Shine A Light

Why Britain’s refugees and asylum seekers have little to cheer about: a reply to Tim Finch

A reply to a piece highlighting the positive aspects of British asylum policy and politics, by a former Chair of National Refugee Week
Clare Sambrook
24 June 2011

Tim Finch, director of communications at the Institute for Public Policy Research, gives us ten reasons to feel cheerful about the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Britain today. But in a curiously candid admission he concedes, “unless you exactly share my analysis and world-view you are likely to find at least some of my ‘positives’ perverse.”

The IPPR’s reputation for the serious analysis of policy alternatives from a centre-left perspective has been ill-served by Tim Finch’s tendentious apologia for an asylum and immigration policy that has pushed thousands of asylum seekers into destitution, refuses those awaiting the resolution of their claim the right to work, and continues to imprison thousands more who have committed no offence — often in worse conditions than convicted criminals.

Behind the author’s “glass half full not empty” rhetoric lurk some ugly assumptions about the place of refugees and asylum seekers in contemporary British society.

We are asked to give thanks that David Cameron, unlike his predecessor, is not threatening to withdraw from the 1951 Refugee Convention. Yet this government’s representatives spend millions of pounds of tax-payers’ money in courts and tribunals attempting every day to renege on its provisions. The Convention exists to protect some 15.4 million refugees and 850,000 asylum seekers, 80 per cent of whom are concentrated in some of the world’s poorest countries. This year the British government, through its “Gateway” programme, intends to take 750 of them — and Tim Finch wants us to be heartened by that.

He invites us to cheer up about savage cuts in funding to refugee community organisations on the grounds that this disadvantaged and embattled sector should by now be inured to adversity and better equipped than others to overcome more hard times.

Those of us involved in the campaign to end child detention are of course happy that the numbers of children detained has been significantly reduced since Labour lost the general election. But to say, as he does, that the coalition government “did deliver on its commitment to end the practice of detaining families with children” is quite simply wrong.

More than 190 children have been held in detention facilities since April 2010 including several unaccompanied children locked up in adult male detention centres [source UKBA Quarterly Statistical Summary]. Far from “detention-lite” the new “pre-departure accommodation” at Pease Pottage near Gatwick, opening this Summer, has the capacity to hold up to 4,500 child detainees a year. Pease Pottage, run with the support of child welfare partners, Barnardo’s, is designed to look and feel different from Yarl’s Wood, the reviled Bedfordshire detention centre, but with corporate manslaughter suspects G4S running the place, parents and children will be under no illusion that they are being forcibly detained, potentially for up to a week before they are sent to “open” accommodation or deported.

And all this because, as the director of the Centre for Migration Policy Research Prof Heaven Crawley observed in these pages, “the Government has still not fully grasped the fact that it is possible to return families without resorting to secure facilities of any kind if there are significant improvements in the quality of decision making and families feel confident that it is safe for them to return.”

Tim Finch claims that “the case resolution process gives . . . two reasons to be cheerful”, but thousands of “legacy case” asylum seekers remain in nerve shattering limbo. These victims of the legacy process have no right to work, they cannot travel outside the UK and they often have no chance of being reunited with their families. If the eventual decision is a negative one, parents live in fear of the early morning “enforcement visit” or their children being escorted into vans from the school gates by a posse of Border Agency guards.

He welcomes “partnership” with the UK Border Agency. But when that partnership involves refugee “support” organisations persuading asylum seekers to leave the UK “voluntarily” that is akin to operating as an agent of the UK immigration authorities.

Given that only the UKBA can lawfully maintain confidential data on individuals who have been refused asylum it would be interesting to know how an independent charity could be put in contact with refused asylum seekers without breaching the Data Protection Act and the privacy provisions of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (but perhaps we should be cheered if the Home Office lawyers have already come up with a fix for that).

The forcible dispersal of asylum seekers, intended to break the links between new arrivals and existing family or communities in the UK, is to be celebrated, we are told, because the existence of refugees is helping to revive run down parts of our cities in which the native population no longer want to live.

Are we therefore meant to think of asylum seekers as some kind of human fertilizer to be scattered to the most despised, derelict and hate filled enclaves of the country? Would the IPPR ever dream of suggesting we engage in compulsory social engineering with any other marginal or oppressed group as a “regeneration” strategy?

We have come to expect such dehumanizing narrative in relation to asylum seekers and refugees by a motley collection of Home Secretaries and hate-stirring tabloid editors. To see these sentiments expressed by the former Chair of National Refugee Week will come as a depressing and unwelcome surprise to the many thousands of volunteers and refugees and asylum seekers taking part in this year’s refugee week who know that you don’t need to be a famous writer or a future football star to make a vital and enriching contribution to British life.

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