MAURICE WREN reflects on the challenges refugees in Britain face and what hope may lie ahead
IT WAS a tragic irony that World Refugee Day brought reports that over a hundred people in desperate search for safety are feared drowned after a boat sank off the Libyan coast.
As people and communities across the world celebrated the vital contribution made by refugees and the pride we can feel for embracing them so warmly, so many others remain marooned on perilous journeys, loved ones left behind and the safety of foreign soil a distant dream.
The reports were a reminder that the refugee crisis is still very much a crisis and one that is only getting more troubling, more deadly.
The International Organisation for Migration estimates that nearly 2,000 people lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2017.
This came just a day before the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) reported that 20 people were forced into displacement every single minute of 2016 and that the number of refugees worldwide has soared to a record high of 65.6 million — 300,000 more than it was the year before. Over half of these are children.
The greater the number of people fleeing war and persecution and in desperate need of safety, the more important it is that the British asylum system works fairly and effectively to protect them, and supports them to build new and better lives here. Sadly, too often it doesn’t.
Another tragic irony is that one of the biggest challenges faced by refugees in Britain actually occurs after their treacherous journey to safety is over, after they have been successfully recognised as a refugee.
Research by the Refugee Council revealed that our system of asylum is nothing short of chaotic, leaving newly recognised refugees virtually abandoned by the government that is committed to protecting them.
Refugees are given just 28 days after their refugee status has been granted to secure an income and find somewhere to live.
Many don’t manage to do this and are subsequently evicted from their asylum accommodation and left to fend for themselves.
Unsurprisingly this results in many refugees becoming homeless and destitute. A shocking 81 per cent of the new refugees surveyed by the Refugee Council were homeless or about to become homeless when they first came to us. Newly recognised refugees are often forced to rely on foodbanks, charities or friends for food, money and accommodation.
The experiences of these refugees are in stark contrast to those of the 20,000 Syrian refugees due to be resettled across the UK by 2020.
Resettled refugees benefit from having accommodation secured in advance of their arrival, and receive specialist support to help them to access services, employment and to integrate into British life.
In this way there is a two-tier system of support, with some given the proper support they need and others left abandoned.
This is completely wrong and a key part of the Refugee Council’s campaigning focus involves putting pressure on the government to right this wrong.
But there is some hope. The proposed legislation and policies for the next session of Parliament as set out in the Queen’s Speech included a new Immigration Bill and a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill.
Though these may well bring challenges, they also present a real opportunity to focus attention on the challenges facing refugees in Britain and improving their lives. Our plea to the government is that it grabs this opportunity with both hands.
Just before Parliament rose before the general election, the all-party parliamentary group on refugees published the report of its Refugees Welcome Inquiry.
The report was prompted by the Refugee Council’s research into the problems faced by newly recognised refugees and highlighted them further, outlining clear and workable recommendations for the necessary changes.
What better time for the government to put these changes in place — changes that could prevent refugees becoming homeless and destitute — than through the forthcoming Immigration Bill?
This legislation could also present a chance for Britain to expand existing safe and legal routes to refugee protection in the country, and to create new ones.
This would reduce the need for people fleeing war and persecution to turn to smugglers and risk their lives while trying to reach safety. We hope the government decides to take this opportunity.
There could also be also scope for this legislation to change the rules that relate to refugee family reunion: to expand the definition of “family” so that, for example, elderly parents and children who have already turned 18 can too be granted permission to be reunited with family members. It could give lone child refugees the chance to reunite with their family in safety here.
These important issues are the key focus of the Refugee Council’s latest campaign. This could be coupled with an expansion of Britain’s resettlement schemes beyond 2020, to give more people the chance to build new lives here.
Many refugee women will have experienced terrible violence in their lives. This can happen before they left their own country, on their journeys in search of safety and also once they have reached Britain.
The way that the asylum support system works can make it extremely difficult for women who are experiencing domestic violence to escape their abusers.
The government will be introducing a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, which aims to protect victims of domestic violence and abuse. We see this as a chance to recognise the specific issues faced by women in the asylum process and enforcing measures to help them.
There are so many vital changes needed to improve the lives of refugees. But as people fleeing their homes and everything they hold dear know only too well, we must always hang on to hope.
Maurice Wren is the chief executive of the Refugee Council. For more on the charity and the work it does visit refugeecouncil.org.uk.