If you are forced to flee your home tomorrow, how do you want to be treated? With respect. And compassion. You’d desperately want support to rebuild your life in a new country. The vast majority of Brits want the UK to do the right thing for those who through no fault of their own find themselves in this situation. But the sad truth is the UK frequently fails them.
The next four months will be a chaotic period in British politics. But with the right arguments and collaboration to mobilise public support we could well see an outbreak of common sense and a decisive positive shift in the welcome we give to those so in need of our support. That would be great news for them - and for us.
Why now? Well the momentum for reform has been growing steadily over the past couple of years, and more rapidly since the appointment of the new Home Secretary. The Windrush scandal exposed how badly vulnerable people have been let down by the Home Office and has created pressure for change across the department. In August, Jeremy Corbyn’s strong public support for people seeking asylum at risk of being made homeless in Glasgow showed we now have an Opposition committed to exposing the many failures of the current system. Now it’s decision time for Sajid Javid and for Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes. They need to get ahead of this pressure, and reboot the UK’s commitments to refugees and people seeking asylum. There are four key issues at stake.
The first is the future of resettlement to the UK. This is urgent. The commitment made back in 2015 to resettle 20,000 Syrians will soon be met. Unless a new commitment is announced, local authorities will begin to wind down their resettlement programmes. This would be a tragedy for refugees who desperately need a new start and for the local communities who have been so pleased to welcome them. The current hotchpotch of schemes should be replaced with one national programme, expanded to welcome 10,000 refugees per year for a further five years, and open to people in need from any country in crisis. September is the perfect time to make a new commitment, three years after the creation of the Syrian programme and with a new global compact on refugees to be agreed in New York. It would be very widely welcomed.
Second, this is the moment for fundamental reform of the asylum system. Today’s arrangements let down those who need our support most and do nothing to help them integrate and contribute to their new societies. Decisions take far too long, in some cases twenty years. Far too many are then found at the appeal stage to be wrong. In the meantime, people cannot learn English or work and live on just £5 per day.
There’s been talk of a new asylum strategy for almost a year now. People seeking asylum don’t need a long document. They need clear public commitments by Ministers to the quality of support Britain will provide: quicker decisions, better decisions, proper access to health services including interpreters, an equitable distribution across the country, support to local authorities to ensure integration with local communities, and access to English language classes. The department can then be accountable for delivering this. Anything less will mean more suffering for those let down by the current system.
Third, the next few months could well see a long-awaited shift in one of the most egregious aspects of the asylum system - the ban on people working while their asylum case is still not decided. It’s madness. Why on earth do we prevent people from working and contributing while their cases are considered? An incredible coalition is being assembled by Asylum Matters and our team here at Refugee Action to press for change. Ministers should get ahead of this. A poll by British Future last year showed overwhelming support with more than two thirds of the public (68 per cent) agreeing. It’s time for change.
Finally, the forthcoming Immigration Bill will see the government under more pressure to commit to a time-limit on detention. Britain is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely. It’s inhumane and costly. Labour have pledged to end this. The new Home Secretary announced an “internal review” in July. Unless the right decision is made first, amendments to the Immigration Bill on this issue (as well as the right to work and family reunion) will have wide support in the Commons.
At Refugee Action we want all of this to happen. But we will win nothing by acting alone. We’ll be collaborating with all the many organisations that want to see 2018 to be a turning point for refugees and people seeking asylum in the UK.
Stephen Hale OBE is chief executive of Refugee Action