Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Asylum seeker motivation

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Asylum seeker motivation:
What are the motivations of asylum seekers?

Overview[edit | edit source]

“Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee is initially and asylum seeker” ("What's the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?", 2019).

An asylum seeker is someone who seeks international protection and whose claim has been submitted but not yet approved by the country they have submitted it in. A refugee has already fled their home country due to fear of being persecuted due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” ("What's the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?", 2019)

Focus questions
  1. What psychological theories apply to the motivation of asylum seekers?
  2. What are the challenges that asylum seekers face in their home countries that force them to flee?
  3. What are the challenges that asylum seekers when they reach their country of asylum?

A timeline for the development of protection for asylum seekers[edit | edit source]

1948. Article 14. “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”  ("Universal Declaration of Human Rights", 1948)

The 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 1967 Protocol In the 19th century, refugees were defined as those who “dared to defy the established powers with the pen, the revolver, or in armed campaigns”, including well-known individuals Mazzini, Marx, and Bakunin (Kirchheimer 1959: 986).

The 1951 Refugee Convention was developed following WWII, in which they stated that the four grounds for seeking asylum are race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion (Handbook and guidelines on procedures and criteria for determining refugee status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 2011). The people covered by the Convention’s definition were limited just to those who were fleeing from Europe, and who were leaving due to events that occurred before January 1st, 1951. The Convention also covered minimum standards for the treatment of refugees, rights for refugees included “access to the courts, to primary education, to work, and the provision for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form” (Handbook and guidelines on procedures and criteria for determining refugee status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 2011).

Since 1951, the definition of refugee that emerged from the 1951 Refugee Convention has been criticised as it is “too narrow” and restricts access to refugee status (Glynn, 2011). Academics have argued that refugee status should be given to individuals whose state lacks “basic safety and subsistence needs necessary to survive” (ibid).

1967 brought reconsiderations of the original Convention, removing limitations and universally opening up the people covered by the Convention (Handbook and guidelines on procedures and criteria for determining refugee status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 2011). Alongside developments in international human rights law, the Convention must be applied without discrimination, including sex, age, disability, and sexuality (ibid).

Case study - Russian refugees after the Russian Revolution

Over 1 million refugees fled from Russia following three major events - the 1917 Russian Revolution, the civil war, and the 1921 famine (Glynn, 2011). For a brief explanation of almost ten years - Russia joined WWI in 1914 and in 1917  Bolshevik, a member of the Russian Social Democratic Party, came into power (Markevich & Harrison, 2011). Russia then withdrew from WWI and a civil war began continuing into 1920, which was followed by a famine. Within this time, Russia's economy plummeted. The refugees, or individuals and groups, who were fleeing Russia during these years were fleeing the constant war, famine, and economic catastrophe (ibid).

These people are well justified for leaving their home country of Russia, yet are they refugees? These people are referred to as refugees in many historical papers, however, the 1951 Refugee Convention did not include these people in their definition of refugees. To qualify as a refugee by the Convention’s standards, these people needed to have a “well-founded fear” of persecution, and leaving due to a natural disaster and civil war was not reason enough to qualify as a refugee.

Theories of motivation[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs[edit | edit source]

Figure 1: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see Figure 1) explains the needs that humans have in order of which they need to be satisfied. The original hierarchy consisted of five needs, and was originally[Rewrite to improve clarity][repeated word within sentence] explained that someone cannot move onto having the next section of needs met until the needs below it were met. The five needs consisted of physiological needs, at the bottom, and rose to safety needs, love and belongingness needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs (Kaur, 2013).

These five needs are split into deficiency needs (physiological, safety, love/belonging, and esteem needs) and growth needs (self-actualisation needs). Deficiency needs step from deprivation, motivating people when they are unmet. For example, physiological needs consist of basic biological requirements for survival, including air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, and sleep. If one cannot find food or drink, they will become more and more motivated to find the resources to satisfy these needs. These needs are the basic needs for survival, and one cannot go on to meet the needs in the higher segments until these needs are met. Safety needs are also essential for survival, following physiological needs, and includes “protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, [and] freedom from fear” (McLeod, 2020).

