SARA – not her real name – arrived in the UK in 2015. She was born a refugee 31 years previously in the Sudan, during the 30-years war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
After the war she returned to her homeland of Eritrea but as forced conscription, curtailments of religious freedoms and the imprisonment of dissenters came close to home, she fled.
Her journey was difficult, but it is familiar – over the dangerous border, into the dangerous camps of East Sudan, trying to find someone who could give her a safe-ish passage, and the money with which to pay them.
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Choose the wrong smugglers and you could end up in the Sinai being tortured or having your organs harvested; a more honourable group, and it’s a 40-to-a-truck across the Sahara, months waiting for a boat from Libya and the hope that, when the boat capsizes, the coast guards or the rescue boats from Migrant Offshore Aid Station or Medecins Sans Frontieres will pick you up and take you to Lampadusa, or heaven knows where.
In the UK she was found to have a well-founded fear of persecution and recognised as refugee. For five years.
In 2005, under the then Labour Government, the right to indefinite settlement in your country of refuge was removed, and a five-year rule was brought in. In 2015 Theresa May, then Home Secretary, announced she would be reviewing this rule.
On Thursday March 9 the Home Office announced that refugees now face being sent home after five years. Commentators and lawyers are all pointing to the precarious position of this new rule vis a vis the Refugee Convention. In short, they are saying that the UK now risks contravening the Convention. So much for the freedoms for which our forefathers fought and the “proud history of welcoming refugees”.
Sara has been here for two years. In three years’ time she faces a further potential review and, if refused, detention and deportation. But alongside this she has just had incentives to integrate, to learn languages, to study and work, to “contribute” to UK society as a refugee, removed.
The “contribution” narrative is highly problematic, don’t get me wrong, but it’s used repeatedly by the UK Government and yet at one and the same time they have just made it harder than ever to practise integrating or contributing. If she does get to stay in the end, she will have been forced to spend five years practising not integrating, just in case.
It’s already bad enough with a five-year rule leading to settlement. I’ve just accompanied yet another young person who has refugee status (for five years) and had finished his studies at the same time as applying for settlement.
He had no proof of his right to work and live in the UK during his application period as his documents were with the Home Office. A reassuring letter from the Home Office and his lawyer pointed out his situation to any potential employer, but during that time – despite being offered three good jobs – none of the employers took up the option of typing his Home Office Reference Number into the government website which would prove his right to work in the UK.
The present fear of fines and prosecutions for employers for hiring someone who does not have a right to work are now at such levels that the practice, in reality, is that you will not be contracted. And so the spiral downwards continues.
Nowhere in their own commissioned reports on integration and community cohesion is there a conclusion from the UK Government which suggests a political strategy that subjects refugees to long-term insecurity and anxiety about their future will bode well for integration in society or for the individual.
Research has not shown that by keeping people in permanent limbo, under threat of deportation, in a state where they have no control over their medium-term future and where this is at the whim of a government whose xenophobic polices beggar belief, societies will flourish or integrate well. Quite the contrary. All the research shows that these policies are precisely the ones that create the kinds of deprivation, inequality and anger that destabilises societies and causes individual and communities to disintegrate. It’s really not rocket science. So it must be political will.
Even reports commissioned by the Conservative Government on cohesion, including the Casey Report published in 2016 into opportunity and integration, found the following: “The less integrated we are as a nation, the greater the economic and social costs we face – estimated as approximately £6 billion each year in one study.”
And that’s in a commissioned report from the Conservative Government. So you would have thought that having spent its own funds on such a report, the government may have taken the challenge of integration seriously, on economic grounds alone.
Sensible policies – proven already in Scotland – would be policies such as New Scots “integration from day one”, or the ending of the five-year rule brought in by Labour in 2005, allowing for immediate settlement rights as occurs in countries like Sweden, and the right to work for asylum seekers.
It’s 20 years since the genius cult TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired, and as Buffy herself might say: “Well, if you are going to use logic...”