Arriving in the UK can be confusing for asylum seekers, with many of them unaware of the complex asylum process. A large number of asylum seekers are imprisoned because they do not understand the system.
asylum (noun) haven, sanctuary, refuge, shelter, retreat, safety.
In 1951 the Geneva Convention put guidelines into place for governments dealing with asylum seekers and potential refugees. Under this convention a refugee is a person with
“a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…” (Article 1A(2)).
All signatory states have an obligation to provide asylum for those who fit the above description, and to allow them to resettle and create new lives.
What is an asylum seeker?
In the UK an asylum seeker is someone who has applied for asylum with the Border & Immigration Agency of the Home Office (BIA), and who is waiting for a decision. If an asylum seeker receives a positive decision they become a refugee with full rights to access employment, healthcare, education and benefits.
Why do people flee their own countries?
The majority of asylum seekers and refugees feel that their safety, or that of their families, is at risk in their home country. This can be due to oppressive regimes, civil war, international conflicts, or many other factors that lead to persecution against individuals or groups. One important point is that these people are unable to ask their own government for protection. Some come from countries where there is no government to ask, and where lawlessness rules. Some examples of countries from which asylum seekers are currently coming are: Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Why choose the UK?
For those few who have a say in their destination the main factors in choosing a country are:-
- The presence of friends or relatives
- Belief that the UK is safe, tolerant and democratic
- Historical links between their country of origin and the UK
- Ability to speak English or a desire to learn
People make positive decisions in order to secure the best future for themselves and their families. Research carried out by the Home Office concluded that asylum seekers have very little prior knowledge of UK immigration procedures and the benefits system. This point can be easily illustrated by logging onto www.bia.homeoffice.gov.uk and seeing if you can figure out what will be expected of you, and what you will receive (also note that this information is only available in English and Welsh). Most asylum seekers expect to have to support themselves only to find that they are not allowed to work and are made to rely on state benefits.
“My message to you is: if you are given just enough time and just enough money to live in peace, then be thankful and live that time to the full. I also hope that you are always safe and that you always have friends. I hope that nobody looks at you and calls you bad names for no reason other than that you are different.” Young Asylum Seeker, A Place of Sanctuary
Due to the situations they are leaving, asylum seekers often use false documents to escape their countries. This fact is recognised in the Geneva Convention –
“States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees…” (Geneva Convention Article 31)
This destroys the myth of the “illegal” asylum seeker…there is no such thing! ALL people have a right to request asylum in a country other than their own. The more fortunate may have enough money to choose where they go and how to travel while the less fortunate may be packed into the back of a lorry with their families, unaware of their destination.
Arriving in the UK
Arriving in the UK can be very confusing for asylum seekers. New arrivals are unlikely to be familiar with the asylum process: forms to fill in; interviews to attend; fingerprints taken, and all in a foreign language. Many asylum seekers are imprisoned simply because they do not understand the system or are completely unaware of it. People must apply for asylum at the port of entry or the UKV&I offices in Croydon.
Most applicants will be provided with accommodation and subsistence funds. Asylum seekers must accept the accommodation offered regardless of location or state of repair. Some are held in detention centres. Asylum seekers sometimes choose England due to the presence of family/friends or an established community from their home country, but find that they are unable to be near these people to access support (moral or material) without jeopardising their benefits or accommodation. Asylum seekers are the only people in this country who, despite committing no criminal offences, can be detained indefinitely with no legal representation.
No Right to Work
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are therefore unable to support themselves. Home Office research found that most expected to be self-sufficient during the application process but the reality leaves all asylum seekers to be supported by the state. Like UK residents, asylum seekers must send their children to school and have access to primary NHS healthcare. Stories hinting that asylum seekers steal jobs and get free mobile phones are simply that…stories. Many asylum seekers volunteer for support agencies like the CAB, Asylum Link Merseyside or Refugee Action and more volunteer in areas such as education or research. Recent changes also mean that asylum seekers are no longer able to access English classes until they have been in the UK for more than six months, making it harder to look after the basics such as buying milk and getting on the bus.
“You don’t have to be from any particular background to become a Refugee. You don’t have to be educated or rich or poor or any particular thing. You just have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It can happen to anyone.” Asylum Seeker, Liverpool
Individuals surviving on £5.28 a day…could you?
