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Prime Minister, your Big Society is an illusion

A charity director, honoured by the Queen for his work with asylum-seekers and homeless people, tells David Cameron why he has returned his award.

Dear Mr Cameron,

Last year I was awarded the British Empire Medal for Services to the Community. At the time I was slightly bemused at the award, since my current charity work as Director of the Boaz Trust is providing accommodation and support for asylum seekers who have been refused asylum here, but not been returned to their country of origin. Nevertheless I was grateful that I had been nominated and that my charity work had been recognized, so I accepted the award. I hoped that it might provide an opportunity to highlight the immense difficulties faced by those we are helping: I also accepted it in good faith as a sign that your vision of Big Society was indeed a vision where all, from the top to the bottom, would be able to play their part in renewing and reviving the country we live in.

One year later I have come to realize that the promise of an integrated society where all are valued and all can contribute is, at best, an ill-conceived dream. I understand the need for some form of austerity, but am appalled that those expected to fill the financial black hole are the weakest and most vulnerable in society, whilst those who have caused it and those who could lose half their wealth without noticing have remained untouched.

Dave Smith, Boaz Trust

Since the first mention of Big Society I have responded to several government consultations and ministerial challenges to save money. I even wrote a long letter to Damien Green when he was Immigration Minister, outlining six ways to save money and also deliver a fairer asylum system. Almost all the recommendations were taken from Asylum Matters, a report produced by the Centre for Social Justice. Mr Green never replied, despite promising to do so, and none of the recommendations have been implemented. It is very clear that those on the front line, who are picking up the pieces caused by the austerity measures, are not being listened to. Charities and voluntary groups are expected to fill the gaps, but government policies are making the gaps ever wider. Like the Israelite slaves in Egypt, we are expected to make bricks for the empire, but government now refuses to provide the straw for the bricks.

Recent proposals for a new residence test, landlord immigration checks and further legal aid cuts leave me in no doubt, Mr Cameron, that your government considers those seeking asylum to be of less worth than other human beings, and for this reason I am returning my British Empire Medal. Below I have, for the sake of brevity, outlined five ways in which asylum policy in the UK contravenes human rights and is out of line with other forms of law and justice in the UK. I appreciate that some of this is inherited from an equally culpable Labour government, but that is no excuse.

1.  From the very start of the asylum process those seeking asylum are not accorded even the same rights as those accused of criminal offences in the UK. Even though the system is adversarial, like the criminal justice system, they are not given a solicitor until after the substantive interview. Nevertheless the Home Office frequently refers to the appellant’s statements from both the substantive and even the screening interview in order to cast doubt on their credibility, leading to many unjust refusal decisions.

2.  Unlike the criminal justice system, where the defendant does not have to prove their innocence, in the asylum system the claimant is required to prove their claim. This is often impossible to do because those who are guilty of persecuting them rarely admit to it or document it, and the asylum system allows neither enough time nor legal aid to gather the evidence, even if the evidence is available.

3.  Although they have committed no crime, many asylum seekers are locked up in Immigration Removal Centres with no idea of how long they will be held there. This often applies even if they cannot be returned to their country of origin. These centres are administered by multinational private companies, some of whom, like G4S, have appalling records both of incompetence and human rights abuses. Since 2000 there have been 8 suicides in immigration detention, and hundreds of suicide attempts. The whole policy of UK asylum detention is contrary to the spirit of the UNHCR guidelines on detention, particularly Guideline 7, and the courts have frequently upheld claims of unlawful detention.

4.  The UK asylum system often fails to comply with the requirements of the UN Convention on Refugees. Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits states from penalising a refugee for illegal entry when the purpose of their entry is to claim asylum, yet asylum seekers are frequently imprisoned in the UK for entering the country on a false passport.

5.  Article 8 of the ECHR states that "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence". In the past thirteen years since I first encountered asylum seekers, I have come across countless example of the Home Office blatantly ignoring this human right, deliberately seeking to divide families and returning vulnerable people to situations of extreme danger.

Mr Cameron, you recently praised the contribution of the Christian church in this country. One of the major tenets of faith that all Christians agree upon is Christ’s command to "do to others what you would have them do to you". It is my prayer that those in government would allow themselves to imagine what it is really like to flee from countries ruled by evil dictators and lands where human rights abuses are endemic. Until they do so there will never be a just asylum system in this country.

Yours Sincerely

Dave Smith, BA

Director, The Boaz Trust


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