“The lives of asylum seekers remain secondary to many politicians who cynically use the issue for perceived political advantage.”Pamela Fitzpatrick
By Pamela Fitzpatrick
In 1929 a political activist fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union sought asylum in the UK. His claim was refused because the Government of the day did not want to upset the leader of the Soviet Union. That asylum seeker was Leon Trotsky, the Government was the Labour Government led by Ramsey Macdonald and the Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin.
Almost a Century later the lives of asylum seekers remain secondary to many politicians who cynically use the issue for perceived political advantage.
There are many myths surrounding asylum seekers, in particular that the UK has a proud tradition of offering sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. The reality is that successive Governments of all colours have introduced increasingly punitive laws and practices to prevent asylum seekers being able to get to the UK and to make life particularly harsh for those that do manage to enter.
The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, boasts that the UK has resettled almost 25,000 refugees since 2015 claiming this to be more than any other EU country. She disingenuously fails to include the number of in country asylum applications which would provide a different picture. The reality is that despite having one of the wealthiest economies in the world the UK takes in a tiny proportion of an estimated 26 million refugees.
Asylum seekers invariably have been tortured, raped and imprisoned. As a result, they will often be suffering from poor physical and mental health. They will have been forced to abandon their homes, careers and loved ones. What is needed is care and support to allow them to recover from their experience. Instead, so many of our politicians seek to punish asylum seekers and convince the public that these most vulnerable people are criminals.
Such is the case with the Government announcement of its intention to radically overhaul the immigration system. The ‘New Plan for Immigration’ claims the proposals will better protect those fleeing persecution and also introduce measure to provide support to those who are victims of modern-day slavery. But there is very little that will offer better protection to either group.
The Government intend to create a two-tier asylum system with those who arrive through legal routes such as resettlement from refugee camps being treated more favourably than those arriving though illegal methods such as by crossing the Channel in a boat.
Those who enter illegally and cannot show good cause for their illegal presence will be punished by being given a new “temporary protection status” instead of refugee status. This status will only allow the asylum seeker to remain in the UK for up to 30 months with no recourse to public funds and with restricted family reunion rights. They will be regularly reassessed for removal from the UK. Such treatment will do nothing to support those fleeing persecution and is likely to exacerbate their trauma and hamper their ability to recover.
This punishment for unlawful entry to the UK however appears to be in breach of the Refugee Convention which states that contracting states shall not impose penalties on refugees for illegal entry or presence. This is in recognition that asylum seekers more often than not cannot escape to safety by lawful means. The Government are also intending a new legal test for whether a person has a well-founded fear of persecution and to amend existing rules to allow people to be removed from the UK despite having a pending asylum claim or appeal.
The treatment of asylum seeker children in the UK has long been an issue of concern. Yet little improvement is proposed. Instead, the contentious issue of age assessments is raised. A National Age Assessment Board will establish processes for assigning an age to asylum seekers who claim to be under 18. The Board will promote ‘scientific age assessment methods’ to determine age and immigration officers rather than social workers will make initial assessments of age.
A Parliamentary report of 2018 found trafficking in the UK to be on an industrial scale and the Government strategy to tackle it failing. Yet again instead of dealing with the issue the Government seeks to assert that many of the victims are bogus. Those with a criminal record of 12 months or more can be denied support and protection even if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that they are a victim of trafficking.
In 2000 a report by the Council of Europe attributed blame for the increase in racism in the UK to increasingly restrictive asylum and immigration laws. The report states ‘Many politicians have contributed to, or at least not adequately prevented public debate taking on an increasingly intolerant line, with at times racist and xenophobic overtones.” Two decades later and racism is rife in the UK. The time has come to rise up and say no more.
- Pamela Fitzpatrick is a councillor in London Borough of Harrow and a candidate for Labour’s National Women’s Committee.