Citizens of nowhere - falling through the gaps of the UK asylum system
As pressure grows over plans to close the Dubs scheme, new evidence raises questions over the UK’s wider approach to asylum
Aged 84, Lord Dubs remains defiant. “The campaign isn’t over, our better nature will surely carry the day,” he insisted, speaking after a failed attempt by MPs at rebellion over ending the so-called ‘Dubs scheme’.
Under the resettlement scheme, named after the Labour peer, around 3,000 unaccompanied children had been expected to be homed in the UK from camps around Europe. The news from the Home Office that the scheme would end with just 350 children given sanctuary, after fleeing a war zone and losing their families, was always going to spark outrage.
In that context, a recent Home Affairs Select Committee report, warning there is a “big gap” between what the UK Government has been saying about child refugees and what local authorities have told it, only compounded the Government’s difficulties.
Warning the issue is “too important to get wrong”, committee chair Yvette Cooper said: “The Government said local councils can only take 350 children under the Dubs scheme. But councils told us that with funding in place they could take many more. That’s why we want ministers to publish all the council offers of help they have had, and to find out how many more children they could take in the next financial year.”
SNP MP Stuart McDonald took a similar line, saying: “It is time for the Prime Minister to finally wake up and realise that the huge public and parliamentary pressure to accept our fair share of unaccompanied child refugees will not just go away.
“The UK Government must immediately halt its shameful decision to end transfers under the Dubs scheme – these are some of the most vulnerable children in the world and it is our duty to protect them.”
While the Scottish Government met with COSLA, local authorities and others to discuss plans to bring forward a national framework agreement on unaccompanied children, as well as exploring further funding and capacity support, pressure on the UK Government continued to grow, with it facing and eventually defeating a backbench rebellion from its own MPs, which would have forced councils in England to identify whether they have spare capacity to house unaccompanied child refugees.
It was not just Lord Dubs who refused to accept defeat, with Josephine Liebl, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Policy Adviser, accusing the Government of deciding the fates of child refugees “based on guesswork”. She said: “Rather than putting in place policies that are in line with the Government’s ambition to be a truly global Britain, it is closing the door on child refugees who have fled terrible violence.”
Figures from last year suggest there are 95,000 unaccompanied children in Europe still in need of help and that 10,000 have already gone missing. The Government won the vote, with lone children stuck on the continent the obvious losers.
Meanwhile, as the Government put its energy into defeating the rebellion against closing Dubs, the British Red Cross published a new report, ‘Can’t stay, can’t go’, cataloguing examples of people living in the UK who have had asylum applications refused, but cannot leave.
As some of the most vulnerable children in the world remain trapped, lost, alone and frightened, in refugee camps on the continent, other people remain trapped in the UK. Refused asylum but unable to go home, they have fallen through the cracks in the system.
Some do not possess the documents they require to go back to their home country. Some have had their nationality disputed. In other cases, there is simply no viable route back to their country of origin, or the state they fled no longer exists.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. They also have no recourse to public funds, which means, banned from employment, they cannot access the mainstream welfare system. They are in a no-man’s land.
In some cases, those who have had asylum applications refused can access Section Four support, which amounts to temporary accommodation (on a no-choice basis) and £35 per person, per week, which is provided via credit on a payment card known as the Azure Card. The card can only be used to buy ‘essential items’ in a limited number of large supermarkets, and cannot be used to obtain cash.
But in order to access the support, applicants are expected to prove they are taking all reasonable steps to leave the UK, which, for people often struggling to pay for travel to an embassy, or make the necessary phone calls, can be very difficult to do.
The Red Cross report found that with no right to work and with extremely limited financial support, life for this group is bleak. In fact, in some cases, people are denied refugee status despite the Home Office agreeing that it is not possible to return them home safely.
The report includes 15 people’s stories. The majority received no form of support, and nearly half said they have considered suicide.
One man, Walid, came from Algeria to the UK 17 years ago. “They let me live like – between,” he said. “I can’t go back and I can’t live here… If you die, nobody cares, really.”
He has been to the embassy twice, but they do not recognise him as Algerian. “I was in Europe before I came here, in France, but I was out of the country 22 years. If you are 22 years out the country, you are out from the system. I think they think I’m this person that’s died.”
Forced to sleep on the streets, Walid has had two heart attacks since he has been in the UK. He now has stents placed in his heart and takes five tablets a day.
Another man included in the report, Anwar, comes from a small fishing village in Somalia, and never had a passport. He has applied for assisted voluntary return to Somalia, but his application was rejected, with the Home Office telling his MP that there are no assisted returns to the country because it is affected by civil unrest. Meanwhile the Home Office insists Anwar actually comes from Kenya – a country he says he has never been to. After six-and-a-half years, he says he is considering applying to be sent there, despite never having even visited the place.
In its recommendations, the Red Cross says that if someone has exhausted their right to appeal but cannot be re-documented after 12 months, or there is a barrier to return that is beyond their control, and if they are complying with the system, they should be given discretionary leave to remain with a right to work and access higher education in the UK.
Parties across the political spectrum in Scotland have repeatedly called for changes to the way the UK approaches asylum, with Stuart McDonald’s comments on Dubs following demands from the Greens for housing for asylum seekers in Glasgow to be taken out of the hands of private companies and run by the public sector.
Then in January SNP MP Alison Thewliss called on the UK Government to give asylum seekers the right to work, with the Glasgow MP telling Parliament that “for far too long, under successive governments, asylum seekers have too often been viewed with scepticism and treated with contempt”.
Societies are judged by how they treat their most vulnerable and it was these sorts of questions which seem to tap into basic questions of justice, which fuelled calls for the devolution of new welfare powers to Scotland.
But while the Scottish Government maintains that the issues surrounding the asylum system are reserved, and outside of its remit, some have questioned if Holyrood could use levers brought by the next phase of the Scotland Act to improve or top up support.
Part of the problem stems from the fact asylum seekers exist outside the mainstream welfare system, and so addressing destitution is not as simple as increasing mainstream welfare payments, because asylum applicants do not access them.
Yet some groups remain hopeful that new powers could be used to improve the situation for those claiming asylum, with campaigners pointing to Northern Ireland, where the administration provides a small grants programme for destitute migrants, delivered by the Red Cross.
That is at least part of the message campaigners provided to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, as it took evidence on destitution amongst asylum seekers, or those with insecure immigration status in Scotland.
Still, for those trapped in the UK, or trapped on the continent, hope remains a hypothetical. Theresa May has been Prime Minister for nine months now and was Home Secretary for six years before that. If anyone is responsible for the UK asylum system – its successes, as well as its failings – it is surely her.
In her first speech to her party conference as PM, May took to task the rootless managers of British business who, she said, behaved “as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road”. She was blunt and she was bold when she told them: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
But while she focuses on Brexit and matters of state, the children sitting in refugee camps in the continent, hoping for asylum status, as well as those here and rejected, remain, in practical terms, stateless. Where are they citizens of?
Faheem is from Palestine and has applied to return. But, unable to obtain a Palestinian passport, he cannot go. “I’m homeless. I don’t have a country. I can’t go back there [Palestine]. I can’t stay here. I don’t have a country… I don’t know what to call myself. Am I British? I’ve been here ten years.” •