Not gone, but forgotten: the urgent need for a more humane asylum system – British Red Cross report

reportDuring Refugee Week 2010, the British Red Cross has published a report on destitution among failed asylum seekers in the UK. Not gone, but forgotten explains the background and vividly documents the situation of a sample of asylum seekers in the West Midlands who use the British Red Cross services.

Among the 101 people surveyed, 59% had been destitute for more than a year, whilst 87% said they often survived on a single meal a day. “I eat once a day if friends can spare some food,” says a young man from Sudan, whilst others tell of sleeping in doorways and stairwells.

Refugee Week Radio interviewed representatives from the British Red Cross at the launch: Joseph Nibizi, who is based in Birmingham and who coordinated the case studies in the report, and Nick Scott-Flynn, Head of Refugee Services. Click on the links below to listen.

~ Joseph Nibizi, programme development manager for refugees and vulnerable migrants at the British Red Cross
  (MP3 – 4′ 02″)

~ Nick Scott-Flynn, head of refugee services at the British Red Cross (MP3 – 8′ 13″)

In two comprehensive articles for The Guardian newspaper (here and here), Amelia Gentleman met some of the individuals and described their situations in detail. After reading the reports, many readers contacted the Guardian to find out how they could help – click here for a useful list of contacts set up in response.

But the situation is not new, and the British Red Cross report is by no means the first call for a more humane asylum system, as Nick Scott-Flynn emphasises. In 2008, the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith, published the report “Asylum Matters: Restoring Faith in the UK Asylum System“, which found that the removal of benefits did little to encourage failed asylum seekers to leave.

In March 2009, the refugee charity PAFRAS published a report Underground Lives, documenting failed asylum seekers in Leeds and describing similar conditions to those outlined in the British Red Cross report more than a year later.

In July 2009 the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust published Still Destitute, its third study on destitution in Leeds (following studies in 2006 and 2008) and found that destitution was still increasing.

In its report, the British Red Cross supports the following changes to the asylum system:
1. The adoption of the principle that destitution should not be an outcome of the asylum system.
2. Additional support for all destitute refused asylum seekers with dependent children.
3. An end-to-end asylum support structure, including permission to work, until the applicant is either removed or granted leave to remain.
4. An entitlement to healthcare throughout the asylum process until removal or granted leave to remain.

In theory at least, some of those principles would probably not be recognised by bodies such as the UK Border Agency as ‘changes’ needing to be made. It could be argued, on paper at least, that they are already part of the process – it could be argued, for example. that those who are destitute can apply for support under the provisions of ‘Section 4‘ (this being the section of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 which outlines how and in what cirumstances failed asylum seekers waiting to return to their country of origin can apply for support).

However, on the ground, the reports point to flaws in Section 4, citing evidence that it is not working:
~ the 2009 JRCT report (Still Destitute), quoted in the British Red Cross report, found that ‘waiting for Section 4 to begin’ was a cause of destitution for one third of respondents

~ In order to access support under Section 4, refused asylum seekers have to sign that they will go back to their country of origin. As the Centre for Social Justice report (Asylum Matters) outlines, this is something which the majority (83%) are not prepared to do, largely because they feel it is too dangerous for them to do so (93% of those refusing to sign). The report quotes Home Office figures of 9,140 receiving Section 4 support at the end of 2007, calculated as just over 3% of refused asylum seekers at that time.

A substantial number of refused asylum claims are upheld at the appeals stage, as the British Red Cross report explains: National Audit Office figures from 2009 state that 70% of asylum claims that are refused go to appeal and of these some 20-25% are upheld. Or to put it another way, between one in seven and one in six refusals are later overturned.

Is there a ‘culture of disbelief’, as mentioned anecdotally by individual asylum seekers who we’ve spoken to – and as recently discussed in the Guardian by a whistleblower who worked in the Border Agency office in Cardiff (2 Feb 2010)? If so, is this one of the root problems which need to change?

For further debate around whether there is a ‘culture of disbelief’ among agencies dealing with asylum claims, see also the BBC World Service programme Assignment broadcast in February 2010: BBC World Service, Assignment: programme information + Listen (13 February 2010)

Whether there is a culture of disbelief or not, it’s to be hoped that the new government can promote a culture of respect for everyone seeking asylum, at all stages of the process, both at policy level and throughout the system on the ground – and, along with the respect, a more humane system of support.


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