Reimagining Refugee Rights

Reimagining Refugee Rights: Addressing Asylum Harms in Britain, Denmark and Sweden

For people seeking asylum in Northern Europe, reaching a safe country is a key goal. However, many face unexpected and unduly harsh realities: poverty, poor healthcare, racism and Islamophobia can make life incredibly difficult. This raises serious ethical concerns. Rather than accessing rights, many people experience the degeneration of their mental health, loss of job-related skills as time goes on, and social isolation. Survivors of violence and persecution are often excluded from support networks. Likewise, some policies and social attitudes are increasingly hostile toward migrants, resulting in harmful laws and practices.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, this study was based in Britain, Denmark and Sweden from 2016-2018, and documents the harms increasingly embedded in the lives of people seeking asylum. In particular, this study focuses on the gendered implications of seeking asylum. It highlights that hostile attitudes and environments compound – or make worse – the impacts of violence, torture and sexual abuse. At the same time social and psychological support is reduced, leaving many people in an unsupported limbo, and women survivors of violence on the periphery of societies.

This project used three key methods to explore asylum harms; in depth interviews, oral histories, and participatory action. Between October 2016-June 2018, 74 in-depth interviews were undertaken with psychologists, detention custody officers, activists, sexual violence counsellors, immigration lawyers and barristers. In-depth oral histories were also undertaken with five women, facilitating longer term insight into women’s lives and trajectories of violence.

Participatory action is a qualitative collaboration between the researcher and communities which seeks to move knowledge into action. It has been central to accessing insight to everyday harms – as well as survival – in the lives of people seeking asylum. It has included spending more than 500 hours speaking with people seeking asylum across the three countries, in particular women in asylum centres in Denmark and in communities in Merseyside, Britain and Malmö, Sweden.


Dr Victoria Canning (University of Bristol)


Briefing on key findings published by PolicyBristol

Final research report 

This project is associated with the MMB Challenge on Representation, belonging, futures