By Mark Goldring, Director of Asylum Welcome
As our politicians shout ever louder about stopping the boats and now seek even to deny proper legal consideration to people fleeing persecution and to those trafficked as victims of modern slavery, it’s worth reflecting on the lives of the more than 100,000 people already languishing in our asylum system. They are often waiting for years for their cases to be resolved. There was and is no way for them to get here by any official means, so under the new proposed laws, those who follow them will automatically be designated as Illegal and liable to deportation. As I listen to the stories of those already here, I see what all the research confirms, that people come to the UK out of fear, seeking safety. They certainly don’t come for an easy life.
The terrible suffering in Afghanistan, Ukraine and most recently Sudan has driven many of the other conflicts that cause such anguish off our screens. One of these is Myanmar where not so long ago we nightly witnessed scenes of the Burmese military cruelly attacking civilians who dared to call for democracy or simply did not fit into their regime. The cameras might have moved on but the persecution continues. One gentle young man from Myanmar who fled for his life is among the 230 residents living in a local asylum hotel in Oxfordshire.
I met him as he was helping my Asylum Welcome colleagues run a drop-in “surgery” for the hotel’s residents. We don’t have access to the hotel itself as it is managed for the Home Office by a private company (that incidentally makes a huge amount of money out of it,) and so we run this surgery two days a week at a nearby community centre. As he awaits the outcome of his own asylum claim, our helper wants to make himself useful. On the day I visited, he was serving tea and refreshments to the other guests who waited with patience and politeness as three teams of Asylum Welcome staff and volunteers worked steadily through the 60+ clients who had dropped in.
They had come seeking help on many fronts. Some had their vital documents, ID or phones taken from them when they were first held in Manston camp or somewhere similar and were still struggling to retrieve these precious possessions. Many sought help with urgent health needs: to access the NHS, be referred to a hospital, find a dentist, or replace glasses lost on their journeys. Far too many are still without the official registration that enables them to claim the meagre allowance (£9 a week) to which they are entitled. It should have been claimed on their behalf months ago but, beyond board and lodging, the hotel residents feel they have been left alone – to find their own way around our complex and convoluted asylum system. As another client told us recently: “most of us feel lost in a system we don’t know”. And many of these vulnerable clients must navigate this maze without any English language, though with our partners we have now arranged basic lessons twice a week.
The Asylum Welcome teams can help with the practical issues, but the biggest challenge is helping these new clients to progress their asylum claims. We are lucky in Oxford to have a supportive firm of solicitors that takes legally aided asylum claims and we work together to help claimants gather the right evidence. But the number of recent arrivals has simply been too great for them, to the point where they have been forced to close their doors temporarily while they catch up. Lost in a Home Office backlog of over 100,000 cases, claimants can be in limbo for years, with nothing they can do to expedite matters, and no right for the majority to work in the meantime.
As I watched my colleagues deal with their waiting clients, many being helped by volunteer translators who are refugees themselves, one man came in and was quickly ushered to the front of the queue. No one questioned this; they know him too well. He is an Iraqi man who witnessed the death of his whole family in a bomb attack. He suffered terrible trauma, and his fragile mental health, aggravated by being moved multiple times during his months in England, is all too evident in his behaviour. He is getting support from local health services but desperately needs somewhere more stable to live while his case is processed. My colleagues are doing all that they can to raise this with the authorities but his is just one case among so many in need of resolution.
The number of asylum applicants has increased significantly in the last year, but the crisis in handling their applications long predates this. Closing unsuitable and overcrowded facilities such as the Manston camp is positive, but lessons have not been learned if we replace them with hotels or camps in which the lack of support and partnership-working means that frustration turns to anger, among asylum seekers and local communities alike. Councils aren’t consulted as hotels are chartered, have no dedicated funds and a limited formal role; civil society organisations have no access to hotels and depend on public generosity (see our latest appeal) to provide the most basic of services.
Less political rhetoric about protecting our borders and more dialogue about humanely processing the applications of and supporting those who are already here, and how others with a real claim for sanctuary can come more safely would be a very good start.