From ‘Positive Contributions: Being a Refugee in Britain’ by Nando Sigona and Andreea R. Torre

In the mid-2000s, I carried out a piece of research for the Refugee Housing Association on the everyday lives of refugees and asylum seekers in Britain. At the time, the ‘bogus asylum seeker’ was in the news on a daily basis; moral panic on asylum was widespread and the Labour Party was struggling to come to term with a politically poisonous issue.

I set to investigate the positive contribution that refugees bring to Britain. The main aim was to offer an alternative image to counter hegemonic negative views, but I also wanted to avoid reproducing simplistic representations of refugees either as (voiceless) victims or unattainable political heroes. The kind of positive contribution I was looking for was very much mundane, ordinary and understated. The main aim of this report was to show, through their voices (drawings and photos), that refugees and asylum seekers contribute positively to British society, not just in economic terms but also, and above all, socially and culturally.

The report ‘Positive contributions: Being a refugee in Britain’ develops the idea of positive contribution in three main directions:

  • refugees enrich British society through their presence by multiplying points of view and creating an attitude that is conducive to questioning assumed truths and credos
  • their knowledge, skills and resources enhance society as a whole when they become part of our common shared values and culture
  • forced migration is a result of highly interrelated social and economic processes occurring at global level. As individuals living in ‘our midst’ refugees, asylum seekers and forced migrants bring direct and actual experience of these processes to society

One of the twenty refugees I interviewed was Jo, a Catholic, Georgian, Kurdish and former Soviet citizen. In his previous life, he was a journalist, a human rights activist, an interpreter and, years ago, a soldier in the Soviet army. In 2001 he went to a party in Tiblisi. There were many important people there. Someone took a photo of him speaking with a Vatican envoy. The authorities didn’t like it and he was arrested and tortured for two weeks. His organisation was banned. When he came out of prison he was told to leave the country. He applied for asylum in Britain in 2002. His case was rejected by the Home Office. He appealed but for the next three years didn’t hear back. When I met him he put on the table a large folder with papers, photos, newspaper cuts.

What have I been waiting for? Can you explain it to me, please?

He said and showed me a letter he had just received from the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal saying that, because the notes taken at his first interview at the Home Office were illegible, his appeal had been frozen for the past three years. This is one story like many one can hear from people who have been through the asylum system, of a life left in standby, of legal limbo and precariousness. But there is also something else, a question I asked myself at the time and that didn’t find an answer yet:

How could the Home Office refuse his application for asylum in the first instance if the notes taken at the interview were unreadable?