Working at the Refugee Council, I meet lots of refugees and asylum seekers who have had the most incredible lives and harrowing experiences. But when bland stats are released by the Home Office, like the quarterly asylum statistics released last week, people seem to find it hard to make the connection between the numbers and the lives they represent.
There were no great surprises in the stats – the number of asylum applications fell from 8,140 in the last quarter of 2007 to 7,705 in the first quarter of 2008, and were up slightly from the same quarter the previous year. The different responses to the stats prove the old adage – that statistics are the only science that enables different experts using the same figures to draw different conclusions. The government lauded the drop in applications, and lots of papers ran articles deploring a rise in applications.
However, to me, looking at asylum statistics in this way completely misses the point. As our Chief Executive pointed out, a drop in asylum applications should only be celebrated if the world has become a safer place – and with wars raging around the world and serious human rights abuses continuing in places like Zimbabwe, Darfur and Burma this is patently not the case.
In the same week I saw some figures that interested me much more – a poll by the Independent Asylum Commission (IAC) looking into public attitudes to asylum which showed widespread confusion about the asylum system. 70% of respondents said that they did not know what the government is doing about asylum seekers and that information they received did not distinguish clearly enough between asylum seekers, economic migrants and other migrant groups.
Interestingly, two thirds of respondents were proud of the UK’s tradition of providing sanctuary to people fleeing persecution yet a worrying 58% said the UK should reconsider its commitment to providing sanctuary to people fleeing persecution.
The most controversial conclusion that the IAC have made from the poll is that the term ‘asylum’ should be replaced by ‘sanctuary’; over 80% of respondents said their reaction to the term ‘sanctuary’ was positive compared with 18% who responded similarly to ‘asylum’. You can read the full poll here – let us know what you think…