Our country has a proud history of standing up for and protecting refugees, who are among the most vulnerable people on earth, having undertaken perilous journeys to reach our shores to seek sanctuary from the very worst of humanity. We are the fifth richest country in the world and that is absolutely the right thing to do. It is also right that our country provides shelter to people – not excluding them, but enabling them to earn a living to support themselves and their family.
I am proud that my part of the world, the north-west, is the largest asylum dispersal conurbation in the UK, housing 25% of our country’s applicants, with 70% of those living in Greater Manchester. Data provided by the House of Commons Library reveals that 138 asylum seekers are based in Stockport and more than 6,000 in Greater Manchester as a whole, which is two thirds of the total in the north-west region. It is heart-warming to see how my community has embraced those people and helped them to integrate into our community. I have long been an admirer of the work of Stockport Baptist church, whose congregation and supporters have raised funds to support refugees with food, pocket money, accommodation and transport costs.
Slow decisions on asylum are unacceptable
It cannot be right, however, that so many are simply stuck in the system for long periods, unsure of what their fate will be. Detention Action revealed that more than half of the almost 40,000 people in detention centres have been waiting for a decision for more than a year. A similar number have been waiting for up to five years, with almost 25,000 people indefinitely detained last year.
Greater Manchester Immigration Aid provides urgent assistance to more than 50 young people who have been waiting the best part of a year for an asylum decision, despite half already having had a remote interview. Even when the asylum system is functioning marginally more efficiently, the average wait for those handled by my local unit is 51 days, with the longest wait being 82 days – almost three months. This involves the livelihoods of some of the poorest people in our society, including young people.
The problems with the Aspen card system
The Aspen card handover debacle reflects many of the problems in the system. Aspen is a debit payment card given to UK asylum seekers by the Home Office to provide basic subsistence support via a chip-and-pin system. However, purchases made using the card are closely monitored by the Home Office, making it an insidious surveillance tool. Recently, the Home Office switched providers, which proved nothing short of disastrous owing to the 48-hour period between the old card being deactivated and the new one going live, forcing people to live off what little means they had.
That is just one of myriad problems, from claimants not receiving their cards to receiving cards carrying the wrong name, cards without money on them or cards that do not work, or people being unable to activate their cards. When cards were not working, asylum seekers could apply for emergency cash payments from accommodation providers, but those have been inconsistently applied and people could not access any more payments. There are stories from the Refugee Council of such people having to survive for days without food.
We need a nuanced approach
The failures in our system cause untold distress and are a considerable factor in the high levels of mental health problems among asylum seekers. Refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs than people in the general UK population, while 61% report that they have suffered serious mental distress as a result of their ordeal, including higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.
Whatsmore, there are well-documented and widespread concerns about the way women are dealt with in the asylum process, particularly whether that process is sensitive to specific issues faced by women. The expectation that a woman has been the victim of domestic abuse or rape, and will be able to disclose that during her interview with a UK visa and immigration caseworker, has been pointed to as a serious problem.
Asylum seekers should have the right to work
Last year, the Lift the Ban campaign presented the Home Office with a petition signed by more than 180,000 people, which called on the Government to lift the ban. They are still waiting for that ban to be overturned, which is why I recently tabled an early-day motion, which has been signed by 42 MPs to date. It calls on the Government to “recognise the injustice of preventing people seeking asylum from working”, particularly when they are forced to live on a derisory £5.66 a day. If those seeking asylum had the right to work, that would lead to fewer support payments and increased income tax and national insurance receipts of up to £100 million for the public purse.
New laws with a meaner asylum offering
The Home Secretary recently set out proposals revealed for new legislation that will pave the way for offshore centres for asylum seekers, and criminal charges for migrants arriving in the UK without permission. These new laws will likely see thousands of refugees turned away and vulnerable migrants criminalised for seeking a better life. Furthermore, a Refugee Council analysis of Home Office data suggests that 9,000 people who would be accepted as refugees under the current rules – those confirmed by official checks to have left war and persecution – might no longer be given safety in the UK because of how they arrived.
It is time our Government stopped their gunboat diplomacy and treated asylum seekers with the dignity and humanity that they deserve. When most are fleeing war-torn countries that the UK helped to play a role in devastating, that is surely the very least we can do.