Most asylum seekers are eligible to apply to the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) for living support. Adults receive 51% of UK income support (just £36.95 a week) to cover all living expenses. The accommodation provided varies from self-contained homes to hostel style accommodation. Families often have difficulty meeting basic needs such as clothes, school books, furniture, sanitary products, or extras such as mobile phones to allow them to keep in touch with family in their country of origin. Voluntary organisations often step in, providing second hand clothing, food and other necessities.
A Waiting Game
Asylum applications can take anything upwards of four weeks to process. Many people wait years for a decision. Not knowing whether your application will be accepted and, therefore, whether your family will be moved on can be extremely stressful, and is often made worse by the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. During this period of uncertainty many try hard to re-build their lives: doing voluntary work; sending their children to local schools; becoming involved with local church groups, mother and toddler groups and communities and learning English and ‘citizenship’ skills.
A refusal…what happens now?
Only some of those who are refused asylum are entitled to a court appeal, and only some of those entitled to appeal will get legal representation. As a result, many asylum seekers represent themselves at appeal. In 2015 35% of cases that were initially refused were won at appeal, testament to the difficulties and frustration of the decision making process. That 35% equates to 3,234 individuals/families across the UK whose initial negative decision was judged to have been unfair. The Government’s Firmer Fairer Faster programme certainly speeded decision making, but the fact that 35% of appeals still succeed makes nonsense of the ‘fairer’ aspect. Speed is no substitute for accuracy.
Once a final negative decision has been made the next step is to deport people back to their country of origin. Despite this there are cases where asylum has been refused, but there is no safe route of return due to war or oppression, eg. Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. In these cases people must apply for new types of support through NASS and ‘Section 4’. Entitlement to support may be jeopardised if a family is not taking active steps to return to their country voluntarily, even where the government acknowledges there is no safe route of return. People on Section 4 support receive £35 a week in vouchers, which they can only spend in certain shops. Sometimes they are only able to buy food, but other essentials, for example, toothpaste, nappies and sanitary products cannot be purchased. We have lobbied hard to end this degrading system.
In severe cases where families feel unable to sign up for voluntary return, Section 9 legislation allows for the separation of families, with parents being denied all support and children being taken into care by local authorities. Despite our government’s criticism of regimes like Zimbabwe and Sudan, it continues to attempt to return refused asylum seekers to those regimes.
So I have a new name – refugee
Strange that a name should take away from me
My past, my personality and hope
Strange refuge this.
So many seem to share this name – refugee
Yet we share so many differences
I find no comfort in my new name
I long to share my past, restore my pride,
To show, I too, in time, will offer more
Than I have borrowed.
For now the comfort that I seek
Resides in the old yet new name
I would choose – friend.
Written by Ruvimbo Bungwe, Zimbabwe
Refugee status…what happens now?
Once a positive decision has been made refugees have 28 days to move out of NASS accommodation. The fact that refugees have not been allowed to work (ie. earn) can create difficulties in finding private or other rented accommodation. The change in rights can be confusing, and is often ill explained. The government recently announced a new scheme which allocates all new refugees a caseworker for one month to help them access housing, employment or education. This has been criticised by many refugee support agencies, who believe that the process of preparing people should begin before a claim is decided.
People granted refugee status have full access to education, health and other services provided by the state. Under new legislation, even recognised refugees will be granted only five years or less to stay in the UK, before a further review. This causes uncertainty and is a hindrance to meaningful resettlement and integration. Why should people engage with society, buy a home, contribute to the economy, push ahead with their children’s education or even learn the language, if they are to be sent back at the end of five years?
Merseyside Refugee Support Network (MRSN) works in partnerships across Merseyside to raise awareness of issues faced by asylum seekers, and to support refugees and asylum seekers in accessing services in the region. In particular this includes supporting refugees on the journey towards employment, providing information, signposting and bespoke services to individuals where possible.
For further information contact Seana, Margaret or Karen on 0151 709 7557
Information Sources: ‘Asylum Statistics 4th Quarter 2006 United Kingdom’ www.rds.homeoffice.gov.uk
The Geneva Convention 1951, Asylum Aid, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, The Home Office, Refugee Council/Oxfam www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk