Our asylum system is a litmus test of our humanity

By February 27, 2015Blog post
Refugee family, on their way to school in the UK

This week Britain’s political parties will trade blows again over the latest immigration statistics, and ‘who’s to blame’. The election is just 70 days away. Britain needs reasoned proposals on immigration and asylum policy for the next five years, not a backward looking blame game.

In an immigration system fixated by targets, Britain’s refugees have too often been treated as collateral damage. Yet just 24,914 people applied for asylum in 2014. Germany received five times this total. The latest figures show a small rise in the number of refugees seeking safety in the UK, with a 6% increase in asylum applications in 2014 from 2013. That’s only to be expected. The world is facing the greatest refugee crisis in decades. War and brutal repression are leaving people from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere with no choice but to flee their homeland.

Britain can and must provide asylum seekers and refugees with the protection and support they deserve. Its political parties must outline their proposals for an efficient and fair immigration and asylum policy, which reflects our national self-interest and the rights of those feeling war and persecution.

Britain once had a proud tradition of welcoming and supporting those forced to flee repression, torture, and other human rights abuses. There’s precious little left of it today. This is my first week as chief executive of Refugee Action. I am incredibly excited to be joining the case workers, campaigners, lawyers and army of volunteer supporters and activists who are in the front line of supporting refugees and the struggle to restore justice and compassion to our asylum system. Every asylum seeker and refugee in the UK deserves fair treatment, and support to rebuild their lives.

I know that Britain is still capable of showing compassion and generosity. For the past five years, I managed Oxfam’s global campaigns. I saw how in the face of the global recession, many countries cut their overseas aid budgets. One country did the opposite; the UK and the coalition government led by David Cameron. The delivery of their pledge to invest 0.7% of our GDP in aid has saved millions of lives and given many more the chance to live in security and dignity. Just one UK grant, to GAVI, will save over 1.4 million lives over the next five years by vaccinating people against curable diseases.Yet we do not show the same compassion to those who risk their lives fleeing war, persecution and other human rights abuses, and seek safety in Britain. If you’re a Syrian with enough money, the government will welcome you with a British passport. If you’re a Syrian university student fleeing from daily bombings and in fear of your life, you’ll have to risk losing it on a precarious journey before the UK will consider sheltering you.

Then, having lost all you know and love, you could well end up homeless and hungry on the streets. Of the people Refugee Action saw last year, more than 3 in 4 homeless asylum seekers were so due to mistakes made by the Home Office on their entitlement to support.

The public has been led to believe that there are large numbers of asylum seekers arriving in the UK. In reality, just 0.23% of the British population is an asylum seeker or refugee. In Lebanon, one in four people is a Syrian refugee.

Sadly, women and girls are a strong case in point. A report released last week by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) revealed how the government’s policy on tackling violence against women and girls overseas is not translating into asylum procedures. In fact it highlighted multiple ways in which it leaves women and girls exposed to violence and abuse, and a ‘culture of disbelief’ which leads to women being less likely than men to receive a correct decision on their asylum claim.The Refugee Action team works with many of the people who are failed by this system, in Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and elsewhere. These are challenging times for all charities working to support refugees and asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are increasingly at the whim of a system in which private sector companies determine where they live, often putting profit before people, and the Home Office processes cases in a profoundly unfair way.

We work with people like Hassan from Syria, who received poor legal advice and was threatened with eviction and his support removed while his teenaged son was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. We work with Fortune from Nigeria, who was mutilated by traditional practices as a small child and feared returning with her two infant children. The family spent months sleeping on sofas or floors in the houses of acquaintances – one night forced to sleep in a police station, with nowhere else to go and lacking understanding of her right to support and protection.

Our primary focus at Refugee Action is on asylum seekers and refugees. But the services and policies affecting refugees are strongly linked to wider immigration policy. It’s critical for all of us to tackle the synergies and tensions between support to asylum seekers and refugees, and other types of migrants to the UK. Migration continues to bring huge cultural and economic benefits to the UK. Migrants and asylum seekers have all been affected by the mismanagement of the anxiety felt by some communities about some impacts of immigration.

The next few months will doubtless see some of our political leaders sew confusion and fear on both asylum and immigration. Throughout it, we will continue to provide the best support we can to all those we serve and to highlight the critical issues that must be addressed in the next Parliament. When the dust settles, we’ll be making the case for an asylum and refugee system that recognises and respects the rights of those who pass through it. Together, we can give support and a voice to those who need it most.

Britain’s approach to asylum seekers and refugees is a litmus test of our humanity and compassion. It’s time to rebuild.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post UK.