Seeking asylum is a human right – so why are asylum seekers being demonised?

By Stephen Hoffman

An asylum-seeker is a person who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who hasn’t yet been legally recognized as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim. Seeking asylum is a human right. This means everyone should be allowed to enter another country to seek asylum.

Amnesty International (2019)

Kept in detention centres, barred from working and struggling to access healthcare, asylum seekers are treated abominably in the UK. It’s as if we have forgotten they are human beings deserving of safety, care, respect and stability.

Rather than being offered a warm welcome to Britain after fleeing some of the worst abuse and trauma imaginable, asylum seekers are instead greeted with a chilling vision of imprisonment, unemployment and struggling health. Without access to holistic critical support from the Government, unable to access public sector work and instead reliant on third-party support (for example through local NGOs), asylum seekers in the UK are left in limbo whilst waiting for a decision on their case.

Many find themselves detained; locked up after having escaped persecution in their homeland from which they have taken perilous journeys to seek asylum in the UK in hope for a better life. A better life – one of freedom, safety and security – does not involve detention and being denied the right to healthcare (without high cost) and the opportunity to work. Yet the reality is that, for asylum-seekers here in the UK, life is incredibly challenging.

It was only a few years ago that after a long campaign by Refugee Action that asylum seekers were granted to right to undertake voluntary work. Prior to this, asylum seekers were unable to put to use their skills and literally “living in limbo” were denied the right to this critical means of integrating into their local community.

Despite the achievement of lobbying the government to permit asylum seekers to undertake voluntary work, there however still remain a range of alarming barriers to asylum seekers’ emotional, psychological, physical, financial and social wellbeing. This includes the ongoing use of detention.

Detention in the UK: An ongoing failure

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The use of detention for asylum seekers is still an alarming phenomenon with the system in the UK ultimately not fit for purpose. In fact, a recent report by the Home Affairs Select Committee found that asylum seekers are held in detention when they are no fit state to be detained, being held for far too long, or even wrongly held in detention centres.

The reasons behind detention are varied, including:

to effect their removal; to establish their identity or the basis of their immigration or asylum claim; where there is reason to believe they will abscond if granted temporary admission or release on bail; or when release is not considered to be ‘conducive to the public good’. In some instances, the reasons for a person’s detention change while he or she is being held. All detentions end in removal or release to the community, on bail or otherwise.

The Migration Observatory (University of Oxford)

The current reality is that the  UK asylum system acts with impunity and no accountability. First and foremost, unlike many other countries worldwide, there is no limit on how long asylum seekers can be held in detention. Thus, the emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing of those detained is compromised. What’s more, the varied time period for the processing of asylum cases has resulted in some people waiting up to 20 years for a decision on their case.

In its scathing remarks on detention the Committee said:

While the indefinite nature of detention traumatizes those who are being held, it also means that there is no pressure on the Home Office and on the immigration system to make swift decisions on individuals’ cases.

This all is contrary to evidenced policy with academics and medical professionals, those who have gone through the asylum system themselves, immigration lawyers, NGOs and many others believing it to be unnecessary, harmful and inhumane.

In fact, the terrible way the UK treats asylum seekers compared to other nations is highlighted by the fact that the UK is the only country in Europe that doesn’t have a detention time limit. We often claim to be a nation of liberty and human rights, but there is no way we can make claim to these values, whilst we treat asylum seekers in such a manner.

There are what’s more no shortage of scandals surrounding the detention of asylum seekers. The story of Brook House Immigration Removal Centre featured in a Panorama expose revealed how, with the centre run by G4S, physical and verbal abuse were routine from staff. Shockingly, a total of 15 out of the 21 staff at the centre were allegedly involved in the incidents and either left G4S, resigned or were dismissed as a result of the allegations made by a 21-year-old whistle-blower.

These members of staff manipulated their position of authority and abused vulnerable asylum seekers under their duty of care. What’s more, for female asylum-seekers in particular, the risk of sexual abuse and inappropriate conduct by staff are a reality with testimony from Yarl’s Wood detention centre revealing allegations of “sexual impropriety”. This is in addition to insufficient safeguarding mechanisms, with one male victim of child trafficking “illegally detained and sexually assaulted by another inmate” at Glen Parva, a young offenders institution.

