— February 25, 2011

The Plight of Refused Asylum Seekers

Posted by Fay Lomas

Sleeping out in February might sound like a bleak suggestion – so why is it that Oxford University and Brookes students are spending the night on the grass around the Rad Cam on Saturday 26th February? We’re doing it as part of Amnesty International and STAR’s (Student Action for Refugees) nation-wide campaign to raise awareness for the thousands of asylum seekers who do this every night, not out of choice but because they have no other option. This is happening right under our noses, in our towns and cities, yet many people are simply unaware. For us, enduring a night in the cold is the least we can do to bring their situation to light.

Asylum seekers at a refugee camp in Chad

Asylum seekers at a refugee camp in Chad. Photo by mknobil via Flickr.

The National Audit Office estimates that 283,500 refused asylum seekers still live in the UK, many of whom are homeless and live in destitution. Each year two thirds of asylum seekers are refused and once they are, they are required to return to their country of origin within 21 days. If they remain in the UK they end up completely excluded from society, without access to mainstream support services: no legal aid, health care, shelter or money. They live in hopeless destitution, sleeping on the streets and in a state of complete limbo. Off the public radar and without the status of asylum seeker or British citizen, they are deprived of their human rights. As one 67-year-old woman from Zimbabwe puts it: “People have been put in the bin and are scavenging. It makes me sound like an animal. Perhaps that is what I am now. All I am.”

But how do so many people reach this desperate state? Every asylum seeker has to have his or her own case reviewed on an individual basis, but legal aid for this is stretched, poorly funded, and provided on an ad hoc basis. In fact, as Steve Symons (Legal Officer, Immigration Law Practioners’ Association) says, “It’s a complete lottery as to whether [someone] has had their case properly dealt with or not”. What is more, asylum seekers often encounter poor translation services from the Home Office, facing misunderstanding and misinterpretation. “The interpreter twisted the information…. he gave the wrong year I went to the camp. He didn’t read through the form and translate. I signed without having the form translated,” are the words of a 23-year-old man from Somalia. Inaccurate interpreting often leads to inconsistencies, meaning that asylum seekers’ claims do not seem credible and are thus often unjustly rejected and a return home is demanded. There is also an underlying hypocrisy in the way that these asylum claims are dealt with, as can be seen in the case of Zimbabwe. Ongoing legal action prevents the UK government from returning home asylum seekers from Zimbabwe and yet they are often still refused asylum. From any perspective, refusing asylum seekers the refuge they seek, whilst at the same time acknowledging that their country is too dangerous to return to, is undoubtedly a contradictory practice.

There is some form of exemption from the 21 day rule made for those who are refused asylum and who are either physically unable to travel or who have no viable route home (many Iraqi refugees appealed on these grounds during the war as there were no chartered flights to Iraq). Section 4 ‘hard cases’ support grants those in such a situation more time and provides them with very basic means, if they declare that they will return as soon as they can. This was intended by the Government to be a short-term safety net and it was thought that decreasing quality of life during this period would serve as an incentive for co-operation; that refugees would decide that leaving the UK was in fact an appealing option after all. However, even those who meet these criteria often refuse to make the declaration because they feel that if they do so, they will soon be forced to return to an unsafe country.

Thus, those whose claim to asylum is rejected, whether they could be helped by Section 4 or not, often choose destitution over return: enduring immense hardship in Britain is preferable to the terrifying prospect of going back to a country where human rights violations, civil unrest and violence are known to be endemic. Living on the streets, in the government’s eyes, these asylum seekers almost cease to exist. Legally invisible, they have no technical right to be in Britain and yet they are here. Many of those left ignored and destitute are the most vulnerable, from pregnant women, families with small children or parents who have infants abroad, and individuals with mental or physical conditions. Supported by no one, they equally have no way in which to support themselves; since 2002 refused asylum seekers have been denied the right to work. And this is what many want most of all – not just for financial reasons but for reasons of pride, confidence, dignity, independence. “Let them let us work. I would love to go back, but it’s just not safe at the moment,” said a 33-year-old woman from Zimbabwe. Does common sense alone not indicate that they should be allowed to contribute their skills to society?

Destitution is simply a waste of human potential and means that society loses out on the positive contribution that these individuals could offer. Because of their poverty, some asylum seekers resort to committing minor offences in order to be sent to jail, even for a single night, so as to receive a bed and proper meal. Many others find themselves forced into prostitution. Stress levels are permanently high, as many suffer from deteriorating health and an incessant fear of harassment and intimidation. “I feel lonely and uncertain about the future. I am frightened of being arrested and beaten. I have flashbacks to what happened to me in my country. I feel hopeless and helpless. When I was at home I was a happy person,” commented a 17-year-old girl from Ethiopia.

Of course, the UK can’t grant everyone asylum. However, there are certain requests that Amnesty and STAR are making of the government. They want no asylum seeker to face destitution and they want financial support no longer to be contingent on an agreement of repatriation. Finally, those who are receiving support, whether they are refused asylum seekers or not, should be granted the right to work. Not only would this be more just but also far more sensible for the state.

The above requests would give back the lost identity and dignity of these forgotten people. Rather than facing a prejudiced bureaucratic system that has failed them and left them “depressed, abandoned, alone… nothing,” in the words of a 27-year-old woman from the DRC, they deserve fair treatment if not just recognition and respect both for the suffering that many have endured and for the courage and resourcefulness that they have shown in reaching the UK against all odds.

The British public needs to be aware of the plight of refused asylum seekers, because if people do not know that they exist then how will they ever care about them? This is what needs to be changed. Their voices are not loud enough. We need to tell their untold story.

So come and join us on 26 February, at the Rad Cam, from 9pm. Be sure to see the facebook event at: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=125619340843874 and don’t miss Nick Bloomfield’s short documentary on destitution: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcXCN7xhEHU.

By Fay Lomas and Izzy Mighetto


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