A vague use of terms, such as economic migrant, refugee, asylum seeker, saturates the public-political discourse on migration and national borders. As the state seeks to differentiate ‘illegal’ economic migrants from ‘genuine’ asylum seekers, the latter often end up in Immigration Removal Centres while their case is being considered. Yet people around the world are facing increasingly complex and multifaceted perils, making it more and more difficult to differentiate between, for instance, forced displacement because of armed conflict or violence and concomitant forced migration because of famine or climate change. Consequently, ambiguous use of terminology can be deliberate to fuel anti-asylum and anti-immigration rhetoric or result from bureaucratic oversight whereby people fleeing persecution are being classed as ‘illegal migrants’.
Research literature can also fall short on critical differentiations between people seeking asylum and refugees. This can lead to confusing discussions, given that the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees are continuous but qualitatively different. The terminology that researchers use, such as ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’, are also labels that people may object to or instrumentalise in certain ways. As labels, they shape people’s experiences, including mental health and illness, and research needs to be mindful of that. These labels can entail certain stigmatising attachments and negative connotations, not only in host societies but also in refugee communities. The misapplication of concepts relating to people’s status prevents us from hearing their stories, and not hearing stories means not getting justice.
Place characteristics such as environment and climate, local communities and histories, institutions, and political economies make up the post-migration context for refugee mental health. As such, the places where refugees end up living are highly relevant for their mental health. While awaiting a decision, asylum seekers with social capital and the means to support themselves can choose where to settle and usually can do so after they receive leave to remain. However, those who are dispersed often find themselves in impoverished areas removed from social and economic networks. Furthermore, ‘hostile environment’ policies aimed at reducing immigration make the UK less hospitable for refugees who try to settle and attain a sense of belonging.
Places shape how people can survive and thrive, and how they can challenge and deal with disadvantaged status created by the invalidation of their previous work experience or education. At the same time, it is important to highlight that refugees have agency in that they actively shape the social, physical and political environments where they live, by creating institutions and economies that cater to their communities. Places are not static but change over time along with people who inhabit them and this change unfolds at the intersections between refugee agency and settlement structural conditions and processes.