Britain is still no refuge for refugees

Posted by admin on Jul 27th, 2011

Natasha Walter,, Wednesday 27 July 2011 22.00 BST

When the government announced last year that it would end the detention of children for immigration purposes, it felt as if a ray of sunshine had broken into a debate that had become increasingly dark and cruel. I work alongside women and children who have fled persecution to seek asylum in this country. Too many are disbelieved by decision makers, and refused leave to remain. They can then be forced into destitution, locked up, or dragged to an airport. Yet their experiences are shrouded in a darkness made up of both ignorance and hostility.

So what a relief it was to hear Nick Clegg announce an end to the “state-sponsored cruelty” of detaining children. Did this mean that we were going to have a more honest and transparent debate about what was happening to asylum seekers in the UK?

As the months have rolled on, it has become clear that this hope was misplaced. Detention never quite went away, and is now making a comeback. The proposed new centre at Pease Pottage in Sussex will provide a locked environment for up to nine families at a time. And as Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, said this week, the refurbishment and expansion of the children’s unit at Tinsley House removal centre, at Gatwick airport, also “sits uneasily” with a commitment to end the detention of families. If a locked centre is called “pre-departure accommodation”, does it cease to be detention?

While the government brings detention for families back into the asylum process, other aspects of its policies are making it even harder for those seeking asylum to find justice. The reduction of legal aid and the recent collapse of two leading organisations providing legal advice – Refugee and Migrant Justice, and the Immigration Advisory Service – mean that more asylum seekers have to negotiate this crazily complicated system without legal support, making it much harder to get a fair hearing.

Like others in this field I find it painful to listen, week in, week out, to the stories that women tell me not only about the experiences that led them to flee their own country, but about the traumatic experiences they go through here. Recently I spoke to a woman who had been imprisoned and raped in a jail in Ethiopia as punishment for her political journalism. Yet when she came here for asylum she was detained three times in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, and lived destitute on the streets of London for months. “It wasn’t what happened to me in my home country that broke me,” she said, “It was what happened to me here. That was what broke my spirit.”

Unless we bring these experiences out into the light, we will never see the creation of a more just asylum process. That’s why I am so heartened by the fact that so many people brought into this debate by the campaign against detention are not giving up. Church leaders, actors, activists – all sorts of people are still kicking up a fuss.

I am also heartened by the decisions being taken by many refugees to raise their own voices. On Friday in Liverpool a group of refugees, Women Asylum Seekers Together, will be marching to ask for justice in the asylum process. One of their demands is an end to detention of all those who flee persecution.

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the refugee convention, it is worth stating that there is no reason why refugees should face such harsh experiences. The numbers entering this country have declined significantly, and given the political will, we could run a dignified process in which they get a fair hearing. Let’s start by telling the truth about how refugees still struggle to find safety in the UK, right now, right here.

Comments are closed.