On the weekend of Easter my thoughts turn to the plight of refugees scattered throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Easter is a celebration of service and hope, marking the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, himself born a refugee facing the threat of death.
It is because of this that I was profoundly moved by images of Pope Francis as he kissed the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu and Catholic refugees last year, at a traditional Easter foot washing ceremony undertaken during the most solemn period of the Catholic Church's Easter season. During his Easter Sunday message, Francis reminded the Catholic Church not to 'forget those men and women seeking a better future ... fleeing from war, hunger and social injustice'. The Pope bemoaned how all too often, 'these brothers and sisters of ours meet along the way with death, or in any event, rejection by those who could offer them welcome and assistance'. A year later, it's difficult to see whether much has changed.
The central message of Easter is one of new life. By grace we are given a clean slate, a fresh start and a hope for the future. 6,000 Syrian refugees can relate to this sense of new life and hope having successfully resettled under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme (VPRP). I ver much welcome this Government's commitment to prioritising refuge for 20,000 of the most vulnerable refugees as well as 3,000 children at risk in the MENA region. Together with the £2.4billion of aid in Syria, the Government is taking a leading humanitarian role in the region.
The Home Secretary was right in her Conference speech to say that "compassion has no borders" and so it is right to also provide refuge for some of the most vulnerable refugees in Europe. The fire last week in the Dunkirk refugee camp has again heightened the need for an expedited process for lone children who have families in the UK. We eventually did this in Calais and now the Government need to step up and do it in Dunkirk. Safe Passage say there are at least 50 lone children with a right to be reunited with families in the UK. The Home Office has confirmed with me that "both the Dublin and Dubs routes continue to be available to the French as legal mechanisms to transfer unaccompanied children to the UK".
But whilst the politicians fiddle, the refugee camp has burned and vulnerable children are at grave risk of exploitation.
Compassion can be measured not just in the number of refugees given sanctuary but the depth and quality of support. When it comes to resettlement the Government has recognised that refugees need specialist support to integrate into British society if they are to successfully begin rebuilding their lives. Refugees resettled through the scheme receive a tailored integration package in their initial months and are provided with accommodation and the key documents needed to access services upon arrival. A fast-track system ensures that they are allocated a National Insurance number promptly, and that benefits are paid on time. Additional funding is provided to facilitate the extra help that comes with delivering to a vulnerable client group within schools, and specialist support ensures that these refugees can access English language tuition, the job market and mainstream services. It is absolutely right that these basic provisions are offered to individuals who have survived torture, rape and war as a bedrock upon which to rebuild their lives.
Resettlement schemes such as the VPRP are proving to be a success. They contribute to integration, are instrumental in facilitating social cohesion and open doors back into the employment market. They allow refugees to contribute to their local communities, and flourish as valuable members of British society.
And yet, inexplicably, this system has created a second class of refugee. For those instead granted asylum in the UK there is a stark absence of provision and support available, resulting in a perverse situation in which surveys estimate that up to 81% of the refugees we have committed to protect quickly find themselves homeless. Simply put by Middlesbrough Council to the Home Affairs Select Committee, 'the assumption that asylum seeker children come with any less needs is one we would seek to challenge.'
For those forced to leave their countries due to war and persecution, being recognised as a refugee should represent the opportunity to finally stop running, integrate, and rebuild one's life in safety. It should not matter whether they came via a formal resettlement route or irregularly through an asylum application. They have all being found to need our sanctuary.
The magnitude of the hurdles currently facing those awarded a positive decision on their asylum claim, however, are profoundly damaging to this. Having fled their homeland, traversed Europe and arrived in the UK, destitute asylum seekers are offered accommodation on a no-choice basis and subsistence support. When recognised as a genuine refugee, these services are terminated after 28 days. It is erroneously called a 'grace' period which is undermined by a number of factors, the sum of which blight the opportunity recognised refugees have to integrate into and strengthen our society.
Tightened regulations around the provision of services for migrants have made it imperative for recognised refugees to have the documents that they need processed immediately after receiving their positive asylum decision. Without a Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) and National Insurance Number (NINo), it becomes extremely difficult to prove identity, the right to study or work in the UK and to access mainstream services such as the NHS. NINos are crucial for gaining employment and accessing social welfare through the DWP. Despite this, few refugees are given their NINo within the 'grace' period, and the BRP is typically provided towards the end of their tenure. Even once provided with a NINo, it takes on average 32.3 days for refugees to access mainstream welfare benefits. This results in a significant delay between the termination of asylum support and welfare being paid, the human impact of which is vulnerable individuals being forced to borrow money, go without food or rely on charities for support. Destitution has clear gendered impact, with particular risks for women who may be forced into exploitative situations to survive. Research has indicated that common survival strategies often result in the coercion, entrapment and enslavement of women who are subsequently physically abused and sexually assaulted.
There is a strong motivation to work among newly recognised refugees. Having not been permitted to work as asylum seekers, the brevity of the 'grace' period forces most newly recognised refugees to prioritise finding a stable place to live before eviction from Home Office Accommodation. This, alongside basic English language skills, unrecognised qualifications and gaps in the CVs of many refugees due to war and displacement makes it particularly difficult to secure a job before asylum support is terminated. The difficulty many refugees experience in finding suitable, long term employment is not a comment on their competency or motivation, but rather a product of the lack of tailored support provided to often highly skilled individuals.
Most asylum seekers begin their lives in the UK with minimal or no savings. With little prospect of borrowing money from friends, family or banks, and facing an oversubscribed housing market demanding guarantors, deposits and paperwork typically inaccessible to refugees, it is unsurprising that many quickly find themselves facing a crisis of homelessness. Their options are limites. Though some are able to sofa surf with friends or find hostel accommodation, whilst others have to be housed by their local authority or must sleep rough.
The high-stress environment created by the move on period has been found to culminate in a serious decrease in the mental and physical health of asylum seekers. Those granted refugee status are often subsequently subjected to symptoms of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Worse still, refugees granted asylum are typically less willing and able to address their mental health concerns directly following the move on period, instead being consumed by a pressing need to find financial stability and long-term accommodation.
The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme has proved a decisive step in the right direction. It has shown this Government as compassionate and has gained world wide appreciation as a model of good practice. It delivers world-class specialist support to refugees, facilitating their integration and participation in our society. It is though unconscionable that we should allow such an achievement to give rise to a two-tier system constituted of 'desirable' and 'undesirable' refugees. The Refugee Integration and Employment Service must be reformed, and asylum seekers given true parity of opportunity. As the Prime Minister could say, the Governemnt needs to work for all refugees not just those from resettlement schemes.
At Easter Christians will be remembering how Jesus Christ showed the ultimate service and hope of eternal life through his death and resurrection. Let us resolve to show some of that service by giving some of our most vulnerable a new life, and a hope for the future.
David Burrowes is the Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate and vice chair of the APPG for Refugees