathway to begin a viable life outside their home country. For asylum migrants, exile is not only a safe haven, but it is also a state in which they expect to improve the quality of their lives in socio-economic terms. It is important to note that multiple socio-economic, political and personal reasons play a crucial role in contemporary asylum migration particularly when an asylum migrant chooses a country of destination to seek refugee status in. Analysing the reasons for asylum migration through the lens offered by the official definition of a refugee will not provide a holistic picture of contemporary asylum migration. Papademitriou (1993: 212-213) has commented on this obvious problem as follows: Increasingly, both pure refugees and purely economic migrants are ideal constructs rarely found in a real life; many among those who routinely meet the refugee definition are clearly fleeing both political oppression and economic dislocation.
The classification of some migrants as ‘pure refugees’ and others as ‘pure economic migrants’ is inadequate to understand the migration of people from Global south into the industrialised countries in Europe, North America and Australia. It should also be noted that restrictions imposed by these Western countries on ‘illegal migrants,’ who may primarily have economic motives, compel them to identify themselves as victims of political persecution. A good example of this scenario is that a failed asylum migrant whom I interviewed asked me whether she would tell the actual story of her migration or the story that she told the Home Office in order to present herself as a victim of political oppression. Thus, it is quite obvious that the political persecution and socio-economic strains of conflict-affected countries, strong border control and policy restrictions on ‘illegal migration movements’ by the Western countries and personal reasons collectively play a vital role in the construction of refugee narratives in today’s world.
The asylum migration of Sri Lankan Tamils to Western countries rapidly increased following the 1983 communal riots against Tamils in Sri Lanka. Tamils from the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka live in many parts of the world including India, Canada, Australia, England and continental Europe at present. It was estimated as of 2010 that there were over a million of Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad (ICG 2010). Estimations of the Sri Lankan Tamils living in exile could be based on official records released by the census department of each country and other official sources. It is not very clear how this data was collected. We are not sure whether this data included second and third generations of Tamil populations living abroad. However, a group of people, whose applications for asylum were rejected even after their appeal to the high court, continues to live in exile. Most of such failed asylum refugees who have been living without having any contact with the immigration authority of the destination are not usually included in this estimation. They are indeed living without a state in ‘modern’ western countries, and consequently experience difficulties in their everyday lives, which include potential deportation and detention, minimum wages, lack of access to educational, banking and other public services. My attempt in this short paper is to discuss some of these issues with a special reference to Sri Lankan Tamils who have failed in their attempts to seek refugee status in the UK.
The asylum migration of Sri Lankan Tamils was a by product of Sinhala-dominated state policies, violence and riots against Tamils, the prolonged civil war, internecine conflicts between Tamil militant movements, the intervention of the Indian Pease Keeping Forces (IPKF) and other conflict-induced socio-economic transformations in Sri Lanka particularly in the areas where Tamils lived in large numbers. The liberalization and neo-liberalization of Sri Lanka’s economy did not create viable employment opportunities for the youth, especially in the rural areas of the country. Socio-economic and employment opportunities shrank further in the North and East parts of the country as a result of the civil war. The economic embargo put in place by the state on these areas further undermined people’s economic strength. All these factors induced many Tamils to take advantage of the political situation in Sri Lanka to migrate to the West and claim refugee status there. Several western countries supported the exodus by granting them refugee status and/or permission to remain in exile at the early stages of their asylum migration. Local ‘illegal’ migrant agents who had contacts with such agents operating globally were instrumental in facilitating this migration. In order to restrict the overwhelming inflow of ‘illegal asylum-seekers’, many Western countries including the UK have imposed restrictions on asylum migration from time to time. The UK government is, to a great extent, successful in preventing ‘illegal asylum travellers’ from accessing its border. It has also detained and deported thousands of them.
Sri Lankan Tamil asylum migration took different forms in response to the internal armed conflict and political violence in Sri Lanka and the increasing policy restrictions imposed upon asylum migrants by the UK government. Migrating as students is one such changing pattern in the process of asylum migration. While getting a student visa to migrate to the UK is relatively easier, ‘illegal means’ of migration have become difficult due to the presence of strong mechanisms of policing and monitoring on the borders. As a result, many Tamil youth first migrate as students and eventually apply for asylum. Some of them were successful in obtaining the asylum status while applications for asylum filed by others were rejected.
