Refugee Week – a look back

(c) British Red Cross

Katy Owen is a recent history graduate

It was Refugee Week this week (20-26 June), the aim of which has been to explore and highlight refugee experience. This year’s theme was 60 years of contribution, aimed at celebrating refugees’ contributions with the tagline “100% British, Created by Refugees” for such British cultural icons as the Mini, fish and chips, Marks and Spencer and even the Miliband brothers. This was covered not only by the Guardian, but also the Telegraph and even the Express.

This has made a refreshing change from the usually hostile and occasionally outright xenophobic coverage of refugee and asylum seeker issues in the majority of the mainstream media. You only have to pick up a copy of certain newspapers in order to read headlines such as ‘Family of 12 Ethiopian refugees land in UK – and are handed a £6,000-a month home paid for by you’, or ‘No room for gays’.

This coverage tends to revolve around a similar story about asylum seekers in the UK: that Britain is the destination of choice for so-called ‘benefit tourists’ who lie their way through the easy asylum process after which they are handed luxury housing, take advantage of Britain’s generous benefits system and ‘sponge’ off hard-working British people. Every aspect of this myth is based on false assumptions and flimsy statistical data. According to the Imperial War Museum, the UK public believes on average that this country houses 23% of the world’s refugees. The actual proportion is 2.5%.

Benefits systems in Ireland, Belgium or Denmark would be much more generous. Currently asylum seekers receive 70% of income support and are not allowed to work meaning that they are forced into poverty. According to the Refugee Council, most asylum seekers’ accommodation is in ‘ghettos’ in deprived areas. The UK puts more money in subsidies for the arms export industry than it does the asylum system. Furthermore, the Home Office figures for 2008 show that 70% of asylum claims that year were refused outright.

Rather than attempting to debunk this myth, successive governments have pandered to it by introducing arbitrary quotas for the UK Border Agency’s (UKBA) staff, and focusing above all in reducing numbers and producing electorally-pleasing statistics rather than getting the system right so that those who deserve asylum receive it. According to Detention Action, the asylum system is systematically failing those it is supposed to protect. Failed asylum seekers and those pending a decision are placed in immigration detention centres with inadequate facilities and often with no idea whether they will spend days, months, or even years there. Many are from countries to which it is impossible to deport people rendering their detention indefinite.

There is even evidence of physical and verbal abuse by privately-contracted security staff – tragically highlighted by the death of Angolan detainee Jimmy Mubengy last year as he was being restrained on a deportation flight by G4S staff – which needs closer attention both by the government and the media. Doctors in these detention centres are also privately-contracted, and are paid bonuses the more people they declare healthy enough to remain in the centres, potentially (so Detention Action alleges) resulting in victims of rape and torture being held in these centres. Such potential abuses of human rights are happening here in the UK but are virtually ignored by both the government and the media.

Governments of every colour seem to have focused their energies on reducing the numbers of refugees granted asylum rather than ensuring the protection of those who have genuinely suffered unimaginable horrors and face even more without receiving sanctuary in the UK or elsewhere. The focus is on statistics rather than people and on reducing numbers rather than perfecting the system. We need to separate the debate about immigration from the genuine need to protect those who have suffered torture, rape, violence, and persecution.

As the number of forcibly displaced people reaches a 15-year high we need not to close up our borders but to recognise that in an increasingly globalised world we can no longer claim responsibility only for those living in our backyard. It is about time the government stood up to harmful and lazy myths about asylum seekers and refugees perpetrated by a media who ought to know better.

For more information on Refugee Week, see http://www.refugeeweek.org.uk/

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