On the same day that Community Care launched its Right
to Refuge campaign last week, home secretary David Blunkett
announced a further crackdown to combat “the problem” of asylum
The Home Office is concerned about asylum applicants lodging
“groundless” appeals when they are refused leave to stay here. It
is also taking steps to reduce the “pull factors” that attract
people while also tackling those who “deliberately destroy or
dispose of their documents in order to make fraudulent claims and
No doubt there are some people guilty of the heinous crime of
entering this country in search of a better life. But Community
Care believes the attempt by the authorities – backed by much
of the media – to demonise all asylum seekers is leading to
injustice for the many people who are genuinely fleeing for their
Our survey of professionals working with this client group (see
news analysis page 18) highlighted some of the problems faced by
those seeking refuge here.
Thirty per cent of respondents said they were dealing with women
pregnant as a result of rape while 67 per cent had clients who had
been tortured and 87 per cent had clients with mental health
problems. Respondents said unaccompanied children as well as
children in asylum-seeking families were a particular
Reliable statistics on the number of unaccompanied children
arriving each year are hard to come by. The Home Office does keep
information on applications from this group, although this is
widely thought to be an underestimate of the number here.
According to new figures, 5,945 unaccompanied children aged 17 and
under applied for asylum in 2002 compared with 2,735 in 2000.
Unaccompanied children are isolated and often highly traumatised,
and many – including some of those as young as 14 or 15 – are
ending up in bed and breakfast accommodation, struggling to make
their way, alone in a strange country.
Laurence Chester, a social worker and chairperson of a Home Office
sub-group for unaccompanied minors, believes some people forget
that an asylum-seeking young person is still, first and foremost, a
child. He says: “I have had many professionals ask ‘Are
unaccompanied children covered by the Children Act?’ And social
workers have said to me ‘I’ve placed two 14 year olds in bed and
breakfast without support – am I doing anything wrong?’ Sometimes
it really makes me wonder what’s going on.”
Chester believes that it is “lunacy” to disperse young people all
over the country and then tell them to phone their social worker,
who may be 300 miles away, if they have a problem
“This is not an adequate service. And one of my bugbears is what I
think amounts to virtual racism by some members of the social work
profession. I am sick and tired of staff saying ‘Refugee children
take away resources from our clients’.
“It’s the nature of our client group that people view them
negatively. Those in this line of work shouldn’t make judgements
about providing a service – they should just get on with the job. I
think we are at the same stage working with refugee and
asylum-seeking children that we were in the 1970s with children in
Much of the negative image of asylum seekers and refugees stems
from reports in the media, many of them inaccurate. Just last week
the Sun newspaper published a front-page expos’ on
so-called “illegals” after one of its reporters posed as an asylum
seeker and was given a bed in a hostel (sharing a room with a
Somalian in a bed one foot away), plus breakfast and £2.80 for
fares to a Home Office asylum screening unit. Although the reporter
said he had met many genuine asylum seekers and his account
appeared to show the asylum process worked, it prompted a comment
column in the paper declaring the system “shambolic” and demanding
a crackdown on false claimants.
Some elements of the media seem unable to use the term asylum
seeker without adding the epithet “bogus”. But until people’s cases
have been adjudicated it is inaccurate to call them bogus. The 1951
UN convention enshrines the right to seek refuge from persecution.
And even applications that fail are sometimes turned down on purely
The Press Complaints Commission is holding talks with refugee
groups with a view to publishing guidelines on reporting asylum
issues because of concerns that the current climate is stirring up
hatred against those arriving in this country, in some cases
resulting in violence. In August last year Iranian asylum seeker
Peiman Bahmani was stabbed to death in a deprived area of
Sunderland. Then, in December, Turkish Kurd Firsat Yildiz was
murdered in Sighthill, Glasgow in an unprovoked attack. Since
January 2001 there have been at least five murders of asylum
One issue that has provoked a public and media backlash is the
proposal, first set out in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum
Act 2000, to build accommodation centres away from the main cities
to house asylum seekers. Planning applications have been lodged but
even if local opposition to the proposals is overcome, none of the
centres are expected to open before 2005.
If they do go ahead there are concerns among organisations working
with asylum seekers that this whole group will be taken out of
mainstream society, leading to problems later over integration for
those eventually allowed to stay here.