These grave issues are exemplified in the story of Namibian woman Mabel Gawanas who was detained for three years at Yarl’s Wood. She was finally freed after six judicial review applications were submitted. Yet the fact that Mabel was detained for so long only touches the surface of how outrageous her situation was.

Having been orphaned at an early age, sexually abused by relatives and victim to human trafficking, Mabel was seeking refuge and safety in the UK. However, she found herself detained with no idea of when she would be released and instead found herself criminalised. In 2016 for example, she was taken to hospital in handcuffs. Since being released, she has now become a vocal human rights activist, reflecting on her own difficult experiences:

Being in detention for three years I’ve become stronger. I had to stand up for myself and help other girls. I consider myself an anti-deportation activist or human rights activist. Because it’s about humans, I have compassion for human beings. Each person should treat others with respect.

Yet despite repeated concerns regarding detention centres here in the UK concerning men, women and children, things have yet to change. Brook House has been treated as an anomaly, when a report by the Home Affairs Select Committee Report published in March 2019 declared that the Home Office had “utterly failed“ to ensure the safety of people held in UK detention centres.

Clearly, the authorities in charge are worried about scrutiny. When there was a protest held outside Yarl’s Wood by Movement to Justice in 2016, the authorities confiscated toilet roll from the woman detained at the centre. Such petty cruelties therefore show the worst of a system in need of critical review and development.

No right to work: No right to autonomy

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In addition to the risk of detention, those who are seeking to claim asylum in the UK are also denied the right to enter paid work. The vast majority of asylum seekers to the UK want to contribute to British society and become financially self-sufficient yet this is currently not possible. As one account reveals:

I want to work – I don’t want any more hand-me-downs. I want to enjoy the reward of my sweat. I don’t want to rely on the Government’s benefits – I want to work so I can prove myself to my children.

Rose, asylum seeker

At present, first-time applicants receive government-funded accommodation and a weekly allowance of £37.75 for each member of the household. As you can imagine this does not stretch far. Being able to work would therefore help asylum seekers financially and to support themselves and their family, whilst also boosting their integration into their local community.

The right to paid work and the subsequent extra income would therefore be beneficial on both a personal socio-economic level for asylum-seekers themselves and their families, as well as socially and economically beneficial for the UK and wider society as a whole. You’d therefore think we’d allow asylum seekers to work, yet rather absurdly, asylum seekers are barred from paid work whilst their claim is being processed.

The only small ray of light is that they can apply for work if they have been waiting for a decision for over a year, but this is only for jobs on the restrictive list. The processing often takes years and for those in detention – which is not subject to a time limit – there is no obvious pressure to process claims quickly. The Government in fact had previously announced a six-month target to process claims, yet this has since been scrapped.

If asylum seekers were permitted to legally do paid work in the UK, this would bring significant financial benefit to the nation. According to research by Lift the Ban Coalition, if half of the people seeking asylum in the UK were to earn the national average wage, £42.4 million in net gains could be made by the Government through tax and National Insurance contributions, alongside savings on financial support being provided by the Government. Furthermore, a staggering 71% of the UK public support lifting the ban. So not only would lifting the ban be humane and benefit the economy, it also would not be met by mass opposition. If a Bill were to be presented in Parliament, it would therefore stand a good chance of becoming enshrined in law.

Within British politics, MPs from both the Conservative and Labour Party – the two major political parties in the UK – have expressed their concern on the issue of employment and the lack of financial opportunities open to asylum seekers. In a House of Commons debate led by the Conservative MP for Meriden, Caroline Spelman on 24th October 2018, Labour MP for York Central, Rachael Maskell stated:

In my surgeries, I have had a City banker who is now completely destitute, with no recourse to public funds, and somebody who works in the hospitality sector, at a time when we desperately need hospitality workers and care workers. Is it not right that these people should, first of all, be able to work, but that they should at least receive some resources to be able to feed their families?