Asylum seekers are seeking international protection ("What's the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?", 2019), and are often fleeing due to fear of persecution. These people, both individual groups, are seeking to fulfil the two basic, most necessary needs - physiological and safety needs.

Case study - The Women of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Parts of Mexico

“We cannot go back to Honduras. They will kill us. With the gangs it is very difficult… The gang members wear the same vests and use the same guns that the police do. How do they get hold of these guns and vests? From the police.” - An El Salvadoran women in her late 30s (Women on the Run, 2015).

Women in Central America (see Figure 2) are under great threat in their home countries. This is not necessarily a government threat of persecution, but it is a part of the culture. The threat stems from ‘machismo’ which, simply put, is “exaggerated masculine pride” ("Machismo definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary", 2020). The culture in these countries is dominated by violent males, implementing murder, extortion and rape upon women (Women on the Run, 2015). 2014 found tens of thousands of women seeking asylum in the United states, with over 66,000 unaccompanied and separated children reaching U.S. borders.

Figure 2: Map of Central America

The Refugee Convention did not originally recognise persecution due to gender as a valid claim for refugee status (Pittaway & Bartolomei, 2001), which, when considering rape and the other violence against women may seem crazy and like an issue that must have only been present tens of years ago. Yet this is still the case in The United States - “The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes - such as domestic violence and gang violence - or that certain populations [women] are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018).

Jeff Sessions, 2018 U.S. Attorney General explained that gang violence and domestic violence are more or less just “individual misfortune.”, and are not reason enough for these women to claim asylum within the United States. These women are lacking their two most essential needs - physiological needs and safety needs. 60% of the women interviewed by UNHCR reported “attacks, sexual assaults, rapes, or threats to the police or other authorities” (Women on the Run, 2015). Not only does this obviously lack in satisfying safety needs, but it limits the resources for these women to have adequate sleep, and perhaps even shelter.

Quiz question

Who is most likely to be on the receiving end of machismo?

Government officials
People of colour

Push-pull theory[edit | edit source]

The push-pull theory is often used when explaining motivation behind immigration. The push factors are the factors that are pushing individuals, or groups, away from the country they are currently located in (Pan, 2019). The pull factors are the factors that are pulling those individuals, or groups, towards another country. This push-pull factor has been transformed into an algebraic model, in which it includes magnitude of movement, time intervals, distance between the places, as well as two primary variables - R and E (Dorigo & Tobler, 1983). R stands for rejecting, repelling, and repulsing, otherwise stating the push factors. E stands for enticing, the pulling factors towards a place.

In the case of the women from Central America, the push factor would be the threat of extreme violence in their countries - rape, gang violence, threat of murder. The pull towards The United States would be primarily that those threats are not nearly as common in the U.S.[factual?] Both push and pull factors will typically consist of factors relating to economic, political, and safety conditions (Brekke & Aarset, 2009), wherein a person may leave their home country due to poor economic, political, and/or safety conditions, and be drawn to another country seeing better economic, political, and/or safety conditions. Two other common pull factors are social networks as well as former colonial ties (ibid), meaning they may have family or friends who have safely relocated to those destinations, or there is history between their country and the country they are looking to seek asylum in.

Risk aversion[edit | edit source]

Risk aversion is often used in terms of investing money, but can also be applied to the motives of asylum seekers. Risk aversion is settling for the lower option with known risks, rather than taking the higher ‘pay-out’ option with unknown, and higher risks (Kimball, 1993). Risk aversion becomes relevant with asylum seekers when they are planning their journey, and in a study on why asylum seekers end up in particular countries they expanded on this[awkward expression?]. Brekke and Aarset, authors of Why Norway, explained that the asylum seeker would choose, if given choice, the destination with less risk involved (2009). Asylum seekers may have access to certain country’s asylum seeking practices, and will often choose the country that they (1) have more information about, and (2) know has less risk involved (ibid). One choice they may be more likely to have is whether they stay or leave their country, and both options may be just as dangerous as the other (Bocqueho et al. 2018).

