Refugees: Unravelling the truth
At this time of severe austerity measures, immigration, foreign aid and refugees are just some of the issues which become easy targets in a populist backlash. OBV spoke exclusively to Pam Inder, Chair of Leicester City of Sanctuary, a national charity which helps people seeking sanctuary in the UK to explore the so-called ‘refugee problem’.
The population of refugees, pending asylum cases and stateless persons makes up just 0.33% of the UK population. Judging by the frequent media headlines this minority generate, you could easily be led to believe that the UK was ‘over run’ by them. ‘Lazy’ and ‘bogus’ are terms frequently bandied about making them an ‘other’, a group less deserving and whose plight and hardship can be ignored.
The terms refugee, asylum seeker and economic migrant are often confused. A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking asylum. This means they are applying to be given the status of a refugee in another country on the basis that they face persecution in the country they have left under the 1951 UN Geneva Convention on Refugees. These two stratifications are completely different from migrant workers and immigrants whose aims are often economically motivated. These distinctions are important to make because they are often misunderstood.
Asylum seekers flee to the UK, not because of the ‘generous’ benefits system, or to take peoples’ jobs, but they are forced to escape from their homelands. They leave their homes, children, families and entire livelihoods because the conditions in their homelands have become unbearable or dangerous. The asylum seekers come in all ages typically reflecting the condition they are fleeing. Young boys who refuse to join the Taliban or victims of the Arab Spring on both sides of the conflict. Inder explained:
a simple look at the news and knowledge of the global trouble spots reveals the places and the types of horrors asylum seekers are fleeing. People involved with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Zimbabwe have fled in fear of what Mugabe may do to them; female genital mutilation; facing persecution over your sexual orientation; honour killings; religious beliefs; are a range of reasons.
Many go through extreme means to reach the UK using formal as well as some illegal methods. Though the illegal methods are often highlighted, all asylum seekers have to apply for refugee status in the UK to gain any privileges. The chances of achieving this are very low. Gaining access to a safe country is a tough task and the conditions some go through reveal their desperation.
Secondly, far from the lives of luxury often reported in the tabloid media, asylum seekers are entitled to very little from the state. In relation to how much they receive, Inder replied:
not as much as people are led to believe.
the truth is, rightfully or wrongfully, asylum seekers are far worse off than naturalised Britons. They can claim up to 75% Job Seekers Allowance JSA; housing but do not have a choice of location. Accommodation is typically in hostels, shared housing, and often located in the less sought after regions of the country in hard to let housing.
Their financial hardship is further exacerbated by putting them on the ‘Azure Card’ which gives asylum seekers a weekly allowance of just £36 intended to pay for food and essential toiletries only, and can only be used in stores selected by the Home Office. The card only allows users to roll over £5 each week. Inder explained that:
with no cash, and being located far from major towns and cities, it is difficult to afford transport into town or much food. Simple things like going to the shops are made very difficult. Some asylum seekers are disabled, or bear the wounds from torture such as battered feet, nails removed, whilst others have children to carry around, so the poor financial condition and having to walk around everywhere makes it particularly difficult.
Although many believe that the UK is the number one destination for asylum seekers and that the numbers are increasing, it is simply not true. In 2011 South Africa was the number one destination with 107,000 new asylum claims which is one-tenth of all individual applications worldwide. The UK was eighth with around 25,000 applications, which is actually the second lowest level in over a decade.
In conclusion, it is clear that asylum seekers may be viewed as a burden on the state but they shouldn’t be. They are not here for the benefits as the ones they qualify for are simply not that generous, and often result in financial hardship. Restrictions that prevent them from working, commuting and engaging in civil society in general leave them on the basic remuneration of the state, unable to maximise their talents.
Many refugees would much rather work and once they are allowed to do so, they are often prepared to do menial jobs, that others are not prepared to do. This in itself becomes an economic asset and the fact that they are often overqualified for their roles demonstrates their commitment to make a positive contribution to the UK.
Most of all, particularly in these times of austerity, Britons should be proud that this nation is considered a safe haven for many fleeing all manner of persecution in their homelands. We should celebrate our shared humanity and remember that the mark of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.
Alan Ssempebwa and Francine Fernandes