It's now more than two months since the election. For those of us working with refugees, it's been a worrying time. Some of the initial policy decisions made by new Ministers will lead to considerable hardship amongst both newly arrived asylum seekers as well as those that have been in the UK longer. Our task is not made any easier by some of our newspapers. We've already read enough tabloid myths about asylum seekers to last into the next Parliament.
Nonetheless, five years is a long time - in politics and, as many refugees will tell you, in life. David Cameron, George Osborne and other Ministers have made a very public claim to be a compassionate government that will govern as a one nation party. This compassion clearly extends beyond the UK. The Conservatives have stuck to their commitment to invest 0.7% of GDP in international development. Our task is to persuade them that a government which claims to govern with compassion must respect the rights and needs of those fleeing war and persecution abroad.
The challenges facing refugees have certainly had a high profile since the election, as a result of the crisis in the Mediterranean. The Prime Minister's initial response to this was commendable. He personally deplored the huge loss of life and dedicated significant Royal Navy resource, in the form of HMS Bulwark, to the EU's search and rescue operation. But the tone and focus of the UK's response has changed substantially since then. Ministers have consistently described those crossing the Mediterranean as "economic migrants" despite clear evidence from UNHCR and others that the majority are refugees, and HMS Bulwark has been replaced with a much smaller ship focused on intelligence gathering and military 'solutions'.
There has been one chink of light within this. In response to pressure from Refugee Action, Citizens UK, Refugee Council and others, the government has committed to voluntarily expand the UK's programme to resettle refugees from Syria. The increase is small, but it will be a lifeline for those that benefit. David Cameron deserves credit for this first step, which was welcomed by the main three opposition parties.
Of course the UK could and should go much further. The Home Secretary Theresa May recently lauded the late Sir Nicholas Winton, one of her constituents, for his work in saving refugee children during the Second World War. Our government should live up to his legacy, and do the same for children and families fleeing the conflict in Syria.
But this small step forward on resettlement has been accompanied by three decisions that will make life harder for asylum seekers already in the UK.
The first is the proposal to make immediate and steep cuts in the level of support given to families seeking asylum. Life on the current rate of support is already a struggle - 43% of a group we interviewed said they had missed a meal because they couldn't afford to feed their children. These cuts are deeply punitive and target the most vulnerable people in our asylum system. How can any parent, prevented from working by the asylum system, be expected to support themselves and their children on just £5.28 per person, per day?
The battle for fair and dignified support for asylum seekers is far from over. At a recent meeting on levels of asylum support, MPs from a wide range of parties and backgrounds spoke up against the cuts, while Shadow Immigration Minister David Hanson MP petitioned for the cuts to be withdrawn. With our partners including The Children's Society, we're committed to standing up for these refugee families and protecting their wellbeing against these cuts.. We hope that many MPs, who care passionately about children's rights, will join us.
A second decision by the new government will create hardship even amongst people in the asylum process who wish to return to their country of origin. The government has announced that they will replace the UK's assisted voluntary return programme, currently run independently by Refugee Action, with an in-house government run service. Asylum seekers are clearly very unlikely to trust this new service. The outcome is likely to be more remaining destitute or homeless in the UK, fewer people choosing to return to their country of origin, and higher costs to the taxpayer.
The final change that concerns us is the official guidance on Eritrea, which has been amended to state that this beleaguered nation is "safe" for asylum seekers to return to. Since its introduction, the rate of refusals for Eritrean asylum seekers has risen by almost 40%. With Eritreans highly unlikely to return to a country where their lives are at significant risk -as Human Rights Watch's "dismal" assessment of Eritrea's human rights record shows. This change will result in more asylum seekers facing destitution. It is a very worrying sign that the government may seek to change guidance on other countries to reduce the level of asylum into the UK.
Five years is a long time in politics. As I argued here in April, the challenges we face in this Parliament would be similar irrespective of the election outcome. We need to build a stronger range of voices in support of the rights of refugees, and to persuade our new government that the UK's treatment of those seeking safety is a crucial test of our collective compassion. Conservative governments protected refugees from Bosnia in the 90s and Vietnam in the 80s. There's no reason why they cannot and should not do the same for today's refugees.