The true story of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK is still far from being told in our suspicious, biased society. And that's just the way the politicians like it!
Until recently, I confess that I hadn't given much thought to the plight of the asylum seekers. I had listened to, and believed, the facts and figures drip fed to us by the media, and if I'm honest, was of the mindset that they jumped the housing queue and benefits system ahead of us more deserving Brits.
Then a couple of months ago I went to watch a wonderful piece of theatre called Some Other Mother by AJ Taudevin. It highlights the fate of two asylum seekers in Glasgow. I was struck by the inhumanity shown to these people and the play certainly touched a nerve with me and the audience.
I wanted to find out more.
Firstly, lets define the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee:
'A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.'
The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
In the UK, a person is officially a refugee when they have their claim for asylum accepted by the government.
'A person who has left their country of origin and formally applied for asylum in another country but whose application has not yet been concluded.'
What benefits do asylum seekers receive in the UK?
The majority of asylum seekers do not have the right to work in the United Kingdom and so must rely on state support. Housing is provided, but asylum seekers cannot choose where it is, and it is often 'hard to let' properties which Council tenants do not want to live in. Cash support is available, and is currently set at £36.62 per person, per week, which makes it £5.23 a day for food, sanitation and clothing. *
I have been astounded at the level of vitriol and anger aimed at these vulnerable people and attained a sobering insight into their appalling treatment by the public and officials alike.
They put their lives at risk, often on a long and treacherous journey, leaving family behind, to find safety. This does not make them lazy, dishonest, welfare cheats or criminals. It makes them desperate.
The media holds so much power over the public's opinion on immigration and the prejudice extends to those working with asylum seekers. Some Other Mother featured the role the UK Border Agency play using morning raids to transport asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected to detention centres across the country.
During my research I met Serge, who, like so many other asylum seekers was treated badly at the hands of the UKBA. He told me, 'They came to our house in the early morning, five o'clock. I was sleeping when they came and detained me.'
Clearly angered, he added, 'The Home Office came to my home like I am a criminal. In front of my bed were four people and they cuffed my hands. They came straight to my bedroom. It's not fair. I just come to claim asylum in this country to save my life. I am not a criminal. I would like to work. I will be killed if I return to my homeland.'
The public are no better in their reactions.
'I am made to feel as if I smell and there is zero tolerance for the non-existent smell of an asylum seeker. I escaped from Kenya because I wanted to live, but in Middlesbrough all I can think about is how much I want to die.'
Kamwaura, a Kenyan business woman.
If we considered the situation calmly, we might come to the conclusion that a system is not fit for purpose if it considers sending a young man or woman back to one of the most dangerous countries in the world, a place that uses its citizens as human shields.
But calm discussion isn't what ensues when you drop those two words - asylum seeker - into the mix.
Those words are a red rag to a certain kind of bull - a political bull whose election manifesto panders to a worried populace, or endlessly enraged ones who crawl out of the internet sewers where they lurk and from which they spew out their filth.
We know the only thing that will make refugees safer is to provide more options for refugees in dangerous situations around the world - more protection from human rights abuse in their home country, more safety and recognition in countries of transit, and more access to official migration pathways.
I am also not advocating people smuggling, but it is the smugglers and corrupt officials in the countries they depart from that must be targeted. Border security is important, but it is organised crime and drug smugglers who pose the real risk.
We have no problem accepting the youth who migrate here for an education, or foreign trainee doctors who work in our health care system.
But a boatload of despairing people who just want safety, democracy, freedom, and a chance at a better life are demonised like rabid dogs.
If you're seeking the group of people most responsible for driving up immigration numbers, don't look at asylum seekers from places like Eritrea or Iran, look at economic migrants.The four countries sending the most people to the UK are India, Poland, USA and Australia.
For them, it's an economic and lifestyle choice. For others, it's a choice between life and death.
There is another side to the asylum tragedy that is largely unheard. Stories of bravery in the face adversity, of survival in the face of conflict, terrorism, war and persecution, and not least, of the vast contribution refugees continue to make to the social, economic and cultural life of the UK.
Sadly, most of what is written has been negative, harshly misrepresented and inflated. But what of the many positive stories about refugees?
There is Asif from Afghanistan who wants to study International Business and work his way up in an airline company.
Or Harriet from Iran who is about to start a degree in Biochemistry, having worked incredibly hard to achieve the right grades in her third language?
Michel won a place on the Changemakers leadership development programme in London and has since set up a youth group for care leavers at his local council, alongside working for a cinema and for a catering company.
Rajani volunteers at a local Family Justice Centre, as well as with a Substance Misuse support service and has been taking a course in counselling, with the aim of supporting people who have gone through some of the same difficult experiences as she has.
Amina has achieved the grades to study Pharmacy at university, wants to become an aid worker in the future, and is currently a young carer for her mother.
Britain is not a 'soft touch' - the Home Office rejects between 70 and 90% of initial applications for asylum, despite most asylum seekers being from countries such as Zimbabwe, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iran.
The UK is home to less than 2% of the world's refugees - out of more than 15 million worldwide. (UNHCR Global Trends 2011)
What sort of world is it where we allow people to live like animals in detention centres without demanding better, demanding more? We have stripped these people,who have no voice of their own, of their dignity for long enough. They are human beings, not numbers, not foreigners, not statistics.
The first step is clearly to ensure that public opinion is not being shaped by misinformation or exaggeration. The government can make clear statements about the fact that we are not being 'swamped' and that the people entering the UK can make a positive contribution.
Just who will speak up on behalf of this abandoned generation?
But more importantly - for those brave enough to make their voices heard - are we ready to listen?
Until we are, everything that is 'Great' about Britain, is heading towards derision and hypocrisy.
* (Source: Home Office)