Restoring dignity for asylum seekers

December 15, 2008 at 9:39 pm | Posted in Asylum, British Politics, Conservative Party, New Labour | 5 Comments

Back in March, when the government was still intent on tossing a gay teenager back to Iran with instructions to ‘be discreet’, the human rights group EveryOne stated that the United Kingdom was a ‘danger for all refugees’. Citing the mistreatment of Mehdi Kazemi and so many others, the group warned that the way we treat refugees is so systemically callous as to border on persecution. Upon reading the story of yet another brave, frightened family who’ve fallen victim to a system short on logic and decency, it’s very difficult to draw any other conclusion.

The process of dealing with asylum claims desperately needs reform, and since there are no indications the government shares this concern, we’re forced to look elsewhere. This week, the Centre for Social Justice published its report into the flaws and failings of the current system, together with practical ideas of how it could be improved. It was produced with the input of various experts in the field and and contains a foreword by, of all people, Iain Duncan Smith.

For Duncan Smith, this marks something of a Damascene conversion. During his early parliamentary career he was known as an arch Eurosceptic and a strong critic of asylum and immigration; he had flirted with ‘voluntary repatriation’ and used Powellite language when speaking of the ‘dangers’ immigrants posed to his constituency. That he has gone from that to endorsing proposals which are more progressive than a Labour government is quite an achievement.

The report wastes no time stabbing at the heart of the system, which operates under the assumption that if you make the place more difficult to enter and make their circumstances more unpleasant when they arrive, it’ll deter people from coming here in the first place. Whilst that logic might be true of your average teenage boy’s bedroom, it doesn’t work with immigration. Why? Well, according the Home Office’s own research, asylum seekers didn’t come for the NHS or the free council housing, but because of colonial links, family ties and a sadly mistaken belief that we’re a nation with a deep sense of justice. Oh, and because quite a few of them were fleeing for their lives. What’s more, levels of asylum applications have pretty much risen and fallen in line with global trends, so the extent to which this approach has worked seems negligable.

The report also found that asylum seekers are subject to a ‘culture of disbelief’, which treats them more as potential ‘scroungers’ than victims. On top of this, interpretation is of a poor quality, decisions are based on the whims of those assessing each claim, the evidence of expert witnesses is often dismissed without justification, assessments are often made using out-of-date information and by people under pressure to meet politically-motivated targets.

But by far the worst part of the system is what happens when an asylum claim is rejected. Access to public services is severely restricted and refugees are barred from working, which drives some underground and leaves others at the mercy of charity; for example, the Red Cross estimates that 26,000 people are relying on their food parcels just to eat. I wish there was a more diplomatic way of putting it; our government tries to choke asylum seekers into leaving the country.

So how does the Centre for Social Justice propose to change things? Well, the first – and most important – reform is to take politics out of the decision-making process by having applications heard by well-trained and independent magistrates, rather than ill-equipped administrators striving to meet government targets. The next is to split the UK Border Agency into three parts so that more emphasis is placed on care, increasing access to legal aid and giving enough time for applicants to make their case. Crucially, failed asylum seekers would continue to receive housing & financial aid until their appeals have been decided, and those whose claims have been rejected but cannot be deported will be allowed to seek work. Whilst there might well be aspects of the report we can quibble with, each stage in the process outlined by the CSJ reads as more humane and effective than the desperate mess we have now.

The fact that a man whose bid for the Conservative Party leadership was endorsed by the far-right Monday Club can see the inhumanities of our asylum system and endorse an alternative which is superior to that offered by Labour should really give one pause for thought. It’s just a shame that in a public sphere which still sweats with anti-immigrant sentiment, it’s difficult to see either party adopting it. Nevertheless, those of us who care more about good policy than good politics should embrace this report as a much-needed blueprint for restoring dignity for asylum seekers and beginning to repair the good name of this country.

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