Blog by Will Wheeler

This blog post discusses an article by GMIAU’s Policy Officer Will Wheeler. The article, based on ethnographic research Will conducted in a previous role at the University of Manchester, discusses trauma and suicide in the asylum system. The first part of the blog explains the article’s central argument, about the ‘abusive state’. The blog then contextualises the abusive politics surrounding asylum in wider failures of care from the British state, and uses this framework to understand the escalating cruelty in asylum policy of recent years. 

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‘When they’re lying, and they say you’re lying, then there’s no hope.’ 

These were the words of Sanwar [not his real name], who had come to the UK from Bangladesh seeking safety. He had been severely traumatised by an abusive upbringing and persecution for his sexuality. On claiming asylum, he was immediately detained. After his release, he was ‘dispersed’ to Greater Manchester. After some time, his asylum claim was refused: his narratives of persecution, and his sexual identity, were entirely disbelieved. His appeal was dismissed, and, three years after claiming asylum, in 2016, he was evicted onto the streets.  

Over the next few years, he would make repeated fresh claims for asylum, which would be pushed back again and again. The process took a severe toll on his mental health, and he attempted suicide several times. Against the odds, he pulled through, and eventually, in 2019, six years after first claiming asylum, he was granted refugee status. 

The abusive state  

I talked with Sanwar in the context of an ethnographic research project at the University of Manchester into lived experiences of the asylum system. Over a series of interviews, and analysing his asylum paperwork, we together explored his life story in its entanglement with the legal processes he was subjected to – including the enforced periods of destitution and street homelessness; his loneliness in ‘dispersed accommodation’ living on less than £40 per week; the visceral feeling of being disbelieved and discredited; and the complex legal struggle for leave to remain.  

I wrote about Sanwar’s story in a recent article, “‘When they’re lying, and they say you’re lying, then there’s no hope’: Asylum seeking, trauma, and the abusive state”. This article built on recent characterisations of slow violence in the asylum process. By analysing the traumas Sanwar faced within the asylum process, including the repeated refusals and periods of destitution, I sought to diagnose this violence further – developing the concept of the ‘abusive state’. 

‘When they’re lying, and they say you’re lying, then there’s no hope.’ Sanwar’s words devastatingly capture the sense of gaslighting when people are wrongly refused asylum amidst the Home Office’s ‘culture of disbelief’. As he painstakingly described to me, he was forced to inhabit a manipulated reality. The only way out was to continue to play a game with opaque rules that he knew from experience would bring him no good. Exploring the resonances and reverberations between his experiences in the UK and his past experiences of abuse, the article therefore argues that “[t]he extended encounter with the asylum bureaucracy […] amounted to entrapment in abusive patterns of power.” 

To make these claims is not to suggest that everyone going through such processes will have the same experiences. The texture of Sanwar’s experiences depended on the traumas he carried with him – others, with different life histories, may experience these processes differently. But, the article, proposes, this extended case-study “throw[s] into sharp relief the contours of this violence.” 

Asylum and suicide  

The repeated refusals, destitution and fear of deportation had a devastating effect on Sanwar’s mental health. In the article, I tried to strike a balance between tracking Sanwar’s recovery and ultimate winning of status, and the darkest moments, when he attempted suicide. This meant, on the one hand, paying attention to his extraordinary resilience, together with the networks he developed – the spaces of welcome where he participated actively, carving a space to flourish. 

But, on the other hand, I didn’t want to brush aside the moments when the story could have taken a different turn. What Sanwar shared with me offered a vantage point on something profoundly unknowable. These were moments when Sanwar’s agency was intensely constricted; when all the options were bad; when there was no way out.  

In listening more attentively to those moments, as I explain in the article, I was prompted by very personal reasons, having recently lost a friend who killed himself. My friend’s life experiences in many ways could not have been more different from those of Sanwar, but there were unexpected resonances – which attuned me to listen more carefully to those parts of Sanwar’s narrative where suicide came into view.  

As Sanwar himself pointed out to me, suicides and suicidal ideation are all too common in the asylum system. But they rarely make waves – which relates to the difficulties in knowing and understanding what is happening. In the absence of firm data, we just don’t know how frequent suicides, suicide attempts and suicidal ideation are among people seeking asylum. More fundamentally, we can never fully know what is going on in the inner worlds of those lost to suicide.  

And yet, these chasms in knowledge should not lead us to ignore the issue. After all, there is an ethical and political imperative to grieve and honour the lives of those lost to the violence of borders and bordering processes – as we have seen recently in Open Democracy’s project to document the lives of those lost attempting to cross the Channel. Given the abusive violence of the system Sanwar, and so many others have experienced, should we not also mourn those whose lives are lost to suicide in our communities? What, the article asks, might it mean to put suicide at the centre of how we think, and feel, about the politics of asylum? 

Failures of care and the politics of immigration  

The conclusion of the article turns to what feeds this abusive politics. Drawing on the anthropologist Ghassan Hage, I look at the twin imaginaries of the nation-state as a nurturing mother figure (think: NHS; welfare state; social housing), and as a paternal enforcer of security (think: policing; border control; counter-terrorism). As Hage saw more than 20 years ago, when the nurturing side that brings hope is in decline, there is an increasing turn to the defensive functions of order and security.  

