Unjust and Dysfunctional: Asylum in the UK

Imagine you wake one fine morning and find you are living in a war zone, aerial bombardments are a weekly occurrence, family members have been killed, tortured or imprisoned and the children’s school destroyed. You love your country, but frightened and desperate you decide to leave in search of a new home, in a peaceful place, where you can study, work and have a chance to live out your days happily.

Or you live in a country where you are persecuted for your religious beliefs, like Mizrak (not her real name) from Eritrea: arrested and imprisoned aged 16 for being Pentecostal Christian, in a land where intolerance rules and the dominant doctrine is Orthodox Christianity. After months behind bars her family bribed prison guards to release her and she was smuggled out of the country into Sudan; then on to France with another unknown man, and eventually to Britain, where she knew nobody.

Mizrak arrived (aged 17) as an unaccompanied minor – that’s a child alone – frightened, with a rucksack of clothes and not a penny to her name. Claimed asylum, but was twice denied, because the presiding judge did not accept her claim to be Eritrean, believing instead that she was Ethiopian, and ordered her to return there within 28 days. The Ethiopian consulate however, refused to issue Mizrak with a passport, because, they said – quite rightly – that she is Eritrean.

Nationless, she remains in the UK, living under a cloud of suffocating uncertainty: unable to work, with no home, no prospects, and little hope. Now 20 years of age she would like to study to become a dental nurse, but is forced to live as an outcast, finding illegal work and temporary shelter where she can – with other Eritrean’s or a kind stranger. Her optimism and strength to persevere comes from the very faith that she was persecuted for; and thank God she has it.

A Political Inconvenience

Compared to other European countries the number of asylum seekers arriving in Britain is relatively small. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in 2014 “the UK received 31,300 new applications for asylum [a mere 5% of total asylum claims made in all EU countries]”, this is close to the average for the last ten years and represents 10% of total net migration. Germany, by comparison received 173,000 applications, Sweden over 75,000.

The journey to safety and a new home is often horrendous, fraught with danger and uncertainty; those who make it to the UK are met with an asylum system that is in many ways unjust and dysfunctional. Fragile people in need of emotional warmth and practical help are commonly treated with disdain by an austere Government that sees asylum seekers, not as vulnerable human beings in need of compassionate support, but as a political inconvenience, which they would like to go away.

At this point it’s probably worth clarifying what an asylum seeker is. UNHCR explains that, “an asylum seeker is someone who has applied for asylum and is waiting for a decision [from the national government] as to whether or not they are a refugee”. And a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality.”

The overwhelming majority, perhaps all of the asylum seekers who make the arduous, often terrifying journey to Britain are refugees. The largest numbers come from Eritrea (some claiming to be Eritrean are indeed Ethiopians), Pakistan and Syria; most, if given the choice, would prefer to stay in their country of birth.

Asylum seekers are men, women and children who, through no fault of their own have either been denied the freedoms that are the right of every human being, or are caught in a violent conflict between warring factions. Everyone has a right to seek asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning there is no such thing as an ‘illegal, or bogus asylum seeker’: there are simply human beings in need of protection.

Poverty and Social Exclusion

Fuelled by duplicitous politicians and an irresponsible right-wing media, misconceptions about asylum seekers abound; false impressions fed and exploited by government to shape anti-migrant policies, determine Home Office practice and distort behaviour.

Key among these assumptions is the suggestion that asylum seekers ‘choose’ the UK because it’s a ‘soft touch’, and offers ‘generous’ benefit payments. Nonsense. As the Refugee Council (RC) found in their detailed study, most people know little or nothing about the welfare system and those who have a choice of destination at all, make their decision based on altogether more rational common-sense factors: linguistic; the presence of family members; ‘colonial or historical’ links; a “general perception of the UK as a safe and politically stable country.” Those who travel with the aid of ‘agents’ or ‘facilitators’ (criminal gangs who exploit the vulnerable and desperate) – and these are the majority – have no idea where they are being taken until they arrive.

Asylum seekers are not entitled to mainstream welfare payments, nor are they allowed to work. Far from living the ‘good life’ in ‘soft touch’ Britain, the Refugee Council states that most asylum seekers are “living in poverty and experience poor health and hunger. Many families are not able to pay for the basics such as clothing, powdered milk and nappies” as well as food and clothing, making them isolated and vulnerable to health problems.

