When I became Chair of Refugee Week in 2004, this annual celebration of the contribution of refugees to UK life had a theme each year. The previous year it had been ‘genocide’ and it was due to be ‘torture’ in 2005. The idea was that the theme gave some definition to the week’s events and served as an educational tool to explain why people left their home countries and sought protection here. This may have seemed useful, but such grim topics (important though they are) sat most uneasily with the primary mission of the week: that of celebration. We spent the rest of the year fighting battles over asylum, I and others argued. There were other outlets for improving public understanding of the reasons for refugee flight. Surely we should use this one week of all weeks to accentuate the positives?
It is in the same spirit that I approach this article. There is no shortage of debate about all the difficulties surrounding asylum policy and politics elsewhere, so here I am going to concentrate with determined good cheer on the positive developments and the grounds for optimism. Such an exercise is not without controversy of course. Unless you exactly share my analysis and world-view you are likely to find at least some of my ‘positives’ perverse. Moreover, there are, it’s true, a number of positives of the ‘it could have been a lot worse’ or ‘clouds with silver linings’ type. I also adopt a rather narrow UK approach, which won’t find favour with some. And my list is not likely to please either those on the passionately liberal or strongly restrictionist wings of the argument. I am conscious too that being cheerful might seem flippant given the very difficult circumstances faced by both refugees themselves and the organisations that support them. Even so, I hope I can mount a plausible argument that not everything in the asylum world gives grounds for despair. There are reasons to be cheerful. So here is my list:
The survival of the refugee convention
There are lots of things wrong with the 1951 convention, it is certainly showing its age, and many countries, including the UK, honour it rather grudgingly. But even so, given the extreme political tensions generated by the upsurge in asylum arrivals into Europe in the 1990s and 2000s, we should be thankful that pressures to withdraw from the convention – or to water it down substantially - have been resisted. We should not forget that the Conservatives entered the 2005 election on a pledge to pull out. Now, there is a settled consensus that we should stick to the convention, albeit with considerable argument about how that it should be interpreted and implemented.
The end of child detention
The Coalition Agreement may not be widely loved, particularly in progressive circles. But it did deliver on its commitment to end the practice of detaining families with children. Of course, there are arguments about what will replace it, focussed most notably around whether the alternative is just ‘detention-lite’.
Still, we should welcome this victory for humanity, justice and indeed common sense, even if it is a pretty limited. Moreover, despite current policy going in the opposite direction, if alternatives to detention can be shown to work – i.e in facilitating rather than frustrating removal – then the wider argument that immigration detention should be ended in all but exceptional circumstances will be advanced.
The resolution of tens of thousands of legacy cases
The case resolution process gives, in a way, two reasons to be cheerful. First of all, it has, finally, produced some certainty for all those men and women who have been living in limbo for many years. For some, the outcome has been return – probably against their wishes. But, thankfully and sensibly, UKBA has shown some generosity to many others, who’ve been allowed to stay in the country that has become their home, even if, judged by the normal criteria, their claim for protection was not strong. Of course, there are some who will not see this move as a reason for good cheer, arguing that it is an amnesty in all but name and sends out all the wrong signals. However, even they might welcome the second impact of the resolution process: that it allows the authorities to get on the front foot in improving the asylum determination process for new cases. If this happens, the chances of a repeat of this regularisation process are reduced.
Small signs of improvement to the ‘front end’ of asylum process
Quietly and incrementally, some solid work has been done, with refugee organisations working in partnership with UKBA (welcome in itself), to improve decision making on asylum claims. A particular focus has been providing claimants with reputable, independent, legal representation at the start of the claims process – so called ‘front loading’. It is very welcome that the Immigration Minister Damian Green has taken a strong interest in this area, sanctioning the wider roll-out of the successful pilot in Solihull. It is in the interests of both claimants and British taxpayers if the right decision on asylum claims is made first time round, more often than not.
It might seem strange to single out a particular individual – but the Independent Chief Inspector of UKBA is widely viewed as a thoroughly good egg. When he was appointed in 2008, the fact that he was a former senior police officer caused some concern among migrant supporting groups, worried that he was likely to be interested only in the tough stuff. But while it is true that he and his team have been outspoken in pointing out where enforcement is weak and ineffective (and quite right too), Mr Vine has also taken the government to task on humanitarian issues as well – and he has been assiduous in listening to the concerns of the migration sector and taking issues up with ministers and officials.
Refugee Action’s decision to take the lead on voluntary returns
This nomination could be seen as provocative. Many in the refugee sector are deeply suspicious of return programmes – and indeed some remain antagonistic to the whole notion of return. But having championed the involvement of respected and trusted migrant-supporting organisations in the sensitive business of return, it is only right for IPPR to commend Refugee Action for taking up what many see as a poisoned chalice
A large proportion of claimants will be refused asylum – fairly and rightly – under any form of asylum determination (even the most humane and generous). These refused claimants then need to be returned. It is vital that we develop a better system to deliver this outcome. If we can’t, public support for asylum will erode still further. So anyone who cares about a just and effective asylum system should be hoping Refugee Action succeeds in increasing returns.
The Gateway Programme of refugee resettlement
The cheer here is muted by the very small numbers of places offered on this scheme. Seven years on from its start, there are still only 750 places available each year – in contrast with other countries, where resettlement schemes involve several thousand individuals. This is a pity, because by and large Gateway has been a resounding success, with highly vulnerable refugees being welcomed into cities and towns around the UK and rebuilding their lives as model citizens. Refugee resettlement programmes – which allow for protection to be ‘managed’ in the way that other forms of migration are – seem to me to be the future. Trade-offs may be needed, but a key lobbying aim of the refugee sector should be to get Gateway increased substantially.
The unintended positive consequences of asylum dispersal
Dispersal was initially introduced to solve an immediate political crisis – and it was controversial to say the least. Of course, there are problems with it, – yet by accident, rather than design, it has produced some good results. As I saw in Newcastle recently, dispersed asylum seekers have helped to revive dying parts of some our cities, creating new and vibrant communities, with entrepreneurial drive and a determination to improve neighbourhoods. Where good support services have been in place (and many are threatened by cuts), the reaction of host communities has been turned on its head – instead of hostility there is now often a highly positive reaction to having a refugee neighbour.
The continued resilience of the refugee community sector
It’s tough, really tough, for the many hundreds of organisations, big and small, who work so hard to support refugees. Funding cuts have been savage and an embattled sector is finding it even harder to keep up its good work. So where’s the good cheer here? Well, only that the groups keep on battling through. They’ve been operating in a hostile environment for well over a decade and so the best of them have become hardened to the difficulties and always find ways to survive and deliver services. If any part of our voluntary sector can weather the bitter winds of austerity (and the dubious benefits of ‘the Big Society’), the refugee sector can. .
Pretty much every refugee qualifies as ‘remarkable’ of course. Facing up to repressive regimes, surviving persecution, fleeing across continents, building a new life in a completely new country – for most of us these experiences are unimaginable. But as history has shown, refugee communities also produce more than their share of stand-out individuals. Just to take some very recent examples, we have Tea Obreht winning the Orange Fiction Prize, Fabrice Muamba playing for the England under 21s in the European Championships, and Mo Farah setting a new European record for the 10,00 metres Yet again we are seeing that some of the ‘best of British’ – particularly among the young generation – are from refugee backgrounds.