We’re now coming to the end of Refugee Week 2013 and, as ever, it’s been a busy and demanding seven days, filled with awareness-raising, music and film, of work highlighting the struggles of displaced people across the world- and from across the world- for human rights and dignity.
This year, as -regrettably- has been the case in so many other recent years, the week has taken place during a period of global conflict and unrest, with the global media’s attention particularly focused on the dire situation in Syria. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail, for example, have published articles marking World Refugee Day (June 20th), noting the ‘poignancy’ of the situation faced by Syrian children displaced to countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, with families ripped apart by “terrible violence”. We are invited to feel pity for these refugees- who, unequivocally are refugees- whose numbers are ever-increasing due to the catastrophic violence in their country of origin. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2344821/Plight-Syrian-refugees-revealed-witnesses-tell-dehydrated-injured-children-dying-roadsides.html#ixzz2WkMILGoS
Yet, if the same media sources are to be believed, some weird process of reverse alchemy occurs by which these tragic victims, heroically suffering in third world refugee camps and deserving of our pity, mysteriously become grasping criminal scum should they reach the UK’s shores. Put simply, “refugees” do not – can not- arrive in the UK. Instead, we receive- and desperately try to deter- “asylum seekers”, who are usually referred to as “bogus”, or as “asylum cheats”, or by any number of pejorative terms. “Real” refugees can not, whether through resourcefulness, or good fortune, or sheer desperation, end up in this country.
And the words we use demonstrably shape the way the UK treats and perceives those fleeing conflict in their countries of origin. This week alone, ASIRT’s staff have been trying to resolve difficulties faced, purely as a consequence of administrative error, by “Alfred”, his wife “Miriam” and their 2 children. Basically- for whatever reason- 6 weeks ago when Alfred first lodged his claim for asylum with the Home Office, Miriam and the children were not recorded on his claim as dependents- even though they were in the office with him when his statement was made. And so- eerily mirroring the claim made by a Home Office spokesperson in relation to people refused asylum in this country, that “these people should not exist”,[ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-21835432 ], Miriam and the two children officially do not exist. This Kafkaesque situation- entirely of the Home Office’s making – has meant that Alfred has repeatedly been advised that he alone is eligible to claim accommodation and subsistence support from the Home Office.
Plainly, the situation is not worth anyone within the Home Office taking the fifteen minutes or so necessary to amend the original record: these people, we must assume, are not “good” refugees, deserving of basic respect. Since the family can not access Home Office initial accommodation, all 4 are presently sleeping in an acquaintance’s living room. ASIRT has made a referral to the Hope Destitution Fund [ http://www.hope-projects.org.uk/ ], ensuring that the family, in he interim, can eat. We have also referred the family on to our friends at Birmingham Law Centre, who are now initiating judicial review action against the Home Office
Yet even this basic right- the right to challenge state authorities whose actions unreasonably and unlawfully create severe hardship and distress – is at risk of removal from the “undeserving” asylum “cheats” seeking to rebuild shattered lives in the UK. Proposed new restrictions to legal aid would introduce a “residence test”, by which people not considered to have been lawfully resident in the UK for at least 12 months will be ineligible for Legal Aid funding. While it is true that “asylum seekers”, such as Alfred, would be excluded from this residence test- at least until a decision, whether positive or negative, is made on his asylum claim- his wife and his children, who are not considered asylum seekers, since they officially do not exist, might well not be. Meaning that they would potentially have no means of redressing the patently absurd position in which they have been placed by one bureaucratic error.
The Ministry of Justice intends to introduce the residence test, along with other restrictions to Legal Aid provision, as a piece of Secondary Legislation- meaning that the changes will be implemented without so much as a Parliamentary Debate. The pressure group, Save UK Justice has drawn up a petition which, if signed by 100,000 people, could trigger such a debate. At the time of writing, the petition has just over 95,000 signatures.
Please sign, to protect access to justice, and to support the rights of refugees in the UK right now. http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628
Dave Stamp is Project Manager at ASIRT, a not for profit advocacy organisation working to protect the rights of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in the West Midlands. This blog first appeared on: http://asirt.org.uk/wordpress/