Come back Mr Byrne...
Today I attended a conference about social change. I didn’t get chance to check the news as normal and so it was via rumour that I heard Phil Woolas (our new immigration minister) had given an interview in the Guardian that was going to require comment and response from the refugee sector. A couple of text messages confirmed that said comment was not going to be a positive one. A couple of hours later, I’d bent a couple of ears, tracked down a newspaper and read said interview.
According to Woolas, NGO’s who work with refugees are “undermining the legal system” and “causing more harm than they do good.” Why? Because some asylum seekers win their case after repeated appeals. Because “most asylum seekers... are economic migrants.”
No. Asylum seekers are people who are fleeing harm, in order to find a safe place. According to the UN, they must be able to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin for reasons of political opinion, religion, ethnicity, race/nationality, or membership of a particular social group. This claim is tested by a government representative through application and interview.
And of these asylum seekers, about 80% are refused on first application. And of those that appeal, 20% then are granted leave to remain. So, that tells me that the system just doesn’t work. Because either the first round gets it wrong a lot of the time or the second round gets it wrong a lot of the time. I’ve asked this question to many people on many occasions over the last few years – is there any other system of justice or even administration where we would accept that margin of error?
Now, I don’t see myself as a particularly radical asylum campaigner. I simply want the system to be fair. I’m not naive, I agree that there are people who play the system, as there are with any system. That is why we have systems after all, not so? What I want, is a system that is fair. A system that protects people from persecution. Which is apparently what Mr Woolas wants too.
But for me, that system treats people with respect. It begins on the premise of belief. It understands that there are emotions involved, trauma involved. It understands that people have believed they or their families are at risk of losing their lives. And have run. That they are afraid, confused, suffering. It does not place them as liars before they have even opened their mouths.
Mr Woolas has asked for a mature debate on the subject. That’s fine by me. But hang on, let me take off my member of the public hat and put on the one that gives me authority to speak as an NGO that serves refugees and asylum seekers. One of those he’s just accused of playing the system.
Great way to start that mature debate.