One other factor to be noted is that asylum seekers often do not have a large choice in where they migrate to, setting out for a new, safer home and finding themselves in particular countries by chance. If choice is involved, it is most likely due to social connections with family and friends, rather than choosing based on the country (Brekke & Aarset, 2009).

Economic motivations[edit | edit source]

“Most asylum seekers it appears, are economic migrants’, as opposed to being genuine refugees fleeing persecution.” UK Immigration and Border Minister Phil Woolas (Zimmermann, 2011).

Economic motivation stems from individuals, or groups, seeking to “acquire and/or create wealth” (Zhao, 2006). Asylum seeking based on economic motivations is often frowned upon by receiving countries. Although there are other reasons people migrate from Mexico to the U.S., one common occurrence is that people are moving for economic opportunities (Jenkins, 1977). These pull factors include high wages and more employment opportunities, contrasting the push factors of “rapid population growth, land scarcity and growing inequality in land holdings in rural Mexico”. This is not so much a case of asylum-seeking, however, it does provide a negative misconception on those who are genuinely fleeing from unsafe conditions and seeking a safer life.

“Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:

‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread’;

He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.”  - W.H.Auden (Auden, 1950).

The challenges asylum seekers face in the process[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Social dominance theory[edit | edit source]

Social dominance theory seeks to explain the occurrence of group-based hierarchies in human societies (Sidanius, Pratto, van Laar & Levin, 2004). This social dominance has been seen in the well-known example of the holocaust, in which the German Nazi’s were dominant over the Jews (Woolf, 2018). Although this extreme example may seem as though it is from a long time ago, racially motivated violence is still a common occurrence.

“Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;

It was Hitler over Europe, saying: ‘They must die’;

We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,

Saw a door opened and a cat let in:

But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.”


“Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,

A thousand windows and a thousand doors;

Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.” (Auden, 1950)

When Erving Goffman was explaining stigma, he mentioned that “we believe the person with the stigma is not quite human” (Goffman, 2009). Asylum seekers and refugees face stigma and racially motivated violence all the time, often falling to the bottom of the socially dominant hierarchy[factual?]. Women, in particular, fall even further to the bottom of the hierarchy in the countries they claim asylum in. Host countries in both the West and the Asia-Pacific often face discrimination in terms of “wages, job security, working conditions, job-related training, and the right to unionize” (Pittaway & Bartolomei, 2001). Due to this racism, refugee women will often not speak up about their encounters of gender discrimination and violence.

Mental health[edit | edit source]

Asylum seekers have already come from a challenging lifestyle, fleeing their home countries due to un-liveable conditions and facing the unknown in travelling to a new country[say what?][factual?][but a previous section indicated that most ASs are motivated by improving economic circumstances?].

W.H.Auden’s ‘Refugee Blues’ showcases the distress faced by asylum seekers and refugees -

“Say this city has ten million souls,

Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:

Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,

Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:

We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.”

Auden’s poem goes on and captures the challenges that they face in leaving a country they once called home and moving to a country that is not open to accepting them.

Already having faced mental challenges, asylum seekers are detained in conditions likely to worsen their mental health upon arrival into the U.S (Keller et al., 2003). Keller and colleague’s study examining these conditions in detention centres in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania[grammar?]. The asylum seekers interviewed had significantly high rates of mental illnesses, 77% with symptoms of anxiety, 86% of depression, and 50% of post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which were significantly correlated[direction? strength?] with the length of time spent in the detention centres. The researchers struggled to gain access to many asylum seeker detention centres and explained that the centres are often old warehouses with no windows, implying little to no natural sunlight[factual?].

