Since the summer refugees have been a constant fixture in British news broadcasts and publications. Whether the reports have left us feeling empathy, anger, frustration or emptiness, it has been a topic near impossible not to engage with. Yet the images we’ve often seen have been from beyond our borders: refugees fleeing Syria, crossing the Mediterranean, families walking through Europe and camped in Calais. It’s been difficult for many to connect with refugees on a more personal level here in the UK. They remain for most of us, a faceless and silent, unseen minority.
Refugees however, arrive in the UK every day. Last year 31,433 people applied for asylum in the UK. Of these, many apply for asylum once in the country. This may be because they were told to this by those who helped them get to the UK or because they want to get advice before making an application.
Forced to flee Iran following his participation in a student protest, Ehsan’s family paid people-smugglers to bring him to the UK. Once here, he was directed to the offices of the UK Border Agency in Croydon. Upon arrival Ehsan sat down with a caseworker from the Border agency for a screening interview. His personal details were registered, along with information about why he fled Iran, his journey to the UK and checks made to see if he had applied for asylum in the UK or Europe before. After this, Ehsan was housed in a temporary hostel with a number of other asylum seekers. Two and-a-half weeks later Ehran was moved out of London and housed in an apartment in Bradford with two other Iranian asylum seekers.
With no means to support himself, Ehsan was registered on NASS (National Asylum Support Service). This entitled him to the no-choice accommodation in which he was placed in Bradford and £36.95 per-week in cash support. This covered food, clothing, travel costs, toiletries and any other necessities he needed. Three weeks after moving to Bradford, Ehsan sat down with Home Office staff, a lawyer and a translator for his substantive interview (main asylum interview).
Ehsan met his lawyer for the first time an hour before the substantive interview. The interview lasted a number of hours, covering in detail his life in Iran, why he fled Iran, how he left the country and how he reached the UK. Over the course of the interview Ehsan was challenged on a number of his experiences. Differences between what he said in this interview and his screening interview were continuously questioned and inconsistencies highlighted. Often Ehsan was left unsure of what to say. After the interview, he was told it would be a number of weeks before he received a decision on his case.
While he waited for his claim to be resolved, Ehsan had little to do. Every week at a specified time he had to report to an Immigration Office. Failure to do so one week meant he was detained in an Immigration Detention Centre. Men arrived at his door early one morning, put him in a van and took him to Pennine House detention centre in Manchester. 26 days later he was released. His room had been given to another asylum seeker and he was placed in another property in Bradford. Ehsan spent much of his time volunteering at an Oxfam shop, taking English classes at a drop-in centre and connecting with other Iranian refugees in Bradford.
Five months after arriving at the UK Border Agency in Croydon, Ehsan was told that his application for asylum had been refused. His lawyer helped him put together an appeal against the Home Office decision. This went to an Immigration Judge, independent from the Home Office. Ehsan spent the next three weeks again in detention before being placed in temporary accommodation for the fourth time. His appeal took another 5 months to be heard after his initial decision, and a further two weeks for judgement to be made. Ehsan was given refugee status, with the right to remain in the UK for five years. After five years Ehsan will be able to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain. Upon being granted refugee status, Ehsan had 28 days to sort out his future before his asylum support (accommodation and £36.95 p/w) was ended.
Ehsan’s experience is similar to that of thousands of asylum seekers in the UK. In 2014, 41% of asylum applications were successful. Nearly 30% of those who appeal a refusal have the Home Office judgement overruled and are granted some form of protection. On this evidence, the quality of decision-making by the Home Office could be improved when dealing with asylum cases. For many, after experiencing trauma at home and on their journey to the UK, their experiences here take a further emotional and physical toll on them. Not allowed to work, a substantial number are left reliant on government support instead of being able to support themselves. The low level of support available means many, especially families, are forced to sacrifice one necessity over another, food over adequate clothing for their children, or transport to meet their lawyer instead of soap and shampoo.
There is however much we can do to support asylum seekers in the UK. The Jewish Council for Racial Equality campaigns extensively on the rights for asylum seekers and refugees. Our No Way to Live campaign aims to give asylum seekers who have been in the UK for over 6 months and are still awaiting a decision, the right to work. Our Asylum Support campaign is putting pressure on the government to make sure that asylum seekers receive an adequate level of support and are not forced into destitution.
We also run JUMP (JCORE’s Unaccompanied Minors Project) which pairs up young asylum seekers in the UK without parents or guardians with a volunteer befriender, and Refugee Doctors. Refugee Doctors pairs a refugee doctor with a British doctor, who mentors them as they work to requalify so that they can practice in the UK.
Beyond JCORE, Detention Action train and organise volunteer visitors to provide one-to-one support for people held in Colnbrook and Harmondsworth detention centres, while Rene Cassin is campaigning on the issue of indefinite detention for asylum seekers and migrants.
The synagogue drop-ins for asylum seekers and refugees in London also do incredible work, with one taking place every Sunday. Find out more about them here, or click here to read a previous posting on the New North London Synagogue drop-in.