After the slaughter, persecution and displacement of millions in the Second World War, 147 nations, including ours, signed up to the UN Convention on Refugees. Never Again, they promised solemnly and meant it then. That was exactly 60 years ago, in 1951. In the same year two UK organisations were set up to support asylum seekers, later merged to form the indefatigable Refugee Council, which this week celebrated the anniversary of the Convention and its own remarkable history. As a birthday present, our Coalition Government has just slashed its funds. Not only that – we start wars in places which force folk to flee and yet will not allow them to come here when they seek a safe haven. Libyans are the latest victims of this moral disorder. And there are those deportation targets of failed asylum seekers to be met – maths has to come before human misery.
Jemima Khan, human rights campaigner, was one of the speakers at the anniversary event, which sadly and inevitably attracted little attention, even though there was a troop of energetic photographers clicking away when Khan was at the podium. She first became involved with the cause in Pakistan when she visited a settlement of Afghan refugees who lacked shelter, basic amenities and health care. Using her contacts she helped get them tents and supplies. Partly Jewish herself, she described how her own grandfather fled to England from Germany in the 1930s.
The second speaker was Yeukai Taruvinga, a refugee from Zimbabwe who came here aged 18, enduring a long, terrifying process before she was allowed to stay. When, on television, we see waves of the dispossessed in Africa, in Pakistan and elsewhere, we are touched and we send money, a humane response. But when some – just 4 per cent of the total number who are obliged to leave their homes – come to our shores, they encounter a vicious system and disbelief.
Our politicians have been duplicitous. Without shame or guilt, they betray the UN Convention while proclaiming their commitment to it. Asylum seekers are denied fair legal representation, the right to work, the means to survive, and are detained and deported as if they are toxic waste matter. In detention centres conditions are often so bad that there have been hunger strikes and riots. Worst of all, we are still detaining children more than a year after Nick Clegg declared that this would end. He spoke with impressive ardour, but unless he delivers soon, his words are hollow.
Some good people are standing up for these double victims – the author Michael Morpurgo, for example, wrote a devastating story using the voice of a fictional young boy in Yarls Wood prison. Others, disgracefully, are colluding with the powerful. For unfathomable reasons, our largest children's charity, Barnado's, has agreed to run support services in a new deportation centre for families with children.
The Refugee Council steps in when all else fails for refugees. But without cash, staff cannot carry on. They have the offer of a grant from the GLC Charitable Trust for £120,000, but only if they can raise matching funds. They have scraped together £45,000 and need a further £75,000. This is a desperate plea to you readers to support them. The deadline is Thursday. And you, Mr Clegg, please answer these two questions: Why did you let the Government cut the funds for vulnerable refugees? And what happened to that pledge on child detainees?