In 2024 Britain, this insight seems more relevant than ever. Indeed, while writing the article, I was impelled by the sense that the friend I had lost had taken his life after a series of failures of care from different branches of the state (I’m not pretending this is the full story – but it was a significant part of it). I was also aware that he fitted the demographic that the politics surrounding immigration is performed for – elderly, white, working-class (although, to state clearly, he himself had no truck with this politics). And I was uncomfortably aware of the thread that connects those failures of care and the politics of immigration and asylum. As I wrote:  

But those failures, that breakdown, plays out in the miserable intimacy of a private lifeworld that has become unliveable. They do not easily translate into public anger. Instead, those failures are buried under, and any latent energy from them is channelled into, the performance of a much more spectacular failure—the failure of ‘our’ borders to keep ‘us’ whole and bounded. That spectacular failure of the border does mobilise; it is intensely public. 

Asylum hotels, Rwanda, the Illegal Migration Act and the intensification of abuse 

Thinking in these terms helps us make sense of some of the developments of the last few years. Sanwar experienced the asylum system that had taken shape over the late 1990s and early 2000s. Over the past four years, this system has been in a state of major flux through a combination of incompetence and escalating cruelty.  

During the pandemic Home Office decision making stalled. With very limited move-on, a shortage of asylum accommodation developed – leading the Home Office to warehouse people in hotels for months or years on end. These hotels are described by residents as like being in prison. Simultaneously, these same hotels have become a flashpoint for anger in communities failed by decades of government neglect. In response, the government has exploited its own failings to justify still more cruel ways of warehousing people seeking asylum – on the Bibby Stockholm barge and in military camps. 

Meanwhile, the government, while refusing to address any of the deep-seated afflictions 14 years of austerity have bestowed on the country, has instead introduced successive policies of increasing hostility towards people seeking asylum – the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, the UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership, the Illegal Migration Act 2023, and now the Safety of Rwanda Act 2024.  

Beyond the cruelty, much has been written about the unworkability of all this legislation. But this misses the point. Arguably the unworkability is the point, as the government makes political capital from its own failures – by pinning the blame on lefty lawyers, judges, and people themselves seeking sanctuary. Any anger that might reasonably flow from the disintegration of the state as a structure of care is diverted towards those deemed a risk to the integrity of ‘our’ borders. 

The abusive state today 

What can it be like to be living through the asylum ‘system’ as it is now? Many at the time of writing will be living in intense fear of detention and deportation to Rwanda, with their claim for asylum deemed ‘inadmissible’ and placed on hold indefinitely. For anyone arriving since March last year, whether or not they have been threatened with removal to Rwanda, their claim cannot be progressed because the Illegal Migration Act 2023 effectively dismantles the existing asylum system, but does not replace it with anything else. With no indication of when or how the key provisions of the Act will be implemented, anyone who has arrived since the bill was first introduced more than a year ago is stuck in a kind of meta-limbo.  

While in this meta-limbo, people remain warehoused in asylum hotels – or on the barge or in military camps. In these sites, people’s lives are governed by subcontracted staff, with opaque rules and limited accountability. 

The abusive state today is therefore looking rather different from that experienced by Sanwar. Like Sanwar, tens of thousands of people across the UK living in this meta-limbo will have experienced significant trauma – which will resonate in myriad ways with the abusive patterns of power put in place by the policy environment. 

We know already that these policies are proving deadly. The suicide of an Albanian man, Leonard Farruku, a musician, on the Bibby Stockholm was widely reported. We are also aware of people taking their life in the asylum system here in the North West. How many there may be, and how many more may have attempted or considered it – we cannot know. Nor can we fully understand how the violent hostility of the policy environment will be reverberating with and amplifying past traumas people have experienced in their country of origin and/or on their journey to the UK.  

How to respond? 

In the article, I suggested that the fact that people are being pushed to suicide helps us diagnose the violence of the systems they are forced to go through. But the article also suggests that we might take these acts seriously as political acts, reclaiming a sense of agency when all avenues for agency seem closed off. This is speculative, and as I write, I remain uncomfortable about speculating about such matters – but silence and moving on also feels uncomfortable.  

What might it mean to base our political action on a space of uncertainty? The article doesn’t attempt to answer such questions, but instead closes with a set of emotions that Sanwar’s story prompted in me: grief; guilt; anger; and hope – the last, because, despite everything, he pulled through.  

And so, I would like to end this blog with some suggested actions – they are hardly equal to what is shared here, but they are, perhaps, a starting point. 

  • Sign our statement showing solidarity with people in our region warehoused in hotels, and calling for housing justice for all, wherever they are from
  • Write to your MP telling them to repeal the Safety of Rwanda Act, drop the Rwanda plan, repeal the Illegal Migration Act and create a humane and just asylum system. Politicians need to understand the consequences of the violent policies they devise from the safety and comfort of Westminster 
  • To directly support people seeking safety who are currently at risk of being detained and sent to Rwanda, people can find and join local signing support and anti-raids groups