Already under fire for having abandoned pledges to bring unaccompanied child refugees to safety in the UK, the UK government this week pulled the rug out from under the feet of tens of thousands of refugees beginning to make new lives for themselves and their families in the UK, leaving them in a perilous situation.
The Home Office has implemented a policy announced by Theresa May back when she was Home Secretary, meaning that even after jumping through all the hoops necessary to seek asylum in the UK, refugees will now face a review after five years of whether they can be safely returned to their country from which they have claimed asylum.
If deemed safe to be sent back again after five years, refugees will lose the right to work and face destitution and deportation unless they have any other basis for staying in the UK.
In a notorious speech to the 2015 Conservative party conference, May had flagged up policies to make the UK less welcoming to refugees, and vowed: “We’ll introduce strengthened ‘safe return reviews’ so when a refugee’s temporary stay of protection in the UK comes to an end, or if there is a clear improvement in the conditions of their own country, we will review their need for protection. If their reason for asylum no longer stands and it is now safe for them to return, we will seek to return them to their home country rather than offer settlement here in Britain.”
There had been many warnings from all quarters at the time against such policies, seen to be whipping up xenophobia and at odds with the UK’s humanitarian commitments. The Refugee Council called Theresa May’s speech “thoroughly chilling,” and even The Institute of Directors said it was “astonished by the home secretary’s irresponsible rhetoric.”
But this week the five year “safe country review” was posted on the Home Office website in order “to maintain a fair immigration system that requires all migrants, including those granted refugee status, to earn the right to settlement, and all the benefits that come with it, by completing an appropriate period of limited leave.”
This has raised real concerns that vulnerable, traumatised people who have sought sanctuary in the UK and eventually won the right to be classed as refugees will have the constant threat of deportation to a country that has been ruled a danger to them hanging over their heads in case a decision does not go their way after five years.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned: “We’re concerned that this may have a serious impact on the well being of refugees and their ability to settle.
‘We also feel this is not needed, because under British and International law there are already mechanisms in place to review refugee status.”
Indeed the Home Office already reserves the right to review refugee status of those who have come from a country if events change making it a safer place for certain people who have fled from there. But now the 59,000 people granted refugee status in the UK in the past five years have this added uncertainty hanging over them.
This is a particularly cruel blow as refugees will be feeling justifiably suspicious of the Home Office’s motives for the review and its ability to make a genuinely fair decision when the time comes after five years.
Many refugees already have to employ lawyers to overturn initial refusals in the courts – only 38% of those granted asylum are granted asylum without an appeal. – So clearly the Home Office’s decision making on whether it is safe to return people is very questionable.
People who have fled persecution, torture, genital mutilation, domestic violence, fearful for their lives and families will now face years more uncertainty, and possibly destitution if they lose their refugee status again in five years time. Refugees will have already faced months, sometimes years of living on around £5 a day in supermarket vouchers while fighting to be believed.
With the current government’s cuts to Home Office staffing, there is currently an increasing backlog of tens of thousands of asylum seekers living in limbo awaiting a decision on their status, many very vulnerable, stigmatised, prohibited from working and having to survive in near destitution. There is no indication that more staff will be hired so this latest development can only add to the backlog and lack of fair decision making.
There were attacks from many charities and those bodies dealing with asylum seekers this week who see this policy as ultimately becoming another unnecessary and enormous cost to the tax-payer and an even greater cost to the welfare of the families of the many who will be affected.
Up to now if you managed to finally receive refugee status you were afforded five years leave to remain after which you were allowed to apply for permanent settlement. That is, unless you receive a serious criminal conviction, or a minister has announced major changes to the safety of the country you had sought asylum from meaning you can be safely returned – which makes these new added bureaucratic hoops appear utterly pointless.
Refugee Council Director of Advocacy Dr. Lisa Doyle said: “This policy will result in refugees who have demonstrated their need for protection being prevented from being able to properly rebuild their lives and being left with the constant fear of return hanging over their heads.
“Actively reviewing individual cases after five years promises to be a costly, bureaucratic and unnecessary nightmare that completely misunderstands the fact that many refugees desperately want to return home of their own accord anyway when it’s safe to do so.”
This destabilising and expensive measure will throw thousands of people’s lives into turmoil and may well go down in history as one of the most callous policies the Nasty Party has come up with yet.