Red doors for asylum seekers in Middlesbrough. Compulsory wristbands for asylum seekers in Cardiff. What on earth is going on?
Thankfully, our government cracked down quickly on these debacles. But the outrageous events of the past week demonstrate all too clearly that rapid improvements are needed to the way Britain treats asylum seekers. Without the media spotlight asylum seekers in Cardiff would still be forced to wear wristbands at all times if they wanted to eat. In Middlesbrough they would still be stigmatised and exposed to additional risk behind red doors.
These cannot be written off as isolated incidents. They expose the underlying failings of the way Britain responds to refugees arriving here. Current government policy does not provide the support that refugees so desperately need, and fails to build the positive relationships we all want to see between refugees and host communities.
There is a better way. A reformed system would improve the lives of refugees, enable them to contribute more to the UK, improve community relations and save the UK money. The government must make rapid changes in three areas.
First, all asylum seekers need to receive a quick and fair hearing. It’s in no-one’s interests for this to take many months or even years. There’s huge room for improvement. The system ruins the lives of too many who are trapped in poverty and homelessness by slow or incorrect judgements. Almost one in three asylum claims that are rejected are overturned on appeal. Every time a first decision is wrong, the taxpayer pays the price and someone who has survived untold trauma suffers even more.
Second, asylum seekers need sufficient support to enable them to live in dignity during their asylum process. Common sense? We’ve been going backwards fast. The last few years have seen some terrible indignities introduced into the current system. As a result of the contracts with G4S and others, refugees are too often placed in substandard accommodation and without any thought to building relationships with local people, as we have seen in Middlesbrough.
The level of financial support provided to many asylum seekers has been cut. Research by Refugee Action found that nearly 40% of asylum seekers surveyed could not buy enough food to feed themselves or their families. As it stands, the government’s Immigration Bill is set to make this worse, potentially forcing refused asylum seeking families into homelessness, even if they do not believe it is safe or possible for them to return home.
Finally, the UK must do far better to enable refugees to contribute to our local communities. The lack of access to high-quality English lessons is a huge frustration for refugees. Government funding to help people to enter the UK job market has dried up, making it harder for people to get onto the employment ladder and contribute to our society and economy.
These are extraordinary times. No one chooses to be a refugee. It’s the accident of birth that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. Four years of the brutal war in Syria have left 11 million people with no option but to flee their homes. There appears to be no end in sight to this war and the appalling suffering that comes with it. Long-running conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere are also forcing people to flee.
The British public want their government to step up and do more in response to these crises. There have been some significant steps forward. It’s just a few months since the Prime Minister committed to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees. Refugee Action welcomed a group of Syrian refugees to Birmingham this week. A few days ago the government announced that it will take a range of measures to help unaccompanied refugee children, with support from across the political spectrum.
But for too many asylum seekers arriving in Britain, the current system is not working. The government responded quickly to the disgraceful treatment of asylum seekers in Cardiff and Middlesbrough. But it’s time for a much more comprehensive review of how Britain treats those fleeing war and persecution. We can and must do better.