We cannot homogenize all of the failed asylum seekers from the Sri Lankan Tamil community into a single group. Even if all of them can be viewed as refugees who have been denied ‘legal status’ in the UK, they can be categorised into different groups in terms of their period of arrival, commitment in exile and their relationship with immigration authorities. A group of failed asylum seekers comprised those who were in the process of making fresh asylum applications after their first asylum applications had been rejected. Some such asylum migrants stopped making appeals against the decision. Another group of asylum refugees made use of the right to appeal against the decision in order to make their claims to asylum status successful. However, their asylum claims, at all stages, were rejected. Most of such migrants have disconnected their contacts with the authorities due to fear of detention or deportation. The third group is comprised of those whose asylum claims were refused, but they still have a regular contact with immigration authorities by way of reporting. Finally, a group of asylum migrants came to the UK relatively earlier than the other groups and established strong connections to the UK. They now have their own families with UK-born children. As a result, the grounds on which their cases are considered not only involve whether or not they qualify for asylum, but there is an inevitable compulsion on the authorities to take into consideration their private and family lives which they established during their stay in exile. A substantial number of such failed asylum migrants were granted leave to remain under the ‘Legacy Programme’ which was introduced by the Home Office in order to clear the backlog of older asylum cases that were made before March 2007. However, a considerable number of such asylum migrants who made their applications before 2007 have not yet been provided refugee status. It should be noted that even if failed asylum seekers are arbitrarily categorised here in order to understand the differences in their legal status, a failed asylum seeker may have more than one of these characteristics together.
An alarming issue among these rejected refugees is the fear of deportation or detention. If the police and immigration officers identify migrants who stay without legal permission, they may eventually take the necessary steps to deport such individual migrants to their countries of origin. In some cases, such ‘illegal’ migrants are detained and/or asked to have a regular contact with the immigration authority. Failed asylum seekers usually avoid visiting places where the presence of the police is usually high, and live continuously in the addresses from where they made their applications for asylum. A failed asylum migrant describes his reasons for refraining from visiting his home: ‘an old lady who lived in the apartment where I (the failed asylum migrant) was living died by falling from the upper floor of the building. After the incident, a group of police officers came to investigate the neighbours about the incident. I avoided going to my home for two days until the police officers stopped visiting that particular area frequently’. Another research participant said that ‘I used to go to the immigration centre for reporting. Every time I went to the Immigration Centre for reporting, I feared of possible detention or deportation to Sri Lanka’.
Another important challenge faced by failed asylum seekers in the UK is the high costs they have to incur when they file a fresh application once their initial asylum claim is rejected. If an asylum seeker fails to gain refugee status in the initial asylum application, s/he usually appeals against the decision. Except those who get access to free legal aid, asylum seekers have to pay a lot of money to their solicitors and barristers to receive legal services. Tamil asylum refugees usually approach private legal firms to file their applications for refugee status. A failed asylum migrant I interviewed said that his employer spent £1500 to both the solicitor and the barrister to make a fresh application with the agreement the migrant would pay back the money by working in the employer’s petrol station.
Those who are denied asylum status are not allowed to work legally in the UK. Moreover, they are not eligible to apply for the National Insurance Number (NI Number). If a person wants to work in the UK, prospective employers usually ask him or her for the NI Number. This number is necessary for taxation purposes. Not having the number automatically disqualifies one from working legally. A substantial number of such migrants who have discontinued their contacts with state officials have to earn illegally to support themselves and their dependants who are either in the UK or in their places of origin. It compels them to work in another name with another NI number. If failed asylum seekers who do not have the NI Number want to work in their own names, they are forced to seek jobs in places where the employers are willing pay them cash in hand. Even though such employers certainly support failed asylum migrants who are unable to work legally, such informal employment practices create a working environment where employers can exploit workers by paying less than the national minimum wages per hour. While national minimum wage is £6.31 per hour in the UK, these employees are usually paid £2-4 per hour. Although paying below the national minimum wage rate is a punishable offence in the UK, since failed asylum migrants are not legally allowed to work, they are unable to file a complaint about the exploitation they face in their work places to the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HM Revenue & Custom). Indeed, underpayment affects not only failed asylum migrants, but it is a problem that harms students who study at the universities and colleges in the UK. A student who became a failed asylum migrant describes his experience:
I have to work to meet my everyday expenses. As I do not have a visa now, I cannot easily find a job that pays me the minimum standard national wages or above. People offer me jobs with very low wages. Now I am working in a petrol station. When I had a visa, my boss paid me £5 per hour. As I do not have a visa now, I am paid only £3 per hour. He often tries to find fault with my work.
