Written by: Helen Claire Hart, Principal Lecturer (Research & Innovation), Teesside University
Seeking asylum is associated with many hardships. But one of the most significant is actually the challenge of finding meaningful ways to spend your time. People can find themselves waiting for an asylum decision for many years, facing multiple barriers, struggling to fill the hours in their days and feeling they exist on the margins of society.
Indeed, daily occupations – such as family life, self-care, work, leisure and community participation – are how many people find purpose, express themselves and connect with others. Research shows that finding the right kind of daily occupation has the potential to help people cope with the major adjustments of asylum and successfully negotiate daily life in their new context.
For people seeking asylum though, opportunities for work are often restricted by asylum policies in their host country. This – along with reduced access to education, leisure and social networks – can mean that accessing opportunities becomes very difficult and that people’s skills, experience and passions dwindle. All of which can lead to limited community integration, poor mental health and vulnerability to exploitation.
Despite repeated calls for greater access to opportunities like work and education, successive governments in the UK have reduced access through populist policies designed to create a “hostile environment” for immigrants. This leads to a waste of the skills and potential of many people.
Finding meaning and purpose
In my recent research with people seeking asylum in Teesside in north-east England, I found that people wanted more than just “something to do”. Indeed, many people were searching for opportunities to “not only keep busy, but keep busy with purpose”. They described the frustration of “low challenge occupations” – such as watching television or cleaning the house – which fill time but offer little satisfaction. Instead they were searching for activities that presented opportunities to find meaning and purpose.
Which activities offer meaning and purpose will vary from person to person but, generally, people are motivated to do things that promote feelings of productivity), connectedness, continuity and self-worth. Meaningful occupations can give feelings of achievement and mastery. They can provide connections to family, networks and community, so that people feel valued. They can also provide continuity between past, present and future. Together this creates a sense of productivity, belonging and a consistent life path.
Yet, each of these crucial elements is undermined during forced migration. Policies and practicalities leave people without the means to feel productive through work or education. The absence of family, networks and community undermines their sense of belonging. Rapid change and limited choice halt their feeling of continuity and hostile attitudes leave them feeling devalued.
Meaningful occupations provide a means to resist these challenges, allowing people to hold onto a sense of self and maintain wellbeing. Projects promoting occupation for people seeking asylum are numerous. Activities can include gardening, cookery, creative writing, cycling and football – all of which foster meaning through structure, purpose, belonging and identity.
‘More than just an asylum seeker’
Occupations are so much part of everyday life that their value is often taken for granted. Humans are occupational beings. We use our daily activities to demonstrate our assets and strengths, connect with others and express our values. Access to occupation is considered a human right. As previous research has highlighted, it enables people to “flourish, fulfil their potential and experience satisfaction”.
Through meaningful occupation, people seeking asylum can experience improved physical and mental health, maintain essential skills and integrate with their host community. It can also help to bring people together and provide opportunities for them to express their identity, to become “more than an asylum seeker”. Finding meaning in everyday life makes the hardships of asylum more tolerable. It also allows people to retain more of themselves to take forward into their future.
At a time when forced migration is at its highest recorded level, more practical solutions to the lengthy, passive wait for asylum decisions must be found. This is important, as denying people opportunities is associated with many negatives. It is a costly, wasteful approach based on draconian and ill-considered policies, designed for their rhetoric rather than their common sense. The call for people seeking asylum to be allowed to work is growing. But in the meantime, there must be easier access to a range of alternative occupations to help lessen the impact this limbo period has on people, their families and the wider community.
Helen Claire Hart received funding from United Kingdom Occupational Therapy Research Foundation to carry out this study.