A New Deal on asylum?

Niall Cooper's speech at the Labour Party fringe meeting on 26 September 2006

Throughout Britain there are hundreds of faith groups, community groups and local projects which open their doors and their hearts to the very poorest people in society. Some of them provide a place to sleep; others hand out food, clothing and basic necessities. All of them do their best to give emotional and spiritual support to people who are often without hope as well as money. It is always a struggle. The fight against absolute poverty never seems to end. However affluent and economically successful this country becomes there is always one group or another that is left out.

The government has made some progress in tackling homelessness, poverty and social exclusion within many disadvantaged groups in society. But, as Geoff Mulgan ��� one time advisor to Tony Blair on social exclusion ��� said last night, new forms of poverty have emerged over the past few years, partly as a result of the impacts of globalisation. Amongst these are a new underclass: asylum seekers who are denied all state support and not allowed to work.

Three years ago, almost overnight churches and refugee agencies across the UK woke up to find ��� in some cases literally hundreds of people sleeping on the pavement outside their offices, churches and centres. They were waiting for day centres to open so that they could at least get a proper meal, have a shower, be given a change of clothes and have somewhere to rest. These people were victims of a particularly pernicious piece of policy known as ���Section 55���.

Like so many government initiatives it was introduced to stamp out alleged abuse of our asylum system by refusing support to people who didn���t make a claim ���as soon as reasonably practicable.��� In practice, it plunged people who needed and deserved a place of safety in Britain into destitution. In November last year, the High Court confirmed an earlier court ruling that the policy breached the human rights of refugees. One of the law lords stated clearly that it was wrong ���to single out a particular group to be left utterly destitute on the streets as a matter of policy���. He went on to quote a senior politician who in 1999 said ���It is a scandal that there are still people sleeping rough on our streets. This is not a situation that we can tolerate in a modern civilised society.��� That politician was none other than the Prime Minister.

Yet destitution continues to be a tool of public policy. Earlier this year, the Government piloted the use of destitution against the families and children of refused asylum seekers. ���Section 9��� threatened families who have failed in their claim for asylum to have their benefits removed and the children taken into care. The thinking behind the policy was that to encourage desperate families in this situation to ���change their behaviour��� and agree to go back to the countries from which they have fled. Predictably, in pilot projects around the country this only happened except in a tiny proportion of cases ��� instead families threatened with the removal of support and with the prospect of losing their children simply disappeared. Goodness knows how they are coping.

At the same time we are seeing other groups of failed asylum seekers thrown into destitution, and denied even basic support in the form of vouchers (imaginatively called Section 4), despite the fact that the government knows there is no reasonable prospect of their being sent back to their home countries in the near future.

We are talking here in many cases of countries still in the grip of violence, unrest, civil war, or the absence or breakdown of the basic rule of law ��� Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Zimbabwe.

Harris is a Zimbabwean who fled imprisonment and torture in his home country. Now he is sleeping on the floor of very kind woman supporter who lives in a tower block in East London. He tries to attend meetings of exiles and supporters to discuss the political future of Zimbabwe. It is the sort of thing our government should be encouraging as men like him will be those who rebuild Zimbabwe when Mugabe���s regime falls. But Harris struggles to get to these gatherings because he doesn���t have the money for a bus fare. And yet he is a university educated Geography teacher. He is highly articulate, speaks excellent English and is a caring and generous man. As one inner London MP said when she met Harris, ���He can come to work in a school in my borough tomorrow. We are crying out for good teachers like him.���

What is true for Harris is true for so many other asylum seekers. There are doctors, nurses, academics, journalists, engineers and electricans among their number. They could all work; they all want to work. They could stop being a ���drain on the state���, they could lift themselves out of poverty. Yet it is illegal for asylum seekers to work. It doesn't make any sense.

Sadly, current policies appear to be predicated on the belief that many asylum seekers have fabricated their story ��� and are effectively economic migrants rather than fleeing persecution. If you speak to some MPs, as we have in the course of the past year, the only issue and overwhelming priority is simply to ���get the numbers down.���

But asylum is not and should never be a game of numbers. It is, in the words of the 1951 Convention, about people fleeing from a well-founded fear of persecution. But how difficult it has become to demonstrate a ���well-founded��� fear, in the face of what I can only describe as a ���culture of disbelief��� that has now become embedded in the asylum process. Immigration officials and adjudicators simply refuse to accept people���s own testimonies ��� it is now almost impossible to establish an asylum claim without cast iron corroborating evidence. Yet few fleeing torture, persecution or the threat of death, stop to collect witness statements or evidence that will stand up in an immigration tribunal. There is also seemingly, a widespread view that people use or abuse the asylum process to get an easy life in the UK. How far this is from reality.

Aftab, a Pakistani Christian I met in Preston on Saturday, was until recently a national leader of a recognised human rights agency in Pakistan ��� a respected figure in his own community. After death threats ��� which the Pakistani police refused to take seriously ��� he fled to the UK with his family ��� only to have his own asylum claim turned down, and now spends his days sitting at home in a house in Blackburn, with, by his own admission, less and less self-confidence and hope for the future every day.

