By Dave Garrat
Just before the Olympic flame was lit in Stratford, a South Sudanese runner walked into Bridewell police station in Leeds and invoked his human right to claim asylum.
It is not uncommon to see athletes competing at the highest level in major international sporting events seeking protection from the risk of violence or persecution that they would face if they returned to their country of origin. The Sydney 2000 Olympics saw 35 applications for political asylum in Australia. At the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, 20 members of the Sierra Leone team 'defected' from their camp before the end of the competition. UK immigration officials have gone so far as to suggest that up to two per cent of athletes, team officials and supporters may seek sanctuary in the UK during and after the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The UK, along with 144 other signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention - which defines who is a refugee, their rights and responsibilities, and outlines the legal obligations of states that grant asylum – can be proud of this tradition of providing safety. In an increasingly interconnected world, we should celebrate rather than shy away from our shared international responsibility to offer protection to those seeking asylum.
To put this into perspective, the UK takes in just two per cent of refugees and displaced people worldwide annually behind Pakistan, Germany, Jordan, Kenya, Chad, China, and the US. Last year, we offered protection to 6,745 refugees. Casting aside the misinformation and hysteria in certain sections of the media, only 200,000 refugees live in Britain which accounts for a mere 0.4 per cent of the population. This is a far cry from public perception: A recent British Future poll found that 40 percent believe more than 10 percent of the population - some six million people - are refugees. Perception and reality could not be further apart.
So what can an individual seeking asylum expect from the UK Border Agency (UKBA), the beleaguered arm of the Home Office that presided over just short of 20,000 asylum applications last year?
Will they be treated with the dignity and respect deserving of someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution because of their religion, social group, sexuality, gender, or political views that they may or may not hold in their country of origin?
Or will they find an antiquated asylum system creaking under a culture of disbelief where government policy and practice can often lead to poor decision making, marginalisation or destitution?
Feedback from asylum seekers repeatedly tells us that they face a daunting task in navigating a complex, intimidating process that is bewildering from the moment they make an application for asylum. Without the necessary legal representation and other advice required to fully engage with the asylum process, many are left in uncertainty; often wondering how they can deal effectively with a severely over-stretched and under-resourced system that will change the course of their life. All this is in the context of savage funding cuts to the work of voluntary sector service providers in essential refugee and asylum advice and support.
Whilst the UK Border Agency should be given credit in its efforts to clear the backlog of undecided asylum applications and refused asylum applicants who remain in the UK, they must prioritise getting asylum decisions right the first time, thereby avoiding costly appeals. At present, 26% of all cases are overturned at the appeals stage.
Once a decision to grant asylum has been made, it is only the start of a long journey to inclusion into mainstream society. Many newly granted refugees struggle to overcome the challenge of building a new life in the UK. If we are to live up to the letter and spirit of the UN Refugee Convention, we must works towards the shared aim of successful integration.
Another victim of the coalition government’s austerity agenda was the Ries (Refugee Integration and Employment Service) programme, offering a lifeline to newly granted refugees to help them settle into UK society and to assist in their search for sustainable employment. In 2011, all funding was stopped forcing Refugee Action and partner agencies to close down this vital service.
Reinstating funding for an effective refugee integration service should be a matter of urgency for the home secretary, Theresa May. Since 2008, the Ries programme has proved pivotal in empowering refugees to strive for a better future; not just for them, but for the communities they live in and for the valuable contribution that they make to the cultural and economic life of the UK. Consider the story of Ali, a Somalian refugee who has experienced the life of a refugee since the age of six.
Through Refugee Action’s mentorship, he was supported with a personal integration plan that addressed his short term welfare needs as well as his long term education and employment goals. A natural leader with strong organisational skills, he excelled and went on to study accountancy and business studies at university. He now works for a leading UK bank and feels fully integrated into British life just two years after arriving in the country.
But for every success story, there are countless stories of deep frustration and disillusionment; sometimes with tragic consequences. It is still too early to truly count the cost of the impact these cuts will have on the lives of refugees who have not been as fortunate as Ali. Of this we can be certain: Further cuts will lead to even higher levels of isolation, social division, and homelessness than we are seeing now.
As an independent national charity that has been campaigning for refugee rights in the UK for more than thirty years, Refugee Action is doing all it can to plug the gaps though our national network of One Stop Service advice centres. Sadly, without a progressive and non-judgemental approach to assisting the integration of refugees into British life, this hidden humanitarian crisis will continue to unfold in our towns and cities across the country.
Just as Danny Boyle’s curtain raising opening ceremony before a global audience put the spotlight on our achievements as a nation confident with its place in the world; we should remind ourselves of our longstanding tradition of offering protection to those who need it most. The overwhelming success of Team GB in the games so far is not only a testament to individual endeavour and accomplishment in elite sport, but represents a striking reflection of our modern, multicultural society.
However, the effect of austerity on our asylum and refugee system risks completely undermining the ability of people who are here having fled persecution from being able to take their part in today’s diverse and dynamic Britain.
Dave Garrat is chief executive of Refugee Action, a charity that campaigns to promote and protect refugee rights in the UK.
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