These examples are however just a few of many indicating how the current restrictions on employment impoverish individuals with skills the UK economy needs and how, in the process, makes it extremely difficult for asylum seekers to provide for their children and dependents.

It goes without saying that asylum seekers are not coming to the UK out of choice. Fleeing persecution, they have taken great risks and surmounted countless obstacles to be able to apply for asylum in the UK. It is therefore unfair to cut off a key avenue towards making a new secure life for themselves, which would allow them to contribute to the society they wish to live in permanently, based on the skills, determination and qualities they possess, whilst aiding their integration into local communities.

The right to health services: Cost above care

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Without permission to work and only a limited income to support themselves and their families, asylum seekers generally cannot afford additional costs – certainly not for healthcare. However, despite the health risks associated with their traumatic experiences in their home country and the emotional stress of going through the asylum process here in the UK, asylum seekers are also met with another stark reality: having to pay for healthcare, which for many is simply impossible.

According to Government policy, individuals who have applied for asylum are exempt from NHS charges. This should be a relief when you consider the trauma many have undergone before submitting their claim and the additional stress of possibly being detained and not being permitted to work. The physical and psychological effects are undeniable. However, research has found that many asylum seekers have been prevented from accessing healthcare due to cost, “fears about how they will be treated” or “consequences for their immigration status”.

Associated costs such as travel, prescriptions and the addition NHS charging policy for those living in England, are placing financial barriers for people in need of care. Back in 2017, Ministers forced the NHS in England to impose upfront charges for asylum seekers to access care – a cost that is not present in Scotland or Wales. Living off an allowance of £37 a week per person, unable to work and with the added issue of surcharges, accessing critical health care is a worrying, alarming issue.

The testimony of one asylum seeker below highlights how the cost of prescriptions for those on such a low “income” is impacting on people’s physical and emotional health:

My husband often didn’t take his medication. Because he didn’t want to swap it for food. I think a lot of his conditions now are in a really bad state.

UK-based asylum seeker

It is shocking that in a prosperous country such as the UK, asylum seekers are being forced to choose between starvation and healthcare. No human being should be forced into a situation like this, especially where here in the UK we have plentiful resources to ensure asylum seekers are given the care they require. This is wilful neglect based on a system that is hostile to asylum seekers, immigrants and refugees.

Due to such surcharges and financial and social barriers, asylum seekers are consequently being denied their critical human rights:

Everyone should have access to good quality healthcare, regardless of who they are and where they come from. People seeking and refused asylum are likely to have particular health needs because of past distressing experiences and the traumatic effects of fleeing to a different country. It’s therefore crucial that they are able to fully and easily access healthcare and that their rights are protected by keeping healthcare separate from immigration enforcement. This is just about common humanity.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Coalition

The right to health is a right that cannot be compromised. Given the experiences of asylum-seekers before reaching the UK, we must make a significant effort to prioritise their emotional, psychological and physical health without compromise.

The future for asylum seekers: What lies ahead?

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In this piece, I have just highlighted three ways how the treatment of asylum seekers must drastically change. The current use of detention, denial of the right to paid work and barriers to access health care are negatively impacting upon the physical, emotional, psychological, financial and socio-cultural wellbeing of asylum seekers across the UK. Regardless of one’s status (or lack of), it is important to treat all human beings with respect, tolerance, dignity and in the same way in which we would like to be treated.

What’s more, considering the harmful, traumatic experiences and critical vulnerabilities of asylum seekers as a result, the provision of tailored, individualised holistic care should be paramount and of high priority across the board. This includes support from Government immigration bodies including the Home Office, through to additional statutory service providers and civil society, not merely placing the burden on local community organisations and specialist NGOs.

As fellow human beings, we should be doing everything we can to support the men, women and children seeking sanctuary who have gone through unimaginable hardships. What we should not be doing is adding to their hardships and denying them the dignity and respect they crucially deserve.

Having highlighted the issues at hand, my next piece on this topic will shine light on how we can work to add political pressure to transform the system and to bring to an end to this tragic and completely avoidable state of affairs. The right to safety and security is a human right – and that includes the right to seek asylum with adequate care, safety and security. No ifs, no buts.

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