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Sacrificing happiness for safety

23 August 2012 @TeesUniNews


Asylum seekers come to the UK for a better life, but some often find themselves isolated, frightened and stripped of their dignity.

Claire Smith, Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy at Teesside University, has been awarded a £10,000 grant to carry out pioneering research looking at how asylum seekers feel about leaving their daily lives behind.

The 18-month research project examines how people seeking asylum in the UK adapt to their new surroundings and the role that everyday occupation has in their lives.

Among asylum seekers striving to adapt to a new life is a woman who fled Zimbabwe when she fell foul of the Mugabe regime. After being tortured and beaten in front of her family she sought solace in the UK, only to find further turbulence and heartache when she arrived to live in Middlesbrough.

Far from being able to start a new life, the asylum process left this woman in limbo – feeling lonely, unable to provide for herself and she quickly sank into depression.

She said: 'When I came to England it was difficult to adapt and was like a sudden fall from grace. It was very demeaning because you can’t work and have to rely on charity and hand-outs. All of your choices are taken away from you and you lose your dignity and self-respect.'

Claire agrees that for many asylum seekers, their lives become a daily struggle with no real purpose or direction.

The Teesside University academic said: 'Seeking asylum is a long, drawn-out process and most asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their applications are going through, which can take many years. They have no choice over where they live, often live in poverty and have to survive on as little as £5 of charitable support a day.

'Asylum seekers have limited social activities, find it difficult to integrate because of language issues, can face open hostility and the feelings of isolation and loneliness can often have a detrimental impact on their health and well-being.'

Before coming to the UK, the Zimbabwean asylum seeker had worked in a job which gave her fulfilment and independence. Going from an independent woman to becoming completely reliant on others was a difficult transition.

She said: 'I am used to working and providing for myself, but as an asylum seeker you are completely reliant on others. It is a lonely existence, you just wake up in the morning and wonder what you are going to do.'

Claire’s research is all about the access asylum seekers have to leisure activities, community participation and how the lack of access to those basic needs can have a negative impact on the health and well-being of asylum seekers.

She said: 'The absence of occupation for asylum seekers leaves a huge gap in their lives. Not being able to work, access educational opportunities or feel part of the community has an enormous impact on their mental state and physical well-being.

'Occupation basically means any purposeful activity and the research I’m doing here at Teesside University will capture individual perspectives on the role of occupation in the lives of people who seek asylum in the UK.

'Occupational therapy can help to support asylum seekers by providing opportunities to promote productivity and belonging. The findings of this study will raise awareness of needs and highlight cost effective ways to support people in becoming more integrated into their local community, more able to maintain their own well-being and more able to support one another.'

For the Zimbabwean asylum seeker, her future is still uncertain. Initially refused asylum, she has put in another application which is currently being processed.

She said: 'People assume that asylum seekers are looking for a better life, but that is not always the case. It is not a better life – you are sacrificing happiness for safety.

Pete Widlinksi, of NERS (North of England Refugee Service) said: 'Meeting and getting to know someone seeking asylum and understanding the reasons why they are here, is the key to enlightenment. Claire’s research should help with this process of understanding and acceptance.

'Leaving your country, culture, family, and friends to seek sanctuary in a foreign land is not an easy option, and people do not take the decision to flee lightly. For many, going through the asylum process in a foreign country can feel like a continuation of the persecution suffered back home.'

In the News

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The Peninsula (Qatar), 31/08/2012, p.18
In 2011, Professor Tracy Shildrick of the Social Institute at Teesside University noted that many of society's lowest earners prefer to work even if benefits leave them better off, because they believ

£10,000 grant for asylum research
Evening Gazette, 28/08/2012, p.15
A Teesside University lecturer has been awarded a £10,000 grant to carry out pioneering research looking at how asylum seekers feel about leaving their daily lives behind. Claire Smith, inset, senior