Tim Farron, The Independent
Last week’s inspection report on the Napier barracks, where the UK houses asylum seekers, lifted the lid on a situation that shames Britain. Public Health England had advised that as a result of the living conditions, once one person there was infected with COVID, a large-scale outbreak was “virtually inevitable”.
Unsurprisingly, 198 people, almost half the amount of people living at Napier, subsequently contracted COVID in January and February. Serious concerns about fire-safety and safeguarding were also recorded, and living conditions were described as impoverished and unsuitable for long-term accommodation. Some areas were described in the report, conducted by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, as “filthy”. I’ve seen the pictures; they aren’t exaggerating. The list of failures goes on.
I despair that our government — on our behalf — thinks it is appropriate to treat desperate people seeking sanctuary this way. I hear ministers go on about our proud history of welcoming refugees, but what about the reality today — what history are we making that future generations can be proud of?
I’m glad that the truth is coming out. We have been hearing about these conditions in the barracks for months from those on the ground, but the Home Office has refused to acknowledge the unacceptable conditions in which they are expecting people to live. These barracks need to be closed and the government must commit to fundamentally improving the standards for housing those who are seeking sanctuary in this country.
All along, the Home Office has been keen to paint a picture that these conditions are inevitable because the UK simply can’t cope with the number of people who are arriving and claiming asylum. Apparently, we need to stop people coming here and overwhelming us — which is why we need to reduce the number of people arriving of their own accord into the UK and claiming asylum. The government is seeking to make it harder for them to get here, with the home secretary looking to make routes “unviable”. If they do make it to UK shores, is the government ensuring that their experience is so awful that it will deter all their mates from trying to get here too?
In fact, the numbers arriving in the UK are small compared with those claiming asylum in other European countries. The UK had 29,456 asylum applications in 2020, compared with Germany’s 120,320 and France’s 96,000. The UK takes 7 per cent of the EU+ UK asylum applications and has the 17th largest intake of asylum seekers per head of any country in the region. The truth, according to the Home Office’s own figures, is that 21 per cent fewer people claimed asylum in 2020 than 2019. We are not being overwhelmed.
There is, however, pressure on the asylum system. That pressure comes from the Home Office’s own incompetence. Applications for asylum are bogged down in snail’s pace bureaucracy. The number of people waiting for more than six months for a decision on their asylum application has doubled in the last 18 months. So, despite the reduction in the number of people claiming asylum, more people are finding themselves stuck in the asylum support system — an increase of 28 per cent since 2019 — and the number of people being forced into appalling living conditions has risen. Yes, the pandemic has had an impact, but this backlog was growing well before March 2020.
The burden that the government is now experiencing is one of its own making. We should be cross about Priti Patel’s failure to make the system work properly, but we should be enraged that attention is being diverted from mistakes by blaming desperate people seeking sanctuary in our country. Let’s remember that these people are already very vulnerable — that many of them have escaped persecution, war and violence in their own countries. Let’s remember too that, following decisions by the Home Office and after appeals, about two-thirds of people who claim asylum are granted leave to remain in the UK. For some nationalities such as Syrian and Libyan, this increases to more than 90 per cent. Those people have been driven by desperation to take great risks to travel here, by often dangerous routes — and then they get to Britain, that place of decency which they had pinned their hopes on as they fled from danger. And Britain puts them into inappropriate and degrading accommodation. We do not need to imagine what this is doing to their mental health, because the report summary tells us.
“We met many men who described feeling depressed and hopeless at their circumstances. In our resident survey, all of those who responded at Napier and the vast majority at Penally said they had felt depressed at some points. At both sites, about a third of respondents said they had mental health problems; about a third of respondents at Napier said they had felt suicidal.”
A third of respondents have felt suicidal. This is shocking. If those were figures from the general population, there would be outrage. The government has issued a whole stream of advice for people who are struggling with their mental health during the pandemic, and it has a duty of care towards asylum seekers in the UK. Refugees are not “other”; they’re are human like the rest of us, and it is not OK to treat them differently or ignore their deep mental distress.
The asylum system needs urgent reform. There needs to be an improvement in the speed and quality of decision-making, better standards of asylum accommodation, effective monitoring and holding to account of accommodation providers, and people should be allowed to work to support themselves if their asylum claim is outstanding.
But fundamentally, there needs to be a change in attitude, and an acknowledgement that the people seeking refuge on our shores are human beings full of unique worth and dignity. We must not leave already traumatised people to deteriorate further in squalid and over-crowded conditions while waiting for administrative wheels to turn.
Let’s provide a decent reception so that people can feel safe, secure and confident in the system; one that will prepare those who are given leave to remain to be able to settle and flourish as welcome citizens of the UK.
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