– asylum seekers to the UK had started being dispersed away from London and the South East, to ease pressure in the region from an increasing number of arrivals. Asylum became a national issue – suddenly communities that were largely racially homogenous had a small but very visible cluster of new residents, without having been adequately prepared.
The rising number of asylum applications, coupled with a frenzied and hostile campaign from certain sections of the media, led to growing public concern. This prompted Tony Blair to announce in early 2003, in tandem with the introduction of the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, that he would halve the number of asylum applications within a year.
Five major pieces of legislation on immigration and asylum followed, much of which has been underpinned by the desire to deter people from seeking asylum in the UK. Borders were tightened, with immigration officers stationed in France and Belgium, UK officials stationed in airports in transit countries as far afield as Kenya, visa regimes introduced for refugee producing countries such as Zimbabwe, and spy planes mobilised to patrol the Mediterranean and keep the unwanted out.
Asylum seekers’ access to publicly-funded legal advice was restricted, adults and children were detained in increasing numbers, and in 2002 they were prohibited from working, forcing many into homelessness and destitution. Those who were refused asylum but could not return because their countries were not safe were told they had to pay for life-saving healthcare and live on vouchers.
Partly in light of dispersal, integration was seen as an increasingly important issue, with more support provided for asylum seekers who had been granted refugee status. Yet this positive move has been undermined by the policy change in 2005 that led to refugees being given only five years leave to stay in the UK before yet another review of their case.
And the government began a resettlement programme, designed to resettle refugees living in camps across the world with no prospect of ever returning home. It remains small, about 750 people per year, but has so far been remarkably successful, with communities in Sheffield, Norwich and Manchester, among many, welcoming the new arrivals and positive media coverage.
Operationally, there have been some positive moves too: a new asylum system has been introduced that has led to quicker decisions for some, although decision-making itself remains poor, and the backlog of unresolved cases is being dealt with.
The UK remains committed to the UN Refugee Convention. However, too many asylum seekers are not believed and left destitute.
As the leading independent charity working with asylum seekers and refugees in the UK, the Refugee Council has worked with thousands of refugees over the past decade. The human suffering we have witnessed and sought to change is evidence of the damage that asylum policy can inflict if it does not ensure those who have fled from persecution, human rights abuses and conflict, receive the political – as well as practical – support they so desperately need. Now numbers are down, the challenge for policymakers over the next decade will be to return to an asylum policy based on one core principle: of providing a safe haven for those who have been persecuted.
Donna Covey is chief executive of the Refugee Council – This article was originally published in The Guardian (UK)