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Sanctuary seekers, cross party MPs etc 600

Uniting for a fairer immigration policy: Kate Green, Labour MP for Stretford and Urston (front, second left), Sabir Zazai, chair of City of Sanctuary UK (front, second right) and Stuart McDonald, SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (front, far right), together with other speakers designated ‘experts by experience,’ having been through the asylum process.

Campaign for fairer refugee policy goes to Parliament

Moves to reform some of the unfairest elements of the UK’s policy towards refugees seeking asylum took a step forward at the annual Sanctuary in Parliament event hosted by the national City of Sanctuary movement and attended by Alex Kempton and Felicity Laurence from Hastings Community of Sanctuary. Felicity Laurence, chair of the Hastings group, who provided a vivid account of the ‘hostile environment’ underlying Home Office policy towards immigrants in a previous article, explains the new proposals.

At the event on 12 November we met with our local MP, Amber Rudd, to discuss the day’s theme – Towards a Fairer Asylum System – which encompasses the current campaign for three pivotal changes to asylum policy. There were moving accounts from those within the asylum system, music from the Stories of Sanctuary choir, strong speeches from MPs from across the political spectrum who nevertheless are coming together on these issues, and delegates’ own conversations with the MPs who met with us there.

Three important changes to the asylum system are now under discussion in the run-up to the imminent new Immigration Bill, with the plan that MPs who support these changes will table them as amendments once the bill is introduced in Parliament.

  1. The right to work for people who have asylum claims outstanding for more than six months.
  2. Extension of refugee family reunion.
  3. An end to indefinite immigration detention.

There is already significant cross-party support for all three proposals, as expressed in specific cross-party initiatives as well as the voting records of individual MPs at the related parliamentary debates. Taken together, these changes are key to producing a fairer asylum system that is better in line with our values as a society.

After more than two decades of increasingly draconian policy, the unprecedented revelations from the Windrush debacle have shone a light on the general policies affecting everyone going through Home Office procedures. This seems finally to be bringing about a move across the political spectrum to rethink the whole process.

Right to work

The right to work for people seeking asylum is the subject of the multi-agency Lift the Ban campaign. People seeking asylum may not work to support themselves while their claim is processed, except within a very narrowly designated group of skills after 12 months, meaning that most simply cannot work, often for years given the lengthy processes involved in many asylum decisions.

People in this group often have skills which we desperately need, and could fill much needed vacancies – in hospitals, schools and many other areas. Right now in Hastings, there are people with high technical qualifications in such areas as dressmaking and business, or post-graduate degrees in education and in medical sciences. All of them want passionately to be able to work, contribute to society, and pay their way – and they have never imagined being dependent upon state support (which at the moment is worth just under £5.40 per day).

Indeed, across the country, many are destitute. This is itself the result of a deliberate policy of deterrence, generally referred to as ‘planned destitution’ by those working to ameliorate the resultant harsh asylum conditions. Various detailed official reports have challenged what they have termed this ‘deliberate policy of destitution’, with one such report unambiguously entitled Destitute by Design.

Felicity Laurence, left, and Alex Kempton of Hastings City of Sanctuary flank Fatima, City of Sanctuary UK communications officer, who waited more than four years before being granted refugee status.

Felicity Laurence, left, and Alex Kempton of Hastings City of Sanctuary flank Fatima, City of Sanctuary UK communications officer, who waited more than four years before being granted refugee status.

These policies have been developed over the past two decades, with the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act of 2002 an explicit watershed in its removal of all support for people who do not claim asylum immediately at the port of entry.

As this writer recalls, this resulted swiftly in a huge influx of homeless and hungry people onto the streets. And there are people who have fled conflict abroad suffering this wilful destitution and sleeping in the cold on our own streets, here and now, in Hastings and St Leonards.

Asylum seekers’ right to work is now formally supported by all opposition parties and a growing number of Conservative MPs, such as Dame Caroline Spelman, who tabled a compelling Westminster Hall Debate on this issue on 24 October. Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng recently suggested in Parliament that, “It cannot be beyond the wit of even this Government, dare I say it, to construct an ordered way in which asylum seekers can work and contribute to their communities,’ and a similar tone underpins his fellow MP Sir Christopher Chope’s comment in a recent Home Affairs select committee session that asylum seekers should be able to “take pride in the contribution that they can make to this country instead of being in a sort of limbo dependency, which annoys everybody.”

Majority support in polls

Repeated polls show that around 70%  of people across the UK support the right to work for asylum seekers, and we are finding this view reflected in many conversations in our own town, most recently on Saturday 24 November at our Hastings Supports Refugees food collection for refugees in Calais and our own foodbank; people were unhesitating in signing the Lift the Ban petition (which can be signed here).

The two other reform proposals also enjoy widespread support. Family reunion refers to the ability for young people brought here as children to gain the legal right to apply for family members to join them; at the moment, adults with refugee status can apply for their children to come, but children given leave to stay cannot apply for their families to join them.

We heard powerful testimony of the effects of enforced separation from two young people torn from their families as children, and currently unable to pursue reunification with them. (Readers can find full information about this campaign here.)

“Profoundly unjust”

Ending indefinite detention has the support of all opposition parties, as well as some prominent Conservative MPs like Andrew Mitchell, who claims this practice to be “so profoundly unjust that it beggars belief.” At the event, we heard from people who had been detained. In one case, a family, including a young woman who had lived in the UK since the age of 11 and was then at university, was picked up unwarned. She was handcuffed and detained with her parents (both professional people from a persecuted religious Christian community) without explanation for 11 weeks, before being released – again without any explanation – back into the community.

More than 50% who are detained, typically without reasons given, charge or information about what will happen next, are in fact released in this way. The Government has announced recently a planned 40% reduction of the numbers in immigration detention, and the closure next May of the Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre – these are welcome moves to address the inherent injustice of this system.

The current campaign focuses upon limiting detention to 28 days, to align with all other categories of detention without charge, and to remove completely the possibility of indefinite detention, which can extend to months, even years (the longest time recorded being nine years). (Readers can sign here.)

Hastings Community of Sanctuary is asking Amber Rudd to support the right to work, family reunion and an end to indefinite detention, as part of her own stated position that UK immigration policy should be humane and fair. While her return to Cabinet a few days after this event may restrict her ability publicly to support proposals that break with the party’s official policy, she can still play an important role of advocacy within the Cabinet and help increase support from other Cabinet members to influence the Home Secretary’s position on these three changes.

Hastings Community of Sanctuary promotes a grassroots culture of welcome and safety for all, including people seeking sanctuary from war, violence and persecution.  For further information, please see our website. You can sign our pledge of support here.

Posted 17:12 Wednesday, Dec 5, 2018 In: Politics


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