The right to asylum is a sign of our common humanity. Both practically and theologically we are responsible for one another. Our mutual responsibility cannot stop at national boundaries. Claims for asylum form a small part of the total annual migration to the UK. Both planned immigration (via work permits, study visits etc) and migration in response to persecution have contributed hugely to the richness of culture and diversity in the UK. Immigration is, however, a sensitive political issue. There is a current debate about an appropriate and sustainable level of population growth. Some people fear that changes to culture and society will mean that their traditional way of life is threatened. These fears have been exploited by extremist political parties.
There were 25,000 asylum applications in 2008, down from 84,000 in 2002.
Research by the Independent Asylum Commission shows that the word ‘asylum’ has very negative connotations. It recommends that the word ‘sanctuary’ be used instead in public discourse. Citizens for Sanctuary is a campaign which is asking all prospective parliamentary candidates to agree not to make asylum a political football at this election, and are inviting all candidates to sign the ‘Sanctuary Pledge’ – www.sanctuarypledge.org.uk.
Detention of children – Tens of thousands of men, women and children (both immigrants and those seeking sanctuary) are detained under the UK’s immigration rules each year. Detention is costly, both in financial and in human terms. The enforced uncertainty and anxiety detainees experience can have a serious impact on their mental and physical well-being. One current campaign is ‘OutCry!’ which is calling for an end to the detention of children and families for immigration purposes.
Destitution – Many people seeking sanctuary are left destitute by the asylum process in the UK. No one knows exactly how many people have been left destitute at the end of the asylum process, without any status, permission to work, or access to benefits. Many are not removable from the UK (either because there is no safe route back to their country of origin, or because their governments will not issue them with a new passport). Many more are not removed by the UK government in a timely fashion and are left to wait with nothing. They wait for many years in this situation – completely reliant on charity, kindness or being terribly exploited in the sex industry or in illegal employment. ‘Still Human Still Here’ is the name of a campaign seeking to help destitute people who have not been successful in their asylum claim.
Vouchers – Several thousand individuals seeking sanctuary are supported under what is known as “Section 4 support”. These individuals are at the end of their cases and have either agreed that they are willing to return to their countries of origin or have managed to get sufficient new evidence to reopen their claims for sanctuary in the UK. Around 14,000 individuals are supported under these measures. They receive accommodation and voucher support (mainly gift tokens for a named supermarket). There is no cash element at all to the support and they receive £35 a week in vouchers. Many projects exchange these vouchers for face value by selling them on to supporters to enable those living on supermarket vouchers to exercise more choice and have more dignity.
The government has recently introduced a new form of voucher support (an Azure card) which cannot be exchanged for cash. The card operates like a prepaid debit card which is topped up weekly but does not have a chip and pin facility so that money cannot be obtained from ATMs. Campaigners have been disappointed by this move because it will stop asylum seekers from having any cash, which can make life very difficult, especially as some individuals have been on section 4 support for up to five years.
Right to work – Except for certain limited circumstances, those seeking sanctuary are not allowed to work while waiting for a decision on their claim for protection in the UK. If they were allowed to work it would help those who go on to receive permission to stay in the UK to quickly move on into more permanent work, further reducing the cost to the tax payer. Because of lack of work experience it can take months and sometimes years for a refugee to get work after being awarded sanctuary.
What are the alternatives to the detention of children and families of people seeking sanctuary?
Will the candidates support the Citizens for Sanctuary proposals around the election campaign?
How can the system of asylum processing be improved to be swifter and fairer? How can churches and community groups be enabled to help people in the system who have nothing?
Louise Zanre, Director, Jesuit Refugee Service