Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Intensifying Everyday Cruelties in the UK Asylum System: An Analysis Based on Sudanese People’s Experience



Time to read

7 Minutes

Guest post by Dr Susanne Jaspars. Susanne is an independent researcher and Research Associate at SOAS, University of London, focussing on the politics of food security, humanitarian crisis, and  forced migration.  In this blog, she builds on  her volunteer experience with Waging Peace and Care4Calais supporting Sudanese asylum seekers in the UK and her research on Darfuri migration from Sudan to Europe to analyse the UK asylum system. This is the eighth post in Border Criminologies themed series on'Everyday Violence and Resistance in Europe’s ‘Migration Management’ During the Covid-19 Pandemic', organised by Marta Welander and Dr Susanne Jaspars. 

In late 2020, I met a group of newly-arrived Sudanese asylum seekers in London.  Sudanese arrivals in the UK increased by 77% in the year ending June 2021, forming a substantial proportion of small boat arrivals during the pandemic.  As a volunteer I followed, observed, and in part lived, their experience as some spent more than 8 months in a hotel, others were taken from hotels to army barracks, in and out of immigration removal detention, and later isolated in home office accomodation.  These were times of fear and depression, but some real friendships developed too. 

Supporting Sudanese individuals in the UK is particularly pertinent for me as in 2018 I completed a study on Darfuri migration from Sudan to Europe.  Sudanese people claiming asylum in the UK have fled violence, conflict and persecution in Sudan.  Many have lived years in a camp for displaced people, subject to attacks, surveillance and harrassment.  And this continues.  There are still over 3 million displaced people in Sudan, mostly in Darfur.  Despite a popular uprising against the abusive regime in 2019, violence in Darfur has increased.  In the capital, Khartoum, protestors against the October 2021 military coup have been shot at by the military-security apparatus now claiming once again to be in charge.  When Sudanese flee their country, they usually travel via Libya where many are trafficked and exploited, after which they meet with further violence in Europe, including in the UK. 

Numerous everyday cruelties

Numerous everyday cruelties towards asylum seekers are part of the UK hostile environment. Seemingly small acts of cruelty (compared to forced return or mass detention) build up over time contributing to a politics of exhaustion: ritualised forms of (in)direct violence and abuse, intended to grind down people’s resolve to claim asylum or to seek safety in the UK.  I wrote about these forms of violence in June last year, and since then cruelties have multiplied and worsened, particularly with the introduction of the new Nationality and Borders bill, an increase in drownings in the Channel, and after waiting for asylum interviews for more than a year, the Home Office (HO) has started rejecting the claims of  some Darfuris who arrived in 2020 despite renewed conflict and oppression.    

Cruelties start on arrival in the UK. This is well illustrated by the story of one Sudanese teenager (I will call him Mohamed) whom I met when he arrived in late 2020.  He was 17 but an immigration officer decided he looked more like 25 (note that those under 18 are entitled to additional protection).  On the initial asylum questionnaire, officials skipped the question about his journey, but travel via Libya would have alerted officials to the likelihood of Mohamed being a victim of modern slavery, again making him entitled to additional protection.  The UK border force took his phone, then gave him a phone number to call to get his phone back.  This practice has now been judged illegal.  He was taken into a hotel with adults, then taken into care when his lawyers challenged the age assessment.  At this time, he was so happy that when we could get his phone back he did not want it as it reminded him of bad times.  I next heard from him about 6 months later – telling me he was on the street.  After several age assessments, he’d been judged to be 21, taken out of care and dropped outside the Home Office building in Croydon.  The age assessments themselves are a form of cruelty; with interrogations of several hours a day over several days.  Since then, Mohamed has been moved three times, suddenly and without notice – often when he had just established local networks. 

The cruelties in this story apply to many: phone confiscation, age disputes, not identifying modern slavery victims, and sudden transfers.  And these transfers were not the worst: others were taken in the middle of the night to army barracks or immigration removal centers. 


Photos shared by asylum seekers staying in hotels



Pandemic ‘emergency’ measures create new cruelties

The switch to remote or online services during the pandemic has amplified the difficulties faced by Sudanese people.  Without a smart phone, asylum seekers cannot contact a lawyer or GP, make online appointments, or use google translate to communicate by Whatsapp.  Many do not speak, read or write English.  Even if they have a phone, years of surveillance by Sudanese security service makes many reluctant to communicate by phone with someone they don’t know.  Communication with lawyers is made even more difficult because they usually provide landline numbers (so Whatsapp is not possible), which give an automated message with different options – in English.  To “assist” asylum seekers the Home Office has set up a service called “Migrant Help” – a phone service which usually takes an hour or more to answer.  Then, they are usually asked to write an email.  These practices limit access to protection, to health care, and adds to the endless delays.

