Sometimes news about the global refugee crisis can seem hopeless. This week the daily UNHCR bulletin highlighted the 400,000 people who have died in the conflict in South Sudan, the worsening disaster in Yemen, where 8.4 million people are facing starvation due to conflict. Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict and resulting refugee crisis grinds on.
But there has also been hopeful news on the United Nations Global Compact on Refugees. This was one of Barack Obama’s last acts as President of the USA, bringing representatives of all 192 countries together in New York in 2016 to agree to share the responsibility for people fleeing war and conflict, or forced to migrate for other reasons. Two years later, we are now approaching agreement on the next stage of how they can support each other to help refugees and how they can expand the number of countries which take refugees through UN resettlement schemes. These steps would help prevent dangerous journeys and share responsibility for refugees more fairly.
The Global Compact did not go as far as many refugee organisations would like, and there is definitely much more to do. Nonetheless, it was a huge step for all the nations of the world to agree a different response to the 65 million people worldwide who are forcibly displaced. We currently leave it mostly to the countries closest to the conflict to provide sanctuary. Now national governments need to work out the practical steps to meet their commitments in that agreement.
So, what am I doing to help refugees?
I am working cross-party with MPs and members of the House of Lords to campaign for reforms and changes to the ways we respond to refugees. Some of these are in the legislative process already, some we intend to put forward as amendments to the forthcoming Immigration Bill. Some will not need law changes but will need government to decide to act differently.
Our priorities are:
- Changing the rules on refugee family reunion, to allow unaccompanied children to apply for their parents to join them in the UK. It should also allow children to come to this country to join parents, even if they pass their 18th birthday before the application is accepted.
- Lifting the ban on work for people applying for refugee status if their application takes more than six months to be decided. People who come here for asylum want to work, they have skills and it is vital that they are able to use those skills so they can keep them current. This is important for refugees’ future employment here and for integration when they return to their home countries.
- Ending all indefinite immigration detention, particularly important for refugees, who, by definition, have fled persecution and conflict and will experience detention as especially traumatising. Victims of torture should never be held in detention and these rules should be properly enforced. Pregnant women should also never be detained. For everyone else, there should be a maximum 28 day limit on detention.
- Expanding the refugee resettlement schemes so that more people can come to this country safely, with their status determined before they arrive. Under such schemes people have their refugee status confirmed by the United Nations Refugees organisation UNHCR in the country they have fled to. This prevents people from feeling forced to make dangerous journeys. It also allows refugees to start working and contributing to the UK from their arrival and provides help for them to integrate. This would alleviate pressures on countries closer to countries of conflict. Most conflicts do not take place in the Western world, so the international rules on asylum mean that most people fleeing conflict end up in countries such as Lebanon, Uganda, Iraq or Pakistan, which struggle to accommodate the numbers of people needing protection.
- Restoring Legal Aid and ending unfair application fee structures, so that people applying for asylum can be properly legally represented, make applications they are entitled to and have their decisions heard fairly and in a timely manner. With cuts to Legal Aid application cost increases, many people with genuine claims cannot afford proper advice or end up spending months or years waiting in the system because they are badly advised. This leaves them living in limbo. It also costs the UK taxpayer, as they are unable to work and depend on allowances.
- Require all asylum accommodation to be of a high standard. This should be a condition of the contract with the landlord and accommodation providers.
- Ensuring that women fleeing or experiencing sexual violence who are also refugees have the care and protection they need. This will mean ensuring that all refugee support organisations understand the specific needs of women experiencing or fleeing sexual violence or abuse. Organisations specialising in these needs should be aware of the experiences and legal status of asylum-seekers and refugees, so women can be safe from abuse.
Within the Labour Party I am campaigning for us to adopt these elements as Labour policy, so that we can put it into practice when we are in government, but also to challenge the current government to do better.
At Labour Party conference I chaired a fringe meeting on the right to work, previewing the #Lifttheban campaign to be launched in October this year by a coalition of refugee organisations. We heard from two refugees, Zohair and Nahla, who told us about the impact of being banned from work. This affected their abilities to provide for themselves and their families, their skills and their integration to the UK. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream were represented, as they have a scheme to support refugees into employment. My union Unison was also there in support of the campaign. Refugee Action gave us an overview of the arguments for lifting the ban and we all agreed to campaign for all asylum-seekers to be able to work after six months of their application for asylum, whether or not the Home Office has given them a decision.
At every stage I try to be accountable to refugees and asylum-seekers directly. For example, this week, at the London HQ of the national organisation Freedom From Torture, I met with the group Survivors Speak Out. These people have experienced torture and have come to this country for asylum and protection, about their experiences of the system and what they want to change. They highlighted the impact of:
- long waits for a decision, sometimes years, which can be the result of poor legal advice or Home Office inefficiency;
- living in poor accommodation for months or years while waiting for a decision;
- living on just over £5 per day indefinitely;
- not being able to deal with their experiences of torture whilst they are waiting for a decision and living in poor conditions;
- the additional effects for torture survivors of being detained for immigration purposes. For people who have experienced being locked up and tortured for months or years in their own countries, being locked up again in the country they had come to for sanctuary is appalling.
I support the good work of local refugee organisations and highlight these in Parliament. For example, last week I visited Redland-based organisation Aid Box Community, who collect and distribute clothes, household items and basic groceries for refugees. You can donate goods, money or time. You can also support one of the other excellent organisations helping refugees here in Bristol, such as Borderlands, Bristol Refugee Rights, Bristol Hospitality Network, Ashley Community Housing or the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (which welcomes Syrian refugees who have come here on the resettlement route I mentioned above). Each of these local organisations does different things to help meet the specific needs of refugees in different circumstances and they work closely together. Other groups also help – do let me know if there is an organisation or group helping refugees you would like me to know about.
I’m learning Arabic, to help improve my ability to support and welcome people from the Middle East and also to help me to be more effective when I work with colleagues from the Middle East. It’s not an easy language but I am pleased to say I have already been able to use it to help someone living in Bristol West, who spoke English but when distressed found it easier to communicate with me because I was able to speak some Arabic.
Later this year, I will be hosting Sanctuary in Parliament, an annual event which gets bigger each year, when refugees and refugee organisations from across the country come together in Parliament, meet their MPs and celebrate the contribution refugees make to this country. I am very proud that Bristol was one of the first Cities of Sanctuary and very proud to represent a constituency which cares so much about the welfare of and welcome we give to people who have had to flee war or persecution. Thank you to everyone for your support.