Mark Goldring Photo

By Mark Goldring, Director, Asylum Welcome

The people who visit Asylum Welcome’s offices in Oxford come from across the world and from all walks of life. A university professor fleeing persecution, a boy whose parents entrusted him to strangers in the hope of safety thousands of miles away, a young man running from war, a woman coming to join her husband, then being abandoned with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).

One man who recently knocked on our door soon after landing at Heathrow feared persecution for his sexuality and was desperate to claim asylum. A woman who fled communal violence has just obtained refugee status after thirteen years and has moved into a flat of her own, having lived on the streets for far too long since her arrival. The vast majority who call on us for help are somewhere in between: caught in months and years of interviews, hearings, rejections, appeals, but mostly just waiting. Waiting in limbo while officials, in their own good time, make decisions about their lives.

What our refugee clients do have in common with each other is their knowledge of fear. Many lived in fear in their home country, most felt it daily on their difficult, often dangerous journey to the U.K. Despite having reached what should be safe shores, too many still live in fear for their future when they get here. They cry out for certainty, timeliness, transparency and most of all, respect and dignity.

It’s no accident that the very first line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists on the inherent dignity of all people. Recognising a common humanity and treating people with respect doesn’t depend on any law, eligibility for a benefit or even on a country’s right to decide who lives in it. It’s about how we as a society choose to engage with people who have often suffered torture and trauma, and are still trapped in fear. We add insult to injury when we ignore their dignity.

Coming new to the refugee sector in 2020, I expected to hear from refugees and asylum seekers that their biggest challenge was the impossibly low level of financial support available while their claim is being heard, or not being allowed to work. Or being told where to live and who to share a room with. Or the impact on their health, education and wellbeing of their designation as ‘NRPF’; or, after the all too common rejection of their first asylum claim, the challenge of getting legal aid and the time of the few overstretched lawyers available.

But, without understating the seriousness of these and other practical difficulties that make up the “hostile environment” so proudly launched by Theresa May as Home Secretary and continued, almost gleefully, by her successors, what we hear most is much more elemental:  a simple plea for respect.

Our clients describe long waits to meet rushed officials who are trained to disbelieve, to pick holes or find inconsistencies in stories first told in traumatic circumstances en route or on arrival. These officials have boxes to fill and deadlines to meet. There’s no room for the complexities of real lives or the impact of unrecognised PTSD. Whether it’s the Home Office requiring expensive travel to a hard-to-reach office simply to be kept waiting then ticked off a list; or a panel assessing whether someone really is a child, cross-examining them as if they had committed a crime; or a Council challenging why a claimant can’t continue living on a friend’s sofa indefinitely – those claiming asylum too often describe a starting-point of disbelief, suspicion, open or implicit hostility, and of officials wanting a quick, simple answer. An answer that fits their box and their all too limited time and patience.

We can see this hostile approach vividly demonstrated on our tv screens, as former military camps, fenced in and distant from local communities and services, are repurposed to house the handful of people arriving after the terrors of their small-boat Channel crossing. We can sense it in the grandiosely titled ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’, appointed to keep our shores safe from those desperate enough to risk their lives in the hands of smugglers. But what we don’t see is the impact of every bureaucratic challenge, hostile question or snide remark, every detention and delay, on the dignity and wellbeing of people who have already suffered hugely.

We do see some examples of sensitive engagement from individuals at all levels and in all organisations. Recently we’ve seen quick and positive national and local efforts to house refugees living on the street during Covid. But these actions are not the norm. Too rarely are respect and dignity recognised as the vital prerequisite for engaging with refugees. As we face up to the likelihood of a challenging year ahead for people seeking asylum in the U.K., we could begin by reminding ourselves of the deep meaning of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration: a powerful starting point for showing our own humanity as well as our respect for those who need our help.