A new refugee policy the Government quietly introduced last month will have a “devastating” impact on the mental health of those who have sought to make a new life in the UK, charities have warned.
An open letter signed by 50 organisations working with refugees calls on the Home Office to reverse the new policy, which they said aims to prevent refugees from integrating and introduces an “additional layer of bureaucracy, uncertainty, and evaluation at the hands of a dispassionate state”.
New guidance quietly issued by the Home Office in March means that people who are granted refugee status or humanitarian protection in the UK will now have to undergo a “safe return review” after five years, meaning the Home Office will assess whether they can return people to the countries they have fled from before they apply for permanent settlement.
The charities that signed the letter, which include Right to Remain and Migrant Rights Network, say the policy “undermines” the promise of stability and security that should come with being granted refugee status in Britain, and that it “violates the state’s obligation to provide sanctuary and refuge to those it has granted the right to remain”.
They proceed to urge that the policy be “immediately reversed” due to the “societal and financial costs” it brings with it, warning that it is part of a “worrying trend” to weaken the concept of a refugee and to make the UK a “hostile environment” for migrants.
The letter states: “The awarding of refugee status should bring with it the promise of stability and security. It is a chance to build a new home, to study or work, to become a part of the community. The Home Office’s decision to review every application at the end of the five years to see if their home country is ‘safe’ undermines this promise, bringing with it the threat of deportation.
“The announcement that those who have already been granted full rights as refugees will later have that decision reviewed violates the state’s obligation to provide sanctuary and refuge to those it has granted the right to remain.
“This move is part of a worrying trend to weaken the concept of a refugee and to make the UK a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. We call on the Home Office to reverse this decision. When a refugee’s claim has been recognised, they should be given permanent residency.”
When informed of the new policy, Makhosi Sigabade, a refugee living in the UK, said: “After being given a false sense of hope and stability I am being made to relive the nightmares of my past. I am now confronted with a possibility of going back to face the same persecution from which I fled.
“The system is meant to protect people seeking sanctuary but threatens to expose them to the dangers they flee.”
Luke Butterly, of the Participation and Practice of Rights, a small human rights charity in Belfast, said the changes were likely to bring “great instability” to the lives of refugees, affecting their mental health as well as employment prospects.
“Before, once you made the insanely difficult journey to the UK and went through the asylum process, you were here for life, but now Amber Rudd has put a time limit on this. They’ve said ‘You can stay here for five years, but after that, who knows?’” Mr Butterly told The Independent.
“The communities here in the asylum process in Northern Ireland are very concerned about this because of the great instability in people’s lives it will bring. It will have a detrimental effect on mental health, as well as job prospects, with potential employers not knowing if they’ll be here in two years’ time.”
Mr Butterly added that as well as being angry about the principle of introducing a “safe return review” after five years, there were concerns over the way it would be implemented in practice.
“At the moment, the Home Office often gets cases wrong – about a third of asylum claims are overturned in the appeals process. The guidance on the safety of countries is often widely inaccurate. We don’t know how this policy will be applied in practice, but given the practices of the Home Office we are extremely anxious about it,” he said.
Forward Maisokwadzo, of City of Sanctuary, which supports people seeking asylum in the UK, meanwhile, said: “These are worrying times for refugees and within us the City of Sanctuary movement. This is so, because the proposed ‘inhuman’ policy is a direct threat to the basic human rights.
“City of Sanctuary hold the vision that (the UK and Ireland) will be a welcoming place of safety for all and proud to offer sanctuary to people fleeing violence and persecution. We appeal to Home Secretary Amber Rudd to do the honourable thing and listen carefully to all evidence put forward against this ‘restrictive’ policy and exercise compassion by ensuring refugee rights are protected.”
The UNHCR has condemned the new policy, saying it could have a “serious impact on the wellbeing of refugees, their ability to settle and be in long-term employment”, and that it will create a “source of anxiety” for refugees by “putting their lives on hold”, as well as putting additional strain on the Government’s resources.
Laura Padoan, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency, said: “We are concerned that the UK’s approach to active reviews of refugee status could have a serious impact on the wellbeing of refugees, their ability to settle and be in long-term employment. We know that it is a source of anxiety for many refugees, creating a sense that their lives are on hold.
“We feel that it’s not needed, because under British and international law, there are already mechanisms to review and cease refugee status where appropriate. It will also clearly put an additional strain on the Government’s resources.
“Refugees are people who have fled violence and persecution and are in need protection and stability. Refugee status is temporary, but what refugees need is an enduring sense of safety so they can make a positive contribution to their new communities.”
It comes days after the Westminster All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees highlighted concerns about the change and called for it to be scrapped, and warned that refugees were being consigned to hunger and homelessness immediately after they are granted asylum.
The research showed that Government policies were creating a costly “two-tier system” of refugee protection, with those who entered the country on Government-led resettlement schemes generally provided for, but others often being left homeless and destitute – damaging their prospects of integration.
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