Dear David Cameron. Please change course on refugees

By Stephen Hale,

Dear Prime Minister,

We need to rethink our approach to refugees. Three developments make this urgent. The first is the scale of the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe – news today from the Austrian border and the shores of Libya remind us again of the human cost of this escalating tragedy. The second is yesterday's immigration figures, showing that just four per cent of those coming to the UK are asylum seekers. The third is the leadership shown by chancellor Merkel on this. It's imperative that we take a new approach.

Over the past few weeks ministers have used emotive language to describe the plight of 'migrants' in Calais. The foreign secretary described them as 'marauding'. As you know we've had to answer criticism from many over your own comment that Britain is facing an incoming 'swarm'. At the same time, the home secretary has cut support to the families and children of those claiming asylum in the UK, and is consulting on proposals to cut support to families which have been rejected in their initial claim for asylum.

My understanding is that this approach was driven partly by a desire to show we are determined to control our borders, and partly by a view that our growing economy and current benefit levels are the main reason why asylum seekers are moving to the UK in such numbers.

The effective management of our borders is of course essential. We have worked urgently with the French on this. But we now know that the vast majority of those seeking to come to the UK to claim asylum are fleeing war and persecution from Syria, Eritrea and elsewhere. We cannot make the Eurostar run on time simply by building higher fences in Calais. We need to work with other countries to give people safe and legal routes, as part of the comprehensive response that chancellor Merkel urgently wants to agree at European level.

The immigration statistics yesterday are another important reason for us to change our approach. The public figures show that asylum seekers are fewer than four per cent of those arriving in the UK. We can't tackle the wider issues around immigration by taking a tough approach to refugees. Tim Montgomerie has consistently highlighted this in The Times. Indeed by describing people as marauding we have increased public concern rather than demonstrating that we are managing this effectively.

Similarly, the home secretary wrote an article alongside her French counterpart suggesting we need to persuade those wishing to come to Britain that 'the streets are not paved with gold'. This got considerable attention. It created a link in people's minds between the UK and streets paved with gold which is the opposite of your intention! It's also completely wrong. Asylum seekers are fleeing to the UK from war and persecution. UK asylum support rates are lower than in many other European countries.

While the number of people fleeing to the UK remains low, there is a refugee crisis in Europe and globally. The urgency of the crisis means that this issue is now very inter-linked with the negotiations on our future relationship with Europe. The refugee and migrant issue is now a top priority for your counterparts in Germany, Greece, Italy, Austria and elsewhere. Chancellor Merkel sees this as the number one issue for Europe. Germany expects around 800,000 asylum applications this year, thirty times the level in the UK. We must define an appropriate UK contribution and role, recognising the financial and political commitment of Germany and those in southern Europe.

So where next? First we need to improve the asylum system in the UK. I have written previously on the four pillars of a fair and effective asylum system. Within the UK, we need to make decision-making system faster and fairer, and to provide more support to asylum seekers at risk of destitution. If we get this right, it can be cheaper than the current system.

Given the crisis elsewhere, the most urgent issues are arrival and departure. In terms of arrivals, we need to rapidly expand our scheme for safe and legal routes so that refugees do not have to risk their lives. Other European countries should be supportive of this. In terms of departures, both irregular migrants and refugees need access to independent advice on the option of assisted return to their countries of origin. This is currently due to end in December 2015. Without this there will be a rise in destitution and almost certainly also a fall in the levels of return and an increase in cost to the taxpayer of those remaining (often destitute) in the UK.

All of these issues are also being discussed at European level. Chancellor Merkel, the EU Commission and others have all put forward proposals. We need to develop a UK package, building on the expansion of safe and legal routes and the principle of assisted voluntary return described above.

Finally, we need a lasting solution to the situation in Calais. Our focus until now has been security. But this alone will not provide a lasting solution for the Syrians and Eritreans who form the majority of the population there. We need to learn from the way in which this has been handled in the past. IPPR have published proposals on this. They suggest that the UNHCR should be brought in to register those seeking asylum, and that France and the UK should work together to process all those proven to be refugees. This is an essential part of any lasting solution. 

The case for a rethink is compelling. We are just four months into the Parliament, but our current approach often makes us look as if we lack empathy or compassion for those fleeing war and persecution. It's time to change course.

Stephen Hale OBE is the chief executive of Refugee Action You can follow him at @SHaleGeneva or @RefugeeAction

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