How do Iranian and Afghan sanctuary seekers understand mental health?

How do sanctuary seekers seek support and manage their mental health?

This study aimed to understand the mental health experience of Iranians and Afghans going through the asylum process. To answer this question I conducted in-depth and walking interviews with Iranians and Afghans who had sought asylum, people who worked with them in a professional capacity, and members of their community. I spoke to around 40 people in total. Click here for a summary of policy and participant findings, and click here for recommendations for charities.  


In-depth interviews

Sedentary interviews were conducted face-to-face at a location chosen by the participant or over the phone at the participant’s convenience.

Walking interviews

Walking interviews were conducted while walking with the participant. The route was chosen by the participant and related to their experience of the asylum process.


Theme 1: The Social Context of Arrival


From the moment I applied for asylum, I saw that... there are restrictions on me working while I am an asylum seeker.


1. Sanctuary seekers arrived in the UK with different advantages and disadvantages that influenced their mental health in the asylum process. These included English language ability, level of education, and having the money to employ a good lawyer. Privileges across these three areas translated into: a better understanding of the asylum system, access to more precise information during the process, and a greater ability to keep up with bureaucratic demands. 

2. Interviewees reported how, as soon as they arrived, a process of minoritisation began. Individuals started to learn about and become an asylum seeker, internalising the restrictions associated with this status. Participants explained how their professional identity, social standing, and community became unimportant, and that they were required to start from scratch.

3. Though people were unable to maintain their professional status, higher educational status did provide some protection. It enabled people to better understand what was happening to them and allowing them a limited feeling of agency in the process.

Theme 2: Going through the asylum bureaucracy, the asylum interview


I had come to a human rights country, I needed help. They could have helped me, not given me a mental blow.


1. Participants portrayed the asylum process as both combative and bureaucratic. The substantive asylum interview epitomised the fight of asylum for participants.

2. Interviewees described how sanctuary seekers were under intense pressure to provide an accurate account of the worst moments of their lives to a stranger. They described the process as adversarial and as aiming to discredit and undermine them. 

3. The interview produced a sense of desperation in people, following which they embellished or lied to fit what they perceived to be the criteria for granting asylum. Interviewees reported that the interview left them feeling betrayed: the country that was meant to uphold their basic human rights was instead brutally attacking them.

Theme 3: Going through the asylum process bureaucracy, waiting for a decision


Your destiny, your career, your future. Your career doesn’t go forward for four years, it is frozen.


1. After the interview, sanctuary seekers entered a bureaucratic cycle characterised by waiting. This waiting had no foreseeable end, and many watched their future plans and selves unravel. People lost a sense of who they were during the wait.

2. According to participants, the uncertainty attached to waiting was a constant source of stress and even fear. Some interviewees were confused about why the process required such lengthy periods of waiting, while others felt that it was part of a tactic to punish and dissuade people from claiming asylum.

Theme 3: Daily life in asylum


Someone escapes prison and comes here and is in prison here too. I have sought refuge here to live, not to suffer more.


1. The asylum process made day-to-day life a struggle for sanctuary seekers, due to social and economic restrictions and limited financial support. This created a sense that pre-migration problems continued into, and were even compounded by, their life in the UK.

2. Sanctuary seekers were also physically marginalised by
deprivation and discrimination, spending time in a few free spaces: libraries, churches, and parks.

3.   Government restrictions were described as making people dependent and vulnerable to exploitation, as well as fuelling perceptions in the media and among the public that sanctuary seekers were parasites.

A video summary of research findings

I give a short video for the King’s College London Centre for Society and Mental Health