Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Mental Health and the Politics of Exhaustion in the UK Asylum Process



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Tianne Haggar. Tianne is a Research Assistant at the Policy Institute, King’s College London. With a background in global health and psychology, her work focuses on the intersections of mental health and society. In this blog, she analyses how asylum policy and practice produce harm through exhaustion. This is the seventh 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. 

Charities and grassroots organisations providing support for people seeking asylum at the Migrant Connections Festival 2021 in London. Photo by Federico Rivas.

In 2021, the controversial ‘Nationality and Borders Bill’ gained significant backing by UK politicians. The bill seeks to further persecute people seeking asylum in the UK. I struggled to comprehend how the UK could justify such a punitive asylum process. Even without this bill, the UK asylum process is extremely hostile, complicated by bureaucratic barriers and discriminatory practices which severely harm asylum seekers’ mental health. Asylum policies and practice also intersect, compounding one another to give rise to a more inconspicuous harm: exhaustion.  

Exhaustion refers to the depletion of mental, physical or emotional resources. It is the idea of feeling ‘used up’ or ‘drained of energy’. Marta Welander’s ‘politics of exhaustion’ highlights the prevalence of exhaustion in the context of humanitarian migration. The argument is that harmful practices of migration management, such as police violence, raids on camps, and immigration detention all converge in a way that is simply exhausting.

As part of my MSc thesis in Global Health, I set out to explore perspectives on exhaustion within the UK asylum process, as well as its mental health consequences. I interviewed 18 employees and volunteers who provide support services to people seeking asylum in the UK. The people I interviewed support asylum seekers in different ways, through social support, legal support, mental health or medical support. These varied perspectives provide a valuable insight into the bureaucracy of the asylum process, as well as its mental and emotional toll.

Structural Violence in the UK Asylum Process

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my research reinforces that the UK asylum process is characterised by everyday structural violence. The first everyday harm is living in poverty, driven by practices such as denying asylum seekers right to work, providing unsafe or unhygienic housing, and offering inadequate financial support. Living in poverty routinely prevents asylum seekers from rebuilding their lives and thriving. A second harm is a deeply entrenched culture of hostility within the UK Home Office, with officials making decisions based on assumptions or deliberately undermining asylum seekers’ credibility. According to one volunteer, Home Office interviews to assess asylum claims often leave people feeling “attacked, disbelieved… gaslighted and betrayed by an institution that was supposed to protect them”. A third harm is that people’s lives are put on hold indefinitely. Increasing numbers of asylum seekers must endure lengthy delays before being granted protection; some asylum claims remain unresolved for as much as 5 or 10 years. Being left in limbo not only exacerbates other harms but creates uncertainty that leaves people frustrated and unable to move on with their lives.

The Asylum Process Becomes Exhausting     

Photo by Unsplash

Everyone I interviewed believed that the asylum process is often exhausting because of the intersecting impact of poverty, hostility, and living in limbo. Constantly facing such challenges exhausts through “wearing down”, “grinding down”, and “tiring out” asylum seekers. Living in poverty is perceived as exhausting, with the constant worry of how to ration money or access nutritious foods hanging over people’s heads. Concerning Home Office hostility, one lawyer explained, “if you’re constantly saying, ‘I don’t believe you’, ‘I don’t believe you’, no matter what they do to produce evidence, and you constantly say ‘no, you’re not going to be granted’, it tires them out. Eventually they think, ‘well what can I produce to get you to believe me?’” Being left in limbo also creates extreme worry and anxiety, feelings which are exhausting. One support worker described how those she works with wait every day, desperately hoping that a letter from the Home Office will finally arrive. When explaining why they believed people seeking asylum were exhausted, interviewees described body language like drooping shoulders, behaviour such as social withdrawal or sleeping problems, and asylum seekers saying things like, “I can’t do this anymore”, “I’m tired”, or even “I’m a zombie”.

From Exhaustion to Poor Mental Health

Poor mental health is perceived as a manifestation of this exhaustion. Sixty-one percent of asylum seekers in the UK experience severe mental distress. Those I interviewed described how asylum seekers were “fed up” with the process or had “given up the fight”, often leading to problems of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Exhaustion is perceived to affect asylum seekers’ ability to concentrate, carry out simple tasks and to remember appointments. Exhaustion is also seen as a barrier to mental health protective factors, like participating in social activities or exercise. One psychologist suggested that exhaustion can even manifest as heightened distress and erratic behaviour because people struggle to self-regulate their emotions. While most of those I interviewed believed that exhaustion exacerbates poor mental health in some way, some also acknowledged that exhaustion can be a symptom of poor mental health. Whilst causality is impossible to determine, the relationship likely works both ways. What I argue in my research, is that there is an important pathway from exhausting practices in the asylum process to poor mental health consequences.

Politics of Exhaustion and the Human Right to Health

Human rights for future poster from Amnesty International. Photo by Unsplash.
It is by illustrating this pathway that we see how a politics of exhaustion is enacted in the UK asylum process. Converging asylum practices, driven by policy, are perceived to exhaust people seeking asylum. What makes the politics of exhaustion particularly insidious is that exhaustion comes from the cumulative impact of multiple practices. No single practice or policy is to blame on its own.

By further tracing the pathway from exhaustion to poor mental health, I argue that the asylum process is designed in a way that makes people mentally unwell. This is a violation of the human right to health, adding another dimension to the way in which immigration policy can violate human rights. It is more important than ever for research and policy to understand the true impact of policies and practices that touch people’s lives so closely. Exposing covert mechanisms of violence, such as exhaustion, is crucial to bringing human rights and social justice centre-stage amidst a political climate that increasingly favours sovereignty of the nation over individual rights of non-citizens.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Haggar, T. (2022) Mental Health and the Politics of Exhaustion in the UK Asylum Process. 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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