No one forgets the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015. Within hours of going viral, it came to define the indifference of the world towards those terrorised into fleeing their homes – even to the point of risking death. The drowned little Syrian boy gave a face to statelessness, loss and fear. Ordinary people sat up, took heed, protested. In a matter of moments, a situation that had seemed tolerable became unacceptable. Campaigns were launched, reports commissioned, promises made to provide better help for those who made it to Europe’s shores.
Eighteen months later, much of that goodwill has not been matched by official action. Children like Alan are dying in the Mediterranean at the rate of two each day. In the UK, policies towards refugees and asylum seekers remain chaotic, and threaten to become more so as Brexit takes shape. Last month the UK all-party parliamentary group on refugees came out with a report on the protection we offer those who arrive. It makes dismal reading, but it also offers a way forward.
Since 2012, 50,290 asylum seekers have been granted refugee status in the UK; 9,838 others have been resettled from camps across the Middle East, under various programmes. Seen in the context of global figures – the UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that more than 65 million people were forced worldwide from their homes in 2015, and that one in every 113 people today is a refugee, asylum seeker or displaced person – our record is not generous.
Children given asylum in the UK are the only refugees denied the right to family reunion; just 5,706 of the 20,000 Syrians promised resettlement in the UK by 2020 have actually arrived; and in February, the government scrapped the Dubs amendment, which was to have brought some 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe, saying that it “incentivised” others to make dangerous journeys.
But it is what happens to refugees once they reach the UK that is the main concern of the all-party report. Britain is practising, it seems, a two-tier system. Those arriving in an orderly fashion via a resettlement programme are provided with a year’s security in terms of support for housing, jobs and education. They are welcomed and helped.
Asylum seekers, however, reaching the UK illegally and applying for refugee status, face uncertainty, protracted waits and bureaucratic mayhem – though both are fleeing identical conflicts, and the asylum seekers have also had to undergo dangerous and terrifying journeys. For them, the orderly route is not an option, but they are punished for their temerity. Allocated random housing while they wait to learn the outcome of their claim, they receive £36.95 a week to cover food and living expenses. Since they are not allowed to work, most barely survive. If at the end of six months their claim has still not been heard, they can apply to work but only in specially designated jobs. Chemical engineering is one of them; classical ballet another. (A report published late last year estimated that if just a quarter of asylum seekers was allowed to work, it would save the UK government £70m per year).
Those who are then lucky enough to be given refugee status, and are allowed to stay, are still treated very differently from those arriving via resettlement. At best, their treatment is grudging. Within 28 days of having their claim accepted, all benefits are stopped. Within that time, they are expected to get their documents, find homes and jobs, and register with the health services. Very few manage to do so before they are evicted from their accommodation. What help they get usually comes from charities.
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Sep 01, 2020