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Shelter from the Storm


Asylum (n) – sanctuary; Esp. offering shelter to distressed individuals. From Greek asulon ‘refuge’.

Once again, the BBC Today programme discussed caps on immigration. It is time we introduced another idea mooted before the recent election: an amnesty for failed asylum-seekers already in this country.

Consider the following figures:
• In 2007, half a million migrants came to settle in this country. Of these, 23,450 (4.7%), made asylum applications.
• In the first six months of 2009, 30,435 people were either deported, or left the UK voluntarily, after their claim for asylum had been rejected.
• Over the first three months of 2010, 15% of asylum applicants were granted refugee status, 76% were refused, and a further 10% were allowed to remain on humanitarian grounds.
• Up to 200,000 failed asylum-seekers (FAS) are thought to live in this country illegally, with 10% depending solely on charities to survive.
These few facts paint a different, more nuanced picture of migration patterns than has been peddled by politicians.
We hear a great deal about ‘economic migrants’ and ‘bogus’ asylum-seekers, but very little about their relatively low proportion relative to total migrants or, indeed, the failure rate of such applications.
Nothing is heard about the dreadful living conditions of illegal immigrants: frightened, impoverished and prey to exploitation by criminal gangs. Nor of the 20,000 failed asylum seekers who, according to the Red Cross, are wholly dependent on charities for food, eating maybe once a day and sleeping on the streets, in garages and under hedges.

Who are we talking about?
There are four types of asylum-seeker:
• The Refugee – who has been granted approved refugee status,
• The Remainer – a FAS whose applications failed but who have been given leave to remain in the country on humanitarian grounds,
• The Returner – a FAS awaiting deportation
• The Disappeared – FAS who has melted away into society at large.
Much has been written about persecution of those with leave to remain and the incarceration of those awaiting repatriation. I want to highlight the responsibility we have to the first and the last of the groups above: Refugees and the Disappeared.

The Refugee
Around 15% of applicants are granted refugee status on first application with 28% of Home Office rejections overturned on appeal (24%). This combined figure of 34% means that, of the 24,245 asylum applications received in 2009, 8243 were granted refugee status.
This is supposed to entitle them to appropriate care and access to education, health and welfare alongside their British hosts.
However, this is far from the case. Even for ‘the lucky ones’ who have made it through the hurdles, it takes years if not generations to access the benefits of society on a par with indigenous families.
And needs of refugees can be unique. For example: some 30% of all refugees have been physically or psychologically tortured.
Since its foundation 25 years ago, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture has received nearly 50,000 requests for help in the UK.
In 2008, they received 2,025 new requests for help. Clients came from 79 countries, with significant numbers from Sri Lanka, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Iran.
Public facilities for working with the survivors of torture, persecution and genocide are not widely available and hard to access in a world of targets and cutbacks.

The Disappeared
The large number of those whose applications for refugee status has been refused includes 15% rejected for ‘non-compliance’ or who are judged to come from countries that are ‘safe’.
Non-compliance includes such sins as failure to properly complete all the correct paperwork or missing an immigration interview.
An idea of how the British Government defines safety for immigration purposes is given by the fact that on 29th October 2009, they announced that intended to begin the repatriation of failed asylum-seekers from Zimbabwe. This was decided at a time when there are continuing attacks on pro-democracy dissidents and only months after widespread violence sponsored by the ruling ZANU-PF government of Robert Mugabe, who remains in power.
About half of all rejected applications come from those fleeing persecution in war-torn countries like Congo, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.
When appeals fail, some choose to disappear into society, living on the margins – unable to access proper services, unclear of their rights and at the mercy of unscrupulous employers or landlords.

Rights Denied
At every stage of the asylum process, applicants – even those who have had their claim refused and are awaiting deportation – are entitled to some support. This can be in the form of accommodation, healthcare and some financial allowances.
Asylum seekers are entitled to register with a GP and, in practice, even FAS will receive healthcare without too many questions asked.
The Faculty of Public Health has established principles for the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers. The first of these reads:
‘Necessary or urgent treatment should never be denied to any person, regardless of whether or not they are resident in the UK, or are able to pay in advance.’
Too few asylum-seekers are aware of this. Often FAS will hide in pain rather than visit an official surgery. The idea that they would have to have their details entered onto a computer record is enough to put them off.
Sometimes this is linked to their fear of discovery by the British authorities. More frequently, it is revives memories of the experiences that made them flee their homeland.

For local authorities, the lack of clarity in identifying who lives in their area makes accurate planning of services a nightmare. Issues faced include:
• Education – student ‘churn’ disrupts classes and prevents planning in schools.
• Child protection – transient communities prevent effective safeguarding of children.
• Language barriers – impede delivery of services to the vulnerable including FAS.
• Housing – many migrants live in low-grade, overcrowded properties.
• Community cohesion – transient and illegal residents militate against community cohesion.
• Health – use of A&E instead of GPs; Mental health needs of asylum seekers and refugees who have experienced trauma.

We are always being told that with rights come responsibilities. Children must learn this. The unemployed and impoverished have forgotten this apparently… Actually, it is time we remembered that it is true for us, too.
We have the right to expect people to obey our laws, sure, but they are more likely to do so once they are brought into the daylight by social inclusion. We also have the responsibility to protect our fellow human beings from exploitation – especially if the exploiter is our neighbour.
Bringing failed asylum-seekers back into the fold makes so much sense because it means that they become part of the game. They benefit, of course, because they no longer have to hide, fearing the knock on the door or the dawn raid.
We benefit because they pay taxes, they work in legal jobs, and the sum total of criminal activity is reduced.
It is also to our benefit, of course, because it will allow us accurately to map the need for public services, particularly health and education services, in our local areas.
But, most of all, we need to remember that mercy – which is what an amnesty is – ‘droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.’
There is a proud history in this country of giving shelter to those fleeing the storm of world events. This traditional offer of sanctuary was the privilege of the powerful: princes and priests, the bishop or abbot.
In 2010 – the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion – we should honour this tradition and ensure it continues by introducing an amnesty so that we can care for the weak and vulnerable that come to these shores seeking sanctuary.

Gentleman A (2010); Thousands of failed asylum seekers rely on charities for food, says Red Cross; The Guardian, Wednesday 16 June 2010.
Guma L (2009); Two MDC Activists Hospitalized After Zanu PF Attacks; 12 August 2010;
Home Office (2010); Control Of Immigration: Quarterly Statistical Summary January – March 2010; Office for National Statistics; London.
ICoCo (2007); Estimating the scale and impacts of migration at the local level; LGA; London.
Philipp R (2010); Public Health Support for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Perspectives in Public Health; March 2010; Vol.130:2; pp.67-69.

  1. It might help raise compassion levels if everyone would be illegal at least for a few months in one’s life. Let’s face it: We all a foreigners in most countries of the world, and things could go rough for any of us.

    Great article!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

  2. Thank you!
    A wandering Aramean was my father… therefore shall you love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
    Or do I misremember?

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