The government has made a shameful start on asylum

by Susanna Bellino

On the day of the spending review, an optimistic refugee council set its Facebook status thus:

“Not much mention of asylum in today’s spending review, except that the home office is to save £500m by cutting IT and building costs, but will invest more in asylum casework. Could this be good news?!”

Sorry to burst your bubble, refugee council, but probably not.

The UK has had an ambiguous relationship with asylum seekers, to say the least. On the one hand, we like to appear liberal and sympathetic to their plight and the existence of such organisations as asylum aid and the refugee council demonstrate this. But on the other hand, headlines in the Daily Mail (Up to 80,000 bogus asylum seekers granted “amnesty” and Somali asylum seeker family given £2m house… after complaining 5-bed London home was “in poor area”) suggest that we are a nation that prefers to acquire its morals from right-wing tabloids rather than the universal declaration of human rights.

And despite the pre-coalition Liberal Democrats stance as the ‘fair’ party, things aren’t likely to change. The government has already been accused of deserting its promise to end the detention of children in immigration centres – a change that would have signaled one of the Lib Dem’s few influences on policy and demonstrated that the government was at last sympathetic to the cause of asylum seekers.

In July this year, Nick Clegg denounced the Labour government for perpetrating a “moral outrage” by holding over 1,000 children in detention while awaiting removal from the UK in 2009. The deputy prime minister pronounced the closure of Yarl’s Wood detention centre’s family unit, pledged to “restore a sense of decency and liberty to the way we conduct ourselves”.

However, the sincerity of this pledge collapsed when Greg Mulholland, Lib Dem MP for Leeds West, questioned immigration minister, Damian Green, over the future of Yarl’s Wood. Green replied:

“At the moment, we are looking at alternatives to detention for children … It is our intention to minimise the detention of children in the future as a whole and, therefore, that aspect of Yarl’s Wood’s use will disappear, but clearly not its use for adult women”.

So it turns out that the government is seeking to “minimise”, rather than actually ending, the detention of children.

A couple of months ago, the Guardian received a leaked document concerning a pilot scheme that the UKBA has launched in north-west England. The scheme has found an alternative to child detention. Instead of detaining families, families will be given 2 weeks to leave the UK voluntarily. If they do not leave voluntarily, then they will be deported “at some point” within two weeks.

Now this sounds more like it, if you will excuse the cynicism.

According to the home office, since October 2009 more than 2,500 children have been issued with removal directions. Even more worryingly, despite the good intentions of Nick Clegg, more than 600 of them have been in the last three months. In July this year, John Vine, the independent chief inspector scrutinising the UK border agency, issued a report of the “dawn raids”, adversely criticising the practice of forcing families out of their homes and forcing them onto planes. Is this what Clegg envisioned when he pledged an end to the detention of children – less detention, more deportation?

Another change of policy which smacks of too much Tory influence, is the announcement last week that a ban on sending more than 10,000 failed asylum seekers back to Zimbabwe is to be lifted. The home office minister insisted that it was safe for these asylum seekers to return due to the improved situation in Zimbabwe. The reversal of this decision ignores the comments of the Zimbabwe association and human rights organisations who fear that persecutions continue. A spokesperson for the association said that ” this is not the right time for enforced returns, with control of the state security forces … remaining in the hands of the perpetrators of violence”.

Would it be too cynical to wonder why the government is investing more money into asylum casework? Maybe to speed up the number of deportation orders?

The backlog is massive, though. The UKBA is dealing with approximately 5,000 cases per month with some dating back more than 10 years. In 2002, the government revoked the right of asylum seekers to work in the UK. In theory, this change of law was to act as a deterrent against claiming asylum. The reality is that asylum seekers often prefer to live in destitution than stay in a country where they face persecution. This often means that until they are given leave to remain, they have to survive on very little money.

Now that Labour has a leader who acknowledges his refugee roots, it is time for the party to right its refugee wrongs and come up with some decent policy.

Susanna Bellino is vice chair of Kingston and Surbiton CLP and chair of Labour Friends of Italy

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