John Waite: A blemish on our record of providing sanctuary

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The Independent Online

In Manchester last week asylum seekers and refugees told the Independent Asylum Commission disturbing stories of how they came here seeking sanctuary, and found destitution. I was shocked by a situation that has all the appearances of a shameful blemish on our nation's proud record of providing sanctuary.

As the stories emerged it became clear to me that it is a serious omission that the issue of destitution amongst asylum seekers has not been looked into before. The destitute suffer extreme hardship, either because they fail to understand the system, or because it has failed them.

It is a fact that there are thousands of refused asylum seekers living in destitution in the UK – at least 280,000 according to the National Audit Office. This is a new and growing underclass – prevented from working and unable to access housing or benefits. It is also a fact that these refused asylum seekers have no legal right to be here – the system has heard their case, denied them refugee status, and instructed them to leave. At a public hearing of the Independent Asylum Commission in Manchester this week I heard of the tragic human realities that lie behind the facts.

The Commission is charitably-supported and a wholly independent inquiry into the asylum system, accountable to ordinary citizens through the Citizen Organising Foundation. My fellow Commissioners and I are listening to all perspectives before we publish credible and workable recommendations for reform. Like most citizens, I want a system that treats asylum seekers with humanity but is robust enough to command the confidence of the British public.

Flores, a 21-year-old girl from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one of a family of eight, told us how her family was made destitute when the Home Office evicted them, and told her mother that her children were at risk of being taken into care. They lived on £30 a week, donated by local supporters, for two years. I cannot understand how such an experience could be suffered by a family living in a land where "Every Child Matters".

It is important for the British people to have a clearer picture of the destitution faced by those fleeing oppression. Everyone knows of the situation in Darfur, few will know of Ibrahim, who fled after experiencing persecution. He was initially denied asylum and made destitute. He slept rough in Manchester Railway Station. He spoke of his shame at begging, and his fear of the police and of drunken revellers who would abuse him. He was granted refugee status after a review.

These testimonies demand an answer to the question, why are these people choosing a life scavenging and sleeping rough instead of returning to a country the Home Office claims is safe?

The Government has been accused of deliberately making people destitute to compel the voluntary return of refused asylum seekers. Our Commission will decide what force there is in that charge. But when we publish our recommendations in 2008 we shall be looking for ways to end destitution. Put simply, doing nothing is not an option.

The Independent Asylum Commission is currently seeking evidence from the public about the asylum system at www.independentasylumcommission.org.uk

By Sir John Waite, former Lord Justice of Appeal, and chair of the Independent Asylum Commission

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