At Christmas, we are encouraged to consider those less fortunate than ourselves. With parties to attend, presents to buy and cards to write, there is never much time to do this. However we may manage to part with a few coins for the Salvation Army carol singers, or even Send a Cow to Africa. One exceptionally vulnerable group whose plight will be almost completely overlooked this Christmas are the tens of thousands of destitute asylum seekers throughout Britain.
The Government has lost control of our borders; in recent years Britain has experienced an unprecedented and unsustainable level of immigration. Urgent action is clearly needed to bring immigration down to a more sustainable level. An obvious starting point is targeting a reduction in economic migration from countries outside the EU, and David Cameron has committed to explicit annual limits on non-EU immigration, set at a level substantially lower than the current rate.
Currently almost three-quarters of the approximately 25,000 asylum claims made each year are turned down. However urgency to regain control of our borders and reduce the rate of immigration must not be accompanied by an indifference to asylum seekers. A civilised country should ensure that they are treated humanely both while applications are being considered and during unsuccessful applicants remaining time in this country.
“The fundamental tension in asylum policy is between the moral imperative of welcoming the vulnerable and the judicial imperative of securing borders against the dishonest.”
Presently our asylum system is failing in both these tasks.
For all the talk in recent years of ‘getting tough’, our asylum system has abjectly failed in helping to secure the UK’s borders. Home Office figures show that while only 23,610 people claimed asylum in 2006 (the lowest annual total since 1993), the Government missed its deportation target. Only 6,780 failed asylum seekers were removed in the first half of this year, down from 10,345 in the same period last year. The compound effect of such incompetence is that there is now an estimated 450,000 ‘legacy’ asylum cases, some dating back a decade, still to be resolved.
Our asylum system has also failed to provide the welcome and care that could be reasonably expected of a civilised and wealthy society. Asylum seekers whose applications are unsuccessful are legally obliged to leave the UK. Many readers will share the view of a commenter on this website who said that:
“Failed asylum seekers should not be in this country more than 30 minutes after being rejected.”
However with fewer than 3,000 places available in immigration detention centres, holding failed asylum seekers in custody is not a viable option for the vast majority. And immediate deportation is often impossible. Courts may refuse to deport them back to countries deemed unsafe. Some are in the late stages of pregnancy, or have just given birth. Others are unfit to travel for other medical reasons. Many simply do not have the financial resources to purchase a ticket home, and so must apply for and await assisted return.
These people are left with an unenviable choice. The only support provided by Government at this is point is ‘Section 4’ assistance which is supposed to provide shared accommodation on a no choice basis and a £35 food voucher each week which can only be used in a limited range of shops. Since 1994 there has been a 15-fold increase in the number of failed asylum seekers in receipt of Section 4 support.
What is life like on Section 4? A recent CAB report gives some insight:
On a cold, damp winter’s day in Feburary 2006, Daniel – an elderly Kenyan – took Citizens Advice on a tour of the small, terraced house where he had been living for the past three weeks. On the kitchen floor, a plastic bowl slowly filled with water leaking from a hole in the ceiling. In the bathroom, Daniel showed us the two sources of this deluge: a cracked sink and broken toilet bowl.
In his bedroom, where paper peeled from damp, mouldy walls, he pointed out another: the water tank in a cupboard. Around both this cupboard and Daniel’s bed – for which he had been given a thin duvet but no sheets or pillowcases – the carpet was sodden. Had Daniel contacted his ‘landlord’ [M&Q, a private company contracted by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS)] about these problems? Yes, repeatedly. Had anything been done? No, nothing had been done. Daniel – already weakened by almost four months of homelessness and destitution – was worried about his health.
Unsurprisingly, many decide that they are unable to subsist on £35 a week and thus simply ‘disappear’ from the system. So many failed asylum seekers end up completely dependent on charity provided by churches and voluntary groups (such as Open Door North East).
In Newcastle-upon-Tyne alone, it is estimated that there are more than 300 destitute asylum seekers. Between 20 and 30 are estimated to be sleeping outdoors overnight. Thousands are estimated to be without legal status (failed their asylum claim) yet are still living in Newcastle and supporting themselves by working illegally. They are effectively 'underground' and extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
Sayeeda (now Baroness) Warsi participated in an enquiry examining the problem of destitute asylum seekers in Leeds which reported earlier this year. It said there was a ‘compelling case for rescuing them from the stark reality of being homeless,hungry and hidden.’ One of its proposals, for failed asylum seekers to be given a limited right to work – and therefore support themselves – was given short shrift by the readers of this blog. Whatever the merits of that particular proposal, the report sets out some useful principles for reform, such as the priority of keeping asylum seekers engaged in the system and encouraging and enabling them to make a contribution to society.
Everyone wants a fast, efficient, fair and humane asylum system. With hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers out of reach from the authorities, very limited capacity for detention, and a backlog of cases that will take many years to clear, new thinking is needed. Decisive action is required, but any new measures should not push more asylum seekers into destitution. Effective policy is likely to be that which upholds the dignity and humanity of this vulnerable group.
The Centre for Social Justice is currently examining how the asylum system could be reformed, with a particular focus on addressing the problem of destitute asylum seekers.