The use and formation of social networks among asylum seekers and refugees in Northern Ireland

  • Brendan Quail

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis analyses the use and formation of social networks among the asylum seeker and refugee population in Northern Ireland. The social network perspective considers the phenomenon of migration as being socially embedded and places social relationships as its most important feature. Whilst the significance of social networks within migration theory remains paramount, contemporary empirical research has shown a shift in how they are utilised in response to wider social and political contexts. Social networks that traditionally supported asylum migration are argued to have lost their potency as ‘new geographies’ of asylum migration have been emerging. It is within this context that this thesis considers asylum migration to Northern Ireland and provides a deeper understanding of the significance of social networks. The anticipatory and transit phases of migration are investigated and are followed by an analysis of the initial resettlement and formative integration of asylum seekers and refugees currently residing in Northern Ireland. Using Granovetter’s (1973) ‘strength of weak ties’ theory, this work offers insights into the utility and establishment of social networks throughout asylum migration, beginning with the initial decision to migrate through to the post-arrival period.

    This research employs a qualitative methodology, multi-pronged in focus and encompassing semi-structured interviews, diary studies, focus groups and participant observation with members of Northern Ireland’s asylum seeker and refugee population. Additionally, interviews with representatives from a range of refugee support organisations are utilised to provide broader background and context to Northern Ireland as a terminus. The research shows that an absence of ‘migrant networks’ and an inability to use legal channels of migration frequently necessitates the use of human-smugglers to enable migrant travel. Where strong ties fail to facilitate asylum migration and non-commercial ‘weak’ ties have limited scope, it is predominantly ‘weak’ commercial ties with smugglers, which deliver the desired outcome. As a result, Northern Ireland has become a destination of chance and not choice.

    Migration decision-making, predominantly in ‘forced’ circumstances, is commonly undertaken by family members and consequently the asylum seekers themselves have little input into the planning process. Evidence illuminates the process of human-smuggling during transit and the involvement of a rehearsed ritual of appropriate travel behaviour, which clients are expected to perform to evade border detection. Upon arrival, many asylum seekers and refugees face abandonment and are commonly lied to by their smugglers. These findings reinforce the idea of a corrupt ‘business model’ of smuggling. Occasionally though, advice and acts of compassion by smugglers do take place. This caveat notwithstanding, without established social networks to enable access to social and material resources and to lessen psychological stresses upon arrival, developing new social networks are paramount in the asylum seeker’s coping strategy. Creating social networks, which mainly develop from ‘weak’ - informal and formal - origins within specific liminal and interstitial contexts, is critical for the successful transition towards integration in the new society.
    Date of AwardJul 2017
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Queen's University Belfast
    SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
    SupervisorSteve Royle (Supervisor), Nuala Johnson (Supervisor), Carl Griffin (Supervisor) & Maruska Svasek (Supervisor)

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