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Poverty, Isolation, Removal: Asylum in the UK

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Migration is a major political and social issue throughout Europe; in the UK it is a highly emotive matter, distorted by the rabid right wing media and irresponsible politicians.

The numbers of asylum seekers (people fleeing conflict and persecution of one kind or another) arriving in the UK are small, tiny in fact – in 2014, according to UNHCR, a total of 31,400 people applied for asylum in Britain, compared to Turkey – 87,800, Sweden – 75,100, and Italy – 63,700. At the end of 2014,UNHCR relates, “refugees, pending asylum cases and stateless persons made up just 0.24% of the UK population.” Hardly a national crisis then, as the isolationist Conservative government, and the press would have us believe.

Of the 25,870 decisions on asylum reached in 2014 (note: these were decisions not applications) over 60% were refusals. This, however, is not the end of the road for the unsuccessful applicants, but a bureaucratic hurdle on a long, stressful journey that sees asylum seekers treated as outcasts and criminals, thrown into poverty and social isolation.

The arduous, long-winded process is roughly as follows: Apply for asylum – receive £35.96 per week and some tatty accommodation, if refused, appeal (66% of appeals were refused in the year ending March 2015, and only 29% allowed) – continue to receive the cash and a roof over your head; if the appeal fails but new evidence is forthcoming, or a change in the law has occurred, make a ‘fresh’ claim, and continue to collect the asylum support, which as well as accommodation includes access to the National Health Service. If this fails, appeal one last time. Refusal can lead to deportation – voluntary or forced.

Escaping Prison-Camp Eritrea

The UNHCR records that “the top three countries of origin [with more or less the same numbers from each], are: Eritrea, Iran, and Pakistan.”

In 2014, 3,568 people sought asylum in the UK from Eritrea, this is double the previous year’s total. They flee the country because of intense religious and political persecution, and to avoid a lifetime of military service – for men and women – in a country where human rights are virtually non-existent. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) the most common patterns of abuse include: “forced labor during conscription; arbitrary arrests, detentions, and disappearances; torture and other degrading treatment in detention; restrictions on freedoms of expression, conscience, and movement; and repression of religious freedom.”

Eritrea also holds the title for highest levels of child labour in the world as well as the greatest levels of media censorship.

People sent back face the wrath of the ruling regime. A detailed report published by the UN in June 2015, reveals that returnees “are often arrested and detained for up to three years,” during which time they are “systematically ill-treated to the point of torture.”

In March 2015 the UK government issued new, and flawed, ‘guidance’ on Eritrean asylum seekers, stating it was safe for them to be returned to their country of origin. The Home Office responded swiftly and the percentage of applicants being granted leave to remain plummeted from 73% in the first quarter of 2015 to 36% in the second. In light of the UN report and widespread outrage this misguided ‘guidance’ is now under review.

Branded poor

Despite the government’s aim to process appeals within two months of an initial decision, it can take years before asylum seekers receive a final decision. Home Office figures state that as of March 2015, 21,651 applications “received since April 2006… were pending a decision” – positive or negative. That’s ten years. And these vulnerable people – many of whom have been through hell – can do nothing but wait; living in poverty under a cloud of intense suspicion.

They cannot work: a nonsensical, politically motivated regulation makes it illegal for asylum seekers to be gainfully employed; they cannot claim state benefits; and are completely reliant on asylum support of either £35.39 cash per week (under section 95 of the immigration act), or an Azure payment card topped up weekly, with £35.39, and no cash (under section 4). As of March 2015 there were 15,000, failed asylum seekers and their dependents in receipt of support; almost 5,000 were being supported under Section 4.

The Azure card is a humiliating, deeply flawed system. The cards are only valid in specified retailers and can only be used, the Red Cross report, to “buy food, essential toiletries, clothing and credit for mobile phones. ”It was launched in 2006, costs £1.5 million a year to run and has been widely criticized: “users struggle to provide enough food for their children and other dependents”; it further stigmatizes asylum seekers, who are already socially marginalized, and living in poverty.

School trips are not covered, nor are travel costs, making “getting to essential appointments, such as medical and legal ones ……a huge problem.” And because not all supermarkets accept the card, some people have to walk long distances to get to a participating retailer. In desperation for actual money, people are forced to sell the card for a fraction of its value, ending up with less cash and no food. The Red Cross, states the card “does not allow refused asylum seekers to meet their basic needs and live with dignity. It creates unnecessary suffering for people who are already in desperate situations,” and is calling on the government to scrap the system.

Suspicion, detention, removal

If, after wading through the maze of applications and exhausting all options, asylum is refused, people are given 28 days to leave the country – voluntarily or be deported. Those who cannot return to their country of origin for ‘reasons beyond their control’ – e.g. it’s not safe for them to do so, are allowed to stay in the UK until the risk has diminished and it’s safe for them to go home.

Given the desire to limit the already small number of asylum seekers arriving and settling in Britain there is a political predisposition towards denial. A political strategy that both feeds off, and strengthens, an intolerant, misinformed nationalism amongst certain sections of the population. In the year ending March 2015, according to government figures, 12,498 failed asylum seekers were removed. The Home Office do not release the average time between a claim being refused and removal; it can be years. Some people are thrown into immigration detention centers prior to removal; prison-like complexes condemned by a range of bodies, including the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration whose report recommends that these institutions are closed down immediately.

The majority of asylum seekers do not have travel documents, and the country of origin may well refuse to provide passports. Some nations, the BBC relate, “do not allow the forced return of individuals, or demand proofs of nationality that are almost impossible to meet.” Such bureaucratic obstacles make some people un-returnable, and trapped in a nationless no-man’s land of poverty and exclusion – no matter what decision is reached on their asylum claim.

The Home Office (H.O.) removes people on commercial flights or chartered planes. Between 2001 and 2014 “nearly 800 chartered flights” were booked, at huge cost, to return failed asylum seekers to their countries of origin. From the beginning of 2014 to June 2015 the H.O spent around £14 million on chartered flights, including, The Telegraph reports, “one plane at a cost of £250,000 to return just one Moroccan deportee”. During this 18-month period over 54 private jets were hired, carrying “an average of 53 passengers per flight…in one instance, just 11 Afghan illegal immigrants were sent home in one aircraft. On another occasion, a 265-seat plane was used to carry only 25 Nigerians.” This is government incompetence bordering on madness.

In addition to flights for actual deportees, according to Home Office accounts, “the Government spent £1.58m [in 2014] on deportation flights which were booked before individuals were granted the right to appeal and were then cancelled.”

Forced removal is expensive; the most up to date figures are from 2005, when it cost £1,000 to deport someone who went voluntarily, but ten times that to enforce it. This is another reason why the government makes staying in Britain as uncomfortable as possible, so they will give up and leave of their own free will – thereby saving the state a tidy sum. And it is the motive behind a trial scheme to pay asylum seekers to leave.

At the root of the Conservative government’s approach to asylum seekers and immigration generally is distrust and suspicion. Following a consultation paper on support for failed asylum seekers, The Guardian reported that, Conservative “Ministers have said they want to take a more hardline approach to failed asylum seekers who have exhausted all of their appeal rights, as part of a drive to demonstrate to those trying to come to Britain that it is not “a land of milk and honey”.

Such insulting terminology, which is also blatantly false – asylum seekers cannot claim benefit, nor are they allowed to work – casts doubt over asylum seekers’ motives and distorts the public discourse over asylum, and immigration more broadly. Asylum seekers are men, women and children fleeing persecution, and have the right to be treated with dignity and compassion, not intolerance, as is so often the case.

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Graham Peebles is a freelance writer. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org  

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