Edward Snowden is currently the most famous asylum seeker in the world after reportedly applying for refugee status in countries including Russia, Germany, Spain and Ecuador.
In many ways Snowden is far removed from the average asylum seeker. He is an American ex-spy, is assisted by WikiLeaks in his pursuit of asylum and was at one point believed to have been hiding in the Bolivian President’s plane. But the case of Edward Snowden means that people are reading about asylum, an issue that is shrouded by misconceptions.
Tabloids and popular myths can make it appear as though western countries are perennially flooded by refugees. Opinion polling in 2012 showed that four out of 10 people in the UK believed that more than 10 per cent of the population are asylum seekers. The actual figure is less than 1 per cent.
Most asylum seekers are not American ex- spies who flee to Hong Kong en route to Moscow. Last year the largest number of any country came from war torn Afghanistan. Indeed the high correlation between countries that endure large scale violence (like Afghanistan and Iraq) or human rights abuses (China) and the number of people who flee them explains a lot. People are literally fleeing for their lives.
Snowden is currently residing in Moscow airport enduring the kind of waiting and sheer stress that thousands of asylum seekers suffer each year. In Britain a United Kingdom Border Agency caseworker will aim to complete a case within six months. This means that someone can spend many months living off benefits far lower than job seekers allowance and at the same time not knowing whether they will be granted asylum.
As Snowden is finding, it is not easy to gain refugee status. In the UK in 2011 only a third of asylum applications were accepted in the first place. For those who appealed there was a success rate of just 22 per cent. The facts make it clear that Britain is not opening the gates and beckoning everyone in.
If you read the tabloids you might be forgiven for thinking that the UK is full of refugees lazing about in Hampstead council mansions at the expense of tax payers. Instead a single asylum seeker aged over18 will receive £36.62 a week. A few months ago there was a great deal of fuss over whether Iain Duncan Smith would be able to live on £53 a week. Perhaps it's time that someone asks Minister of State for Immigration Mark Harper if he can live off £36.62 a week.
Of course Snowden’s case is very different to that of the vast majority of asylum seekers. He is not fleeing war and he is not being persecuted for his religious or political beliefs, at least in the conventional sense. But his case does bring asylum into the public eye. And it’s time people found out more about an issue that is both so serious and so misunderstood.