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People at refugee protest holding 'refugees & migrants welcome here' signs ;

Reforming the UK's refugee and asylum system for a just and inclusive society

In 2023, Hanna Kienzler, Professor in the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine and Co-Director of the ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health, joined the Commission on the Integration of Refugees as commissioner and Steering Group member. We speak to Professor Kienzler about her role, the impact of this work and her research on the subject of refugees and mental health.

The independent UK-based commission aims to improve the integration of refugees into society. They will hear from people with lived experience, community leaders, professionals and policy makers, from civil society and the public sector and from across the political spectrum.

The Commission is currently doing a holistic review of the UK refugee and asylum system with the aim to propose an alternative based on human rights, social justice, and human dignity.

What does your role with the Commission involve?

In my role, I participate in Commission meetings and engage in local hearings where we travel across the UK to hear from members of the community, people with lived experience, charities, politicians and others about their experience with the current asylum system and how they think an alternative system should look like.

We also visit key sites which form part of the asylum process like refugee drop-in centres, asylum seeker accommodations, refugee employment support centres and border force. We consult with experts like consultants for UN organisations, the International Rescue Committee, and Citizens UK.

At the moment, we are running a call for evidence to better understand how the current asylum system affects refugees’ integration into wider UK society. Based on these insights, we will publish a report at the end of 2023.

Why is this attempt to reform the system necessary?

Not a day goes by without news about the asylum system and it is mostly not good. Across the political spectrum, people agree that the current system is not fit for purpose – it is unfair, unethical, inefficient and cruel.

The Nationalities and Borders Act has introduced a two-tier system that disadvantages those who arrive on irregular routes. Those deemed inadmissible to the UK can now be deported to Rwanda and other potentially ‘safe’ third countries. At the same time, entering the UK via regular routes is difficult as there are hardly any.

Those who manage to stay in the UK are faced with a hostile environment which forces many to live in sub-standard housing, including disused military barracks. Most asylum seekers are not allowed to work and many end up in destitution. The welfare they are eligible for is a mere £45 per week. All this is compounded by uncertainty about whether they can stay in the UK. While the UK only takes about 6% of the total EU+ asylum applications, it has a huge backlog of processing them.

How does your work as a researcher tie in with the Commission’s work?

For almost two decades, I have been working in the field of war and mental health. I conducted research with women survivors of the Kosovo War, torture survivors in Nepal, and people with severe mental illness and disabilities in the occupied Palestinian territory. I am also co-founder of the Refugee Mental Health and Place network where we seek to make our research accessible to the wider public and help provide support to refugees.

What our research clearly shows is that people are not merely “victims” of the circumstances they are thrust into. They shape their lives actively even in the direst of situations. At the same time, and this is not a contradiction, we know that survivors of violence have a higher risk of developing mental health problems which impact how they can participate in society whether back home or, as refugees, in their host countries.

Our research also shows that stressful conditions in host countries like arduous legal procedures, racism and discrimination, poverty and unemployment, and lack of access to public services detrimentally affect refugees’ mental health and wellbeing.

I have learned that people’s sense of belonging, their quality of life and their physical and mental health are in important ways shaped by political and social determinants.

These insights are directly relevant to the work of the Commission as we strive to contribute to a society in which people feel welcome so that they can lead their lives in safety and dignity with opportunities for healing and thriving.

What impact do you hope this work will have on policy and refugee communities?

A system that denies people their rights and ignores evidence that shows how societies benefit greatly from immigration, needs changing. We are not only depriving people of a decent and meaningful life, we are also depriving ourselves of becoming a thriving society where people from different walks of life contribute to our culture and social life, education, science, and more.

The Commission’s aim is to contribute to an asylum system that allows people to become part of our society and lead lives they value. We also recognise that we have a long way to go considering that entrenched political systems don’t change overnight.

Call for evidence

The Commission on the Integration of Refugees invites evidence submissions from individuals and organisations until 31 March 2023.

The Commission is wholly independent, has no political affiliation and are keen to hear from a broad range of views. All submissions will be taken seriously and will inform the Commission's report and recommendations for feasible reforms to the current refugee and asylum system.

You can submit evidence by completing the form on their website or by completing their form and emailing it to:

If you have any questions about the work of the Commission or the Call for Evidence, please contact Chris Cooper-Davies, Head of the Commission Secretariat:

In this story

Hanna Kienzler

Hanna Kienzler

Professor of Global Health

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