Building and construction industry is a business sector in the UK that is in need of semi-skilled and skilled labourers. Failed asylum migrants with experience in construction work join this sector as labourers or small-scale building contractors. The labourers usually perform small-scale tasks such as renovating kitchens and bathrooms, building an extra room or constructing extensions. In some instances, house owners like to employ workers from these informal small-scale construction sectors, as these workers are willing to work for relatively low wages. Failed asylum seekers who generally have the lowest stock of social capital due to their citizenship status rely for their survival on social and familial ties, networks of friends, and employers particularly from their ethnic community. These connections are often helpful for them to find jobs when they are in exile. On the other hand, even if failed asylum seekers have a high stock of financial and human capital, there are barriers to utilize them officially and effectively due to their legal status in the UK. A failed asylum seeker who works as a builder describes the manner in which he was exploited in this job market and how he started construction work on his own:
I worked as a builder with my uncle. Initially, he paid me on a regular basis and then he stopped paying me regularly. He said to my fellow workers that if I gave up this job, nobody would offer me a job, as I did not have a visa here. I could not work with him continuously without wages. Now I am taking small building contracts on my own. I never discuss my asylum status with the people who give me jobs. If I talk to them about it, it will definitely affect my job.
Opening a bank account was relatively easy in the UK a few years ago. If a customer showed a proof of identity by producing a professional licence or a letter, s/he would be granted permission to open a bank account. The banks did not require their customers to produce documents that testify to their citizenship or visa before allowing them to open bank accounts. Following policy restrictions and measures to prevent potential risk of misusing bank accounts, banks in the UK generally conduct an extensive personal identity check before allowing their customers to open a bank account. Many banks in the UK now request customers to prove their legal status in the UK before making a decision on whether or not they are eligible to open an account. As a result, many recent failed asylum migrants do not have bank accounts in their own name and widely use their relatives or friends’ accounts to deposit and borrow money.
Those who do not have a visa to stay in the UK are denied access to education. A number of failed asylum migrants as well as over-stayers whom I interviewed had completed their university degrees in Sri Lanka and the UK and ended up working in the construction sector, grocery shops, restaurants and petrol stations.
Furthermore, a substantial number of failed asylum seekers have been living away from their families for several years. They are either unable to have their families moved to the UK or to travel home, as there are legal restrictions. All the failed asylum seekers who shared their experiences with me for my study are not ready to voluntarily repatriate to Sri Lanka, as they strongly believe there will be threats to their lives or harassment if they return home. They also said that they are living in the UK now in order to look after themselves and their families in Sri Lanka. Many such migrants with whom I had discussions suffer from loneliness and are addicted to alcohol.
Apart from the problems that make their everyday survival in exile difficult, failed asylum migrants feel the loss of their nationality, state identity, and belonging when they live in exile. On the one hand, their status in exile is a by-product of an internal armed conflict, political insecurity, physical harassment and uncertainties prevailing in the socio-economic spheres in their homeland. On the other hand, they are unwanted, rejected and alienated by the country of destination. In the latter, they are not even recognised as refugees. In the conversations I had with some failed asylum seekers, I was able to see that they did not want to be the citizens of a Sinhala-dominant Sri Lankan state. At the same time, they feel they are not welcomed by the host society. As a result, they are unable to integrate themselves into the socio-economic and political mainstreams of the UK. Voluntary or otherwise, this is indeed a condition of statelessness. It is, in other words, a kind of limbo-stage where they are forced to live without a nationality. They can identify neither with their country of origin nor with the country of destination. Due to the loss of national and personal identity, restrictions in finding employment, banking, education and social welfare, the high expenses they incur when claiming and reclaiming asylum and the distance that has separated them from their own families for several years, a substantial number of failed asylum seekers feel lonely, frustrated and traumatized.
ICG (2010) The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora after the LTTE, Asian Report, No189, Available at: http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-asia/sri-lanka/186%20The%20Sri%20Lankan%20Tamil%20Diaspora%20after%20the%20LTTE.pdf
Papademitriou, D. (1993) ‘Confronting the Challenge of Traditional Migration: Domestic and International Response’ in OECD, The Changing Course of International Migration, Paris: OECD.
*Thanges Paramsothy – PhD Research Student in Anthropology, School of Law and Social Sciences, University of East London, UK