Alison Fenney, head of policy at the Refugee Council, says if
integration is to work it needs to start happening from day one of
arrival. “You can’t treat people as unwelcome intruders, shove them
in detention or in centres where their movement is restricted and
they are shut away from the rest of society, and then expect them
to integrate once their case has been dealt with and they are given
status as refugees,” she says.
“The Home Office seems to view the asylum stage as neutral when in
fact it can be a highly negative experience that sets back the
process of integration by years.”
Meanwhile, Alison Harvey, principal policy and practice manager at
the Children’s Society, is concerned about the issue of the
detention of children. According to a snapshot survey by the Home
Office in April this year, there were 56 under-18s held in
immigration service removal centres, a figure which excludes cases
where the young person’s age is disputed.
Although a few are unaccompanied young people awaiting transfer,
most are children whose families are being detained.
Harvey says: “We are pressing the government on exactly how many
children are detained, for how long, how old they are and what
stage their case has reached. Without this hard data it is too easy
for the minister to come back with generalisations like ‘children
are detained for no longer than necessary’.”
The Children’s Society heads a consortium of organisations working
in this area, among them Barnardo’s, Baaf Adoption and Fostering,
the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, The
Refugee Council and Save the Children UK. The consortium believes
that the issue of what is in the best interest of the child is
considered too late – often well after a decision has been made to
detain a family.
Says Harvey: “We believe the risk of families absconding is much
less than that for single people, so why not get families out of
detention? Or, when children are involved, check whether there are
relatives or friends outside who could care for the child.”
Studies in Australia have shown that children in detention centres
are more prone to mental illness including serious depression and
post-traumatic stress disorder which started, or worsened, during
their detention. In this country the chief inspector of prisons,
Anne Owers, has declared that it is unacceptable to hold children
in detention centres.
The consortium is also highlighting the tendency by local
authorities to deal with young people under section 17 of the
Children Act 1989 which treats them as “in need” when in fact they
should be dealt with under section 20 and classed as children at
When young people reach 18 they are often dispersed to another part
of the country, even if they have put down roots where they are.
This puts them under immense strain and is often cited by young
people as one of their main concerns.
Child asylum seekers and refugees are clearly a vulnerable group
but, as our survey demonstrates, many of the adults arriving here
often have multiple problems and some are severely
The system they face on arrival is bureaucratic and harsh. And the
services for them are patchy and often struggling to keep up with
demand. Even those who are fortunate enough to be granted refugee
status face an uphill struggle trying to rebuild their lives and
integrate into our society. Community Care‘s Right to
Refuge campaign aims to make a difference to one of the most
excluded groups in the UK today. We hope you will support it.
“We owe a lot to the UK”
Ali Abdi fled Somalia in 1997…
“I was a farmer in the south of Somalia and I belonged to the
Geladi tribe. Our family has worked the land for years but when the
civil war started and the warlords began fighting things began to
Those who took power in our area came to collect our crops but
they gave us almost nothing for them. And they knew nothing about
farming. When we went to the river to draw water the militia wanted
money for it. Life became difficult. We kept saying ‘tomorrow will
be better’. But things got worse and worse. One day they came and
cut down all our mango trees. Then after that they burned our
crops. They looted homes and robbed people. And they shot anyone
who tried to stop them. One day they came to our farm and they
took our valuables. I wanted to stand up to them but my mother
stepped forward to hide me and they shot her. They killed her in
front of me. So I decided I had to leave if my family were to
I settled my affairs and told my wife and children I would send
for them when I could. I spent six months on the road – through
Yemen, then by boat to the United Arab Emirates. I met someone who
said he could get me a passport and he agreed to take me to
America. But he brought me to the UK instead, though I’m glad as I
have been very happy here. I was granted refugee status in 1999
and I set up in business trading with Africa. The business is doing
well. But best of all I was able to have a family reunion and bring
my wife and children to join me. We owe a lot to this country and
we will definitely pay it back. I have been welcomed by people
here and I say to everyone ‘thank you very much’.”
“I have begged to be dispersed”
Marina’s story… “I am Russian but I was living in Kazakhstan.
Because of the political situation