If the UK seriously believes in upholding human rights, it must improve the way it treats refugees. Yet the government’s disregard for refugees was exemplified in the Immigration Bill, which is supposed to set out a post-Brexit immigration system but does not even mention refugees or asylum seekers. I brought this up in my speech last week.
This silence on refugees’ treatment is shocking in the context of a global refugee crisis. In 2017, over 68.5 million people were forced to flee their homes. To put that into context, we are living through the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Of the 68,199 people who crossed the Mediterranean in 2018, one in 18 died while attempting the journey. Meanwhile, Britain received 27,966 asylum applications – only 6% of all asylum claims made in the EU during last year.
There have been some success stories over the last year, and many other areas where there is a lot of work to do. I have been working hard to help change both law and political opinion in Parliament to ensure we offer a real welcome to refugees. And, in many cases, these are matters which the Immigration Bill should – and could – address.
Bringing shattered families back together
In March, I successfully helped rally cross-party support for MP Angus MacNeil’s Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill. The bill passed at its second reading. If it becomes law, it would give child refugees in the UK the right to bring family members to join them under refugee family reunion rules. This is already allowed by most European countries. I will continue to support this bill when it returns to Parliament for further debate.
Ending indefinite detention
In October I hosted former prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees. Sir Stephen has reviewed the welfare of vulnerable asylum seekers in immigration detention. As there is no time limit for detention, asylum seekers could be detained for months or even years. The review found that indefinite detention can have a tragic effect on the mental health of vulnerable detainees, including an increased risk of suicide.
The Immigration Bill offers us an important opportunity to end this inhumane practice. Harriet Harman has put forward a cross-party amendment to end indefinite detention. It seems to have broad support from all sides of the house, and hopefully will become law. I will be lobbying for support for this important amendment.
A right to work
Asylum seekers are currently unable to work, even when the Home Office fails to meet its own target of reaching a decision on their status within six months.
Even after the waiting period, they can only apply for jobs on the restrictive Shortage Occupation List. Such jobs include classical ballet dancers and radiographers. Asylum seekers have many more skills and experiences to contribute outside these highly specialised fields! I’m working with MPs and NGOs to try to get legislation passed to change this and #LiftTheBan. Giving asylum seekers the right to work after six months could not only allow them to support themselves but also contribute much-needed skills to the economy.
The current situation desperately needs to change. Asylum seekers without the right to work are forced to live on £37.75 per week, to cover everything apart from accommodation. As a result, more than one in four people using homeless shelters are refugees, according to a recent study.
Better asylum accommodation
In November, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration published a damning report on the Home Office’s management of asylum accommodation. It found that vulnerable asylum seekers are living in squalid conditions with little choice – these homes are neither “safe” nor “habitable”. The accommodation contractors are doing little to improve conditions. These contracts are paid for with public money. It is a scandal that asylum seekers are being given such appalling and unsafe accommodation when we the public are footing the bill.
Opportunities for change
The long-awaited Immigration Bill fails to present any substantial change to refugee policy post-Brexit. This is a missed opportunity to resolve many of the problems they face. However, the second reading of the Bill will be another opportunity, as MPs can table amendments which tackle these issues, potentially transforming people’s lives.
As one of the wealthiest nations in the world, I believe we have a duty to treat those fleeing war, persecution and torture with dignity. I will continue to work for fairer treatment of refugees as a priority.