The ban on working makes no sense, and can only be understood as a misguided attempt to deter. It is a flawed law that has been widely criticized, the House of Commons Briefing paper (10th June 2015) records, for more than a decade, by NGOs, trade unions, churches and Parliamentarians. Allowing asylum seekers to work would have a range of advantages, as outlined in the paper. It would benefit the UK economy and lessen the cost to the taxpayer; reduce asylum seekers’ vulnerability to working illegally (and being exploited – pay can be as low as £2 an hour), and alleviate many difficulties, such as “social and economic exclusion, de-skilling, low self-esteem… and improve asylum seekers’ integration and employment prospects.”

Unable to generate any income (legally at least), asylum seekers are totally dependent on the State. Once an application for asylum has been accepted, the Home Office provides basic accommodation (often ‘hard to let’ properties which Council tenants do not want to live in, offered on a no-choice basis), commonly in the North-East of the country where rents are lower than London and the South; as well as financial support amounting to £36.95 per person, per week. This pittance was set in August 2015 and is a substantial reduction on the previous level of support, affecting families and single parents most acutely (a parent with one child now receives £73.10 per week, compared to £96.90 before the changes). When introduced in 1999, asylum support was set at 70 per cent of the amount a British national on income support would receive; now it is closer to 40%.

With this, people are expected to feed themselves, cover travel costs and all other living expenses. According to “The Children’s Society, “children and families would need nearly three times more than they currently receive in order to be pulled out of poverty.”

Asylum support amounts to less than 0.1 per cent of government welfare spending, the decision to freeze/reduce payments is part of a broader economic ideology of austerity, which is causing widespread suffering throughout the country. And is based – one assumes – on a desire to deter potential migrants to the UK – falsely believing people are driven by financial incentives.

The appallingly low level of payments, together with total restrictions on working, is driving vulnerable people, many of whom have been victims of violent abuse and torture, into extreme poverty and social isolation, which in numerous cases leads to deteriorating mental health, resulting in depression and anxiety. Other than working illegally, people have no choice but to sit around and wait while the Home Office assesses their asylum application and reaches a decision.

The government says they (aim) “to process simple claims within six months”, but few claims are simple, and with legal appeals and Home Office delays, the actual time for most runs into years. Currently it is taking between two and three months to even register an application for asylum support, and during this time no financial assistance or accommodation is provided. People, including single mothers and children, are literally homeless and destitute, reliant on charities, food-banks and the kindness of various diaspora groups for their survival.

Criminalizing and imprisoning Asylum Seekers

Asylum seekers are innocent people fleeing persecution, they are not criminals: nevertheless large numbers are routinely imprisoned in Immigration Detention Centers (of which there are thirteen). The UK government locks up more asylum seekers than any other country in Europe, and holds them for longer. In 2014 over 13,000 were detained, either whilst their claims were being assessed or prior to deportation.

Detention is an expensive (around £100 per-day, per person), unnecessary process; it is widely criticised by NGO’s and concerned groups working in the sector including the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, as is the treatment of those held inside the prison-like institutions. Women are particularly badly treated, sexually threatened and intimidated by poorly trained staff.

In July 2015, despite procrastination from the Home Office, the ‘detained fast track’ process was suspended, and in September after a damning report by the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration, the House of Commons passed a motion calling for “radical reform of the immigration detention system”, to include the introduction of a maximum time limit on how long people can be detained. Whilst these moves are welcome, the answer to Immigration Detention is simple and clear; end it, close down these prison-like centers, process all claims within the community (more humane and less expensive) and treat those seeking sanctuary with respect and compassion.

Reform is Urgently Needed

The hopes and aspirations of asylum seekers are no different to those of most people: to work, to study, to live peacefully and build a good and decent life for themselves and their families. They come from countries where human rights are violated and civil liberties denied, by governments that oppress, rather than serve the people; many are traumatised and have mental health issues as a result of their ordeal and find the asylum system overwhelming and hostile. Securing legal support to help navigate the legislative maze and battle the Home Office, is becoming increasing difficult as a result of government’s cuts to legal aid: access to justice being systematically denied to the poorest, most vulnerable members of society.

In its current, intensely bureaucratic form, the asylum process – particularly for people who are frightened of official agencies with their endless forms and impersonal approach – is at best intimidating, at worse dysfunctional. One can only assume this is by design, and is predicated on the false notion that if the process is slow, the support inadequate, the official treatment of people in need cold and indifferent, then they will stop coming. It is a system that is causing hardship to thousands of innocent people, and is in need of urgent, far-reaching reform.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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