During the pandemic, asylum seekers’ first accomodation is usually a hotel commissioned by the HO.  Here they experience cruelty through food:

  • Food (full-board) in hotels is of poor quality and quantity, and insufficient for teenage boys and young men, as most Sudanese are.  Some people have received the same hotel food for a year.  The people I knew would often not eat.  Eventually, some (but not all) were provided with £8 per week.
  • In self-catering HO accomodation, people get £39.60 on a debit card (the Aspen card).  It takes huge effort to survive with this having to constantly decide between transport, food, clothes, etc.  The card is also a means of surveillance.  Expenses are monitored and can be used against asylum seekers to stop support based on invisible or arbitrary rules.

Social distancing and isolation introduce another form of cruelty.  Asylum seekers were told to stay in rooms, not to meet, and not to eat together.  Sometimes, volunteers were not allowed to enter hotels.  When moved out of hotels, the HO imposes new forms of isolation.  The people I know were separated in different houses in different cities far apart, without internet access; once again making it difficult to communicate, whether with friends, family, a GP or lawyer. 

The New Nationality and Borders Bill puts cruelties into law

With the new Nationality and Borders bill, the cruelties are expanding, reducing the rights of asylum seekers who arrive on small boats, thus disproportionately affecting Sudanese.  Many Sudanese have no choice but to come this way as there are no safe legal routes.  The bill aims to make a claim inadmissable if asylum seekers pass through a safe third country. If not deported within 6 months they are be considered a group 2 refugee, with no automatic right to settle. The bill simplifies age assessments and gives shorter time periods for appeal: many Sudanese asylum seekers are teenagers.  Finally, it proposes a revised, stricter process for referring victims of modern slavery: again affecting most Sudanese because this is oftentime part of their experience in Libya. 

While this new law needs to be analysed carefully, on first sight it appears to be putting the everyday cruelties into law.  Whereas previously some forms of deterrence had to be invisible because actively blocking asylum seekers is illegal, it appears that the UK government now thinks it can get away with such acts officially and that public opinion supports them.  For Sudanese asylum seekers, it means uncertainties and delays have been formalised. 


Napier barracks burning. Photo: Care4Calais


What does this regime of cruel practices do?

The combination of cruel micro-practices limits access to protection, food, health care and social support. It also:

  • Re-traumatises.  For people with experience of detention and torture in Sudan and Libya, being detained in a hotel room or army barracks brings back traumatic experiences. 
  • Limits protest and resistance. Being constantly pre-occupied with day-to-day survival in isolation reduces the potential for resistance.  The protests in Napier happened after a Covid outbreak when people felt their actual survival was at stake. 
  • Facilitates deportation, returns and disappearance.  No permission to work, limited assistance and extended uncertainty forces some to work illegally thus risking being arrested and deported.  Others say they want to return to Sudan ‘voluntarily’, or are made invisible and disappear from the system (no phone, no lawyer, no claim, no assistance). 

Much of this is of course intentional and part of deterrence.  But the extreme nature of these strategies is illustrated in its humanitarian consequences: deaths in HO accommodation increased sharply in the 18 months up to July 2021 with initial reports shown to be an underestimate

Everyday resistance

When suffering is so clearly a result of deliberate deterrence practices , it is impossible to stay neutral, whether as a volunteer, practitioner or researcher.  It needs advocacy to counter the practices that are creating this crisis, as well as direct life-saving (humanitarian) assistance, even if the latter risks enabling the very policies that are creating the crisis.  Showing compassion and solidarity in the face of government hostility is one form of resistance.  Within the Sudanese community, food has been a good way of connecting – for example during Ramadan.   In terms of research, advocacy and resistance,  two things come to mind:

1. The importance of continuing to monitor and assess what policies and the combination of practices are actually doing, and to report and disseminate this information widely. 

2. Exposing the political theatre of the UK’s (anti) migration policies: because they are not actually achieving their stated goal of ‘stemming migration’. 

Indeed, last November, when British journalists reported on proposed push-backs of small boats crossing the Channel, they suggested this wasn’t really about stopping migration, but about the UK Home Office ‘signalling’ action to cabinet colleagues, to electorates, and to migrants.   Those who suffer the consequences of such actions are of course people on the move, whose journey is made more dangerous but whose actual need to flee their home country in search of safety remains. 


Food provided to asylum seekers during Ramadan by the Sudanese community in London. Photo provided by anonymous asylum seeking individual.


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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Jaspars, S. (2022) Intensifying Everyday Cruelties in the UK Asylum System: An Analysis Based on Sudanese People’s Experience. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/03/mental-health-and [date]

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