Seeking asylum is not illegal; it is a basic human right. These vulnerable individuals have faced unimaginable persecution, and despite popular assumptions, it is incredibly rare that they wind up in the UK. More often than not, they cannot escape their home country or flee indescribable hardship to dwell in neighbouring states, ordinarily occupying overcrowded refugee camps.
Compare this to the common connotations that spring to mind when you hear the term asylum seeker. It is all too often the case that they are coupled alongside words like “illegal”, “rampant”, “flood” or worse. Much of our media craftily bypass structural problems, opting instead to thrash out human-interest tales that pander to a xenophobic rhetoric. But how does such a detached discourse sustain? And, more to the point, how can we begin to craft a new one?
Last year, I attended the Scottish Refugee Council’s AGM where Humza Yousaf and Drew Smith took to the stage to debate independence with a focus on refugees and asylum seekers. Smith stressed that we were in need of a cultural shift away from the current culture of stigma. I wholeheartedly agree.
But where, if not independence, will this cultural shift derive from? Will Westminster initiate it, or will they instead perpetuate the damaging misconceptions? The latter, it would seem.
Let’s review the last year, shall we? Out of the 24,000 asylum applications received in 2013, a mere 37% were granted some form of temporary protection. The Syrian crisis provided a classic example of the UK’s regressive asylum system. Well over 2 million men, women and children have fled Syria’s conflict, marking the single largest flow of refugees since the Rwandan genocide. We had an opportunity to provide lifeline support and alleviate human suffering. How did our government react to this humanitarian crisis? Their initial response was to simply reject resettlement, quickly followed by a U-turn under mounting pressure. Yet weaved into these hesitant first steps rested UKBA fears that an influx would open the doors to extremism, thus detracting from the humanitarian calling and adhering to the UK’s xenophobic trend. By January, nineteen countries had agreed to resettle 18,000 Syrians, less than 500 of which are in the UK.
Syria is on the brink of losing a generation, and the UK’s idleness is a reflection of our appalling asylum system and absence of political will to change it.
But it is not only the coalition who have failed this humanitarian calling. Some harrowing examples of New Labour’s approach include enforced destitution, the criminalizing of asylum seekers, and the illegal imprisonment of children, pregnant women and victims of torture in detention centers. On entry to the UK, those fleeing persecution are often subjected to callous abuse. So much so that the Independent Asylum Commission issued a report in 2008 testifying that violence in UK detention centers results in destitution being used, “as a tool to drive claimants out of the country.”
In a recent twist, Nick Clegg proudly proclaimed that the coalition government had put an end to child detention, hailing it as one of their greatest achievements. I should specify here that child detention has decreased since New Labour days. What we witnessed, however, was little short of a calculated linguistic change. Instead of labeling it imprisonment or detention, the coalition government is keen to stress that children are kept in the ‘family friendly’ unit “as an absolute last resort”. In fact, from a low of approximately 100 in 2011, these figures crept back up past the 200 mark in 2012. In short, child detention continues to this day, but is legitimized under a new name.
Other factors have of course contributed to the deep-rooted stigma of immigrants and asylum seekers in turn, namely the ‘Go Home’ vans; so universally offensive that they deserve no further comment.
It would seem that this is less of a party problem, more so a Westminster problem.
Independence is not a magic word and is not the be all and end all. But many of the diverse local and national groups springing up in the Yes Campaign seek a fairer, more inclusive society. Independence thus provides a unique opportunity to reflect a genuine grassroots, anti-xenophobic culture of tolerance, equal opportunities and social change.
Other than embracing the end to the unjust detention process, independence offers a chance to create an immigration system that is distinct from our asylum system. This parting will by no means triumph the engrained stigma. It will however promote a broader awareness of what seeking asylum entails, and how vastly different it is to, say, economic migration, which in turn will begin to shine a positive light on resettlement.
Independence could bring a fair, effective, publically funded asylum system that offers access to basic necessities. On arrival, access to the labour market, healthcare, and education will make an enormous difference to both those seeking asylum and their new communities alike. We need an asylum system founded upon a fair reception, the professional assessment of claims, integration and above all, human dignity.
Seeking asylum is not illegal; it is a basic human right. We have the opportunity to embrace a genuine cultural shift. Grasp it.
Image from Gareth Harper