Asylum seekers with criminal records from their home countries are put into government-run jails upon arrival into The United States. Of these individuals with criminal records, 74% have been tortured before immigration, 67% have been imprisoned in their home country, and 59% have been sexually assaulted (Keller et al., 2003). While in the detention centre, 26% of the individuals in Keller and colleague’s study reported that they have had thoughts of suicide while being detained, and 70% reported that their mental health has significantly worsened while being in the detention centre.

Another example of poor mental health can be found in an interview with a lady who has found asylum in the U.K. (Burchett & Matheson, 2010). Her home country was not mentioned, and many other identifiable factors of her story were kept out to limit any risks. The interview goes into depth about the lady’s battle with her mental health as she adjusted to a new country, and felt as if she lost her identity. The United Kingdom’s Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 did not allow asylum seekers to gain paid employment until their application had been approved (Burchett & Matheson, 2010), which was later adjusted to say that if a claim takes longer than 12 months then the individual can request permission to gain paid employment. This in itself is a threat to mental health as work assists in promoting health and well-being (Department of Health, 2005). The individual who was interviewed explained that due to not being able to work she started to shut down and keep to herself, changing from a “very vibrant person” (pg 97) to feeling like a beggar.

Not being able to enter into the workforce goes against the minimum standards set out in The Convention, which is the right to work (Handbook and guidelines on procedures and criteria for determining refugee status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 2011). Now, this is only temporary while the claim is being processed, however, it does also tap into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The third level in Maslow’s pyramid is love and belongingness needs - “the need for interpersonal relationships” (McLeod, 2020). The individual from blah blah’s[say what?] interview was not meeting her love and belongingness needs. Perhaps she now had her physiological and safety needs met, yet she still felt unsatisfied and excluded. This is a challenge many asylum seekers face, struggling to meet this need through having to rebuild their lives while being outcast from society.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

People have been seeking asylum for years and years[vague], seeking a safe place to live and fleeing their home country. Many psychological theories can explain why these people are leaving their homes. Maslow would explain that they are seeking to fulfil their deficiency needs, specifically looking at physiological, safety, and love/belonging needs (Kaur, 2013). The push-pull theory would explain that there are factors pushing these people away from their homes, and pulling them towards a country providing a better life (Pan, 2019). Risk aversion explains why people may end up in certain countries, or why they leave in the first place, settling for an option with known risks rather than taking an option that may have a higher ‘pay-out’, yet also has a higher risk involved (Kimball, 1993). Asylum seekers who seek economic motivations are often frowned upon, as they are moving to find higher wages and employment opportunities, and not necessarily fleeing unsafe conditions (Jenkins, 1977).

Asylum seekers face many hardships in life, both before they seek asylum and after they find asylum. These people are fleeing countries in which there is a threat to their safety, for example, the women of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico are fleeing rape, gang violence, and murder (Women on the Run, 2015). With these hardships, asylum seekers are already at risk for poor mental health conditions, yet these can be worsened with the exclusion and conditions that they arrive to when in their new country (Keller et al., 2003). Not only are they sometimes kept in poorly-kept detention centers, but they also fall subject to social dominance theory, falling to the bottom of the hierarchy (Pittaway & Bartolomei, 2001).

With little control over the occurrences in the countries that people are fleeing from, the receiving countries need to improve the conditions that asylum seekers are arriving into[awkward expression?][Rewrite to improve clarity]. The U.S. could start by changing the view that the women from Central America are just subjects of ‘individual misfortune’ (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018), and make the path smoother for these women who are fleeing such horrible conditions. Conditions in the detention centers are worsening asylum seekers’ mental health (Keller et al., 2003),[grammar?] changes should be made to these centers to better the experience for asylum seekers. Receiving countries also need to re-evaluate and try to shut down social dominance theory, perhaps by bettering the employment opportunities for asylum seekers.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Auden, W. (1950). Refugee blues.

Brekke, J., & Aarset, M. (2009). Why Norway?. Oslo: Institute for Social Research.

Burchett, N., & Matheson, R. (2010). The need for belonging: The impact of restrictions on working on the well‐being of an asylum seeker. Journal Of Occupational Science, 17(2), 85-91. doi: 10.1080/14427591.2010.9686679

Department of Health. (2005). Health, work and well-being – caring for our future: A strategy for the health and well-being of working age people. Retrieved February 2, 2009, from PublicationsPolicyAndGuidance/DH_4121756

Dorigo, G., & Tobler, W. (1983). Push-Pull Migration Laws. Annals Of The Association Of American Geographers, 73(1), 1-17. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1983.tb01392.x

Géraldine Bocqueho, Marc Deschamps, Jenny Helstroffer, Julien Jacob, Majlinda Joxhe. Risk and refugee migration. [University works] Inconnu. 2018, 40 p. Ffhal-02198118

Glynn, I. (2011). The Genesis and Development of Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Journal Of Refugee Studies, 25(1), 134-148. doi: 10.1093/jrs/fer054

Goffman, E. (2009). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Jenkins, J. (1977). Push/Pull in Recent Mexican Migration to the U.S. International Migration Review, 11(2), 178. doi: 10.2307/2545157

Kaur, A. (2013). Maslow's Need Hierarchy Theory: Applications and Criticisms. Global Journal Of Management And Business Studies, 3(10), 1061-1064. Retrieved from

Keller, A., Rosenfeld, B., Trinh-Shevrin, C., Meserve, C., Sachs, E., & Leviss, J. et al. (2003). Mental health of detained asylum seekers. The Lancet, 362(9397), 1721-1723. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(03)14846-5

Kimball, M. (1993). Standard Risk Aversion. Econometrica, 61(3), 589. doi: 10.2307/2951719

Kirchheimer, O. (1959). Asylum. American Political Science Review, 53(4), 985-1016. doi: 10.2307/1952071

Machismo definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary. (2020). Retrieved 17 October 2020, from

Markevich, A., & Harrison, M. (2011). Great War, Civil War, and Recovery: Russia’s National Income, 1913 to 1928. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.1645393

McLeod, S. (2020). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved 17 October 2020, from

Pan, G. (2019). The Push-Pull Theory and Motivations of Jewish Refugees. A Study Of Jewish Refugees In China (1933–1945), 123-131. doi: 10.1007/978-981-13-9483-6_9

Pittaway, E., & Bartolomei, L. (2001). Refugees, Race, and Gender: The Multiple Discrimination against Refugee Women. Refuge: Canada's Journal On Refugees, 21-32. doi: 10.25071/1920-7336.21236

Sidanius, J., Pratto, F., van Laar, C., & Levin, S. (2004). Social Dominance Theory: Its Agenda and Method. Political Psychology, 25(6), 845-880. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2004.00401.x

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2015). Women on the Run. United States.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2011). Handbook and guidelines on procedures and criteria for determining refugee status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Geneva.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (1948). Retrieved 17 October 2020, from,principles%20of%20the%20United%20Nations.

U.S. Department of Justice. (2018). Matter of A-B-, Respondent (27 I&N Dec. 316). [PDF File]. Washington, D.C.: U.S.

What's the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?. (2019). Retrieved 17 October 2020, from,is%20initially%20an%20asylum%20seeker.

Woolf, A. (2018). Groupthink Among German, British, American, and Soviet Leaders During the Holocaust. Walden: Walden Dissertations and Doctoral Studies.

Zhao, X. (2006). Economic Motivation and Its Relevance for Business Ethics. Developing Business Ethics In China, 52-61. doi: 10.1057/9781403984623_5 Zimmermann, S. (2011). Reconsidering the Problem of ‘Bogus’ Refugees with ‘Socio-economic Motivations’ for Seeking Asylum. Mobilities, 6(3), 335-352. doi: 10.1080/17450101.2011.590034

External links[edit | edit source]