Many thousands of asylum seekers at all stages of the process continue, like Aftab, to have a miserable existence, struggling to get by and having to rely on support from others ��� if they can find it. And in the absence of Government support, it is the refugee communities themselves, local church groups and hard-pressed refugee projects which are on the frontline, keeping people fed and sheltered. And in passing, I would like to pay tribute to the many individuals, churches and projects who are doing incredibly sterling work week in week out, to give practical support to the increasing numbers of asylum seekers who are quite literally turning up destitute on their doorsteps. But the real answer to asylum seeker destitution is to stop it happening in the first place.

The Home Office is clearly going through difficult times, not least in the light of John Reid���s admission that it is ���not fit for purpose.��� But what purpose should the Home Office, and immigration policy in particular, be fit for?

Maintaining some integrity in our borders and confidence in our asylum policies yes. But I���m assuming that none of us here ��� and few who subscribe to what were once described as core British values of decency and tolerance ��� would take the view that this should extent to making people destitute.

To be clear, I am not arguing that there should never be any removals. And neither am I against offering incentives for those whose claims have been turned down to return home voluntarily. But I do believe that using destitution as a tool of policy is a stick too far. If the Home Office does nothing else, it must surely be willing to take responsibility for ensuring that the basic human rights to food, shelter and basic dignity are afforded to all within these shores ��� until such time as they leave, voluntarily or otherwise.

Thankfully, the signs are not entirely against us. Increasing numbers of organisations are deeply concerned about this issue across the UK.

Excellent local reports have document the extent and reality of destitution in Glasgow, Leeds, Birmingham and most recently Leicester ��� based on direct interviews with destitute asylum seekers, The Leicester Refugee Forum, for example, interviewed 308 asylum seekers in February and March, of which 100 had slept rough at least once and 200 had slept on friends��� floors.

Nationally, Citizen���s Advice Bureau and Refugee Council both published excellent reports in June, whilst Refugee Action and Amnesty International are currently undertaking an in depth research project that is due for publication in November.

All this is good stuff. Documenting the problem, its damaging impact on the lives of individual men, women and children across the country. Spelling out the senselessness of a policy that is in many ways counter-productive, by effectively driving thousands of people underground, or forcing them to work into the informal economy.

However, documenting the problem alone is not likely to bring change on its own. At its heart, the problem of asylum destitution is about the hard world of politics, public attitudes and competing pressures on the Home Office.

We must not forget what we are up against. Headlines like:

"!KICK OUT THIS SCUM��� Daily Star, March 2005


Pernicious, misleading and viscious. Whipping up xenophobia, hatred, and completely warped public perceptions of the issue: In a MORI poll last year, people thought that 23% - almost a quarter - of all asylum seekers in the world came to the UK.

The real figure is 2% - and has been steadily dropping over the past 4 years. Just 26,000 people applied for asylum in the UK last year ��� less than 1 in 10 of all new entrants to the UK during the year.

No wonder, in such a poisonous climate of public opinion that politicians feel that they have to and be seen to ���act tough���.

Nick Sagovsky, Canon Theologian, Westminster Abbey summed up the situation when he said last year that: ���In the present situation, where we have a political auction to buy the sympathies of voters by talking tough about asylum seekers, the churches have a key role to play - reminding politicians of all parties that asylum seekers are people too, and that there are many within the electorate who wish to welcome them hospitably.���

This is why, last autumn, Church Action Against Poverty launched our ���Living Ghosts��� campaign ��� which aims both to highlight the problem of asylum seeker destitution and to lobby for change ��� specifically focussing on the twin policy objectives of securing the right to work for failed asylum seekers and restoring access to NASS support (including money and accommodation) for those who can���t. With the support of over 50 church leaders, and active involvement of local churches and asylum projects across the country, we have started to make the case for change. Over the past four months both the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have launched outspoken attacks on the policy of destitution.

Liam���s predecessor as Immigration Minister, Tony McNulty, did have the grace to concede that the problem of destitution does now exist ��� although to the end he persisted in claiming that the problem was in his own words one of, ���asylum seekers own making, by ���choosing to make themselves destitute.������

Nevertheless, Tony McNulty was willing to enter into dialogue and did agree to see the reality of the reality of destitution at first hand by visiting one or more of the local destitution projects which we are working with - and I���m hoping that Liam will be willing to do the same.

What is clear, not least in the light of the persistently negative media coverage, is that we have an uphill struggle to create the conditions in which Liam and his colleagues at the Home Office feel politically able to deliver a more enlightened and humanitarian policy. I hope it is a task we are able to work together on.

Whatever else, our Christian duty is clear. In the words of Roman Catholic Bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O���Donoghue ���As Christians, we are in solidarity with all who are compelled by severe political, economic and social conditions to leave their land and culture for protection and sustenance ��� regardless of the labels they are given.���

And as the Faithful Cities, report, launched by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in May put it ���It is unacceptable to use destitution as a tool of coercion when dealing with refused asylum seekers.���

Taking a tough line on asylum seekers is not a sign of strength. Rather, having the courage to stand up for good, honest and humanitarian values and exercising special concern for some of the most vulnerable members of society ��� in the face of ill informed hostility and prejudice is something to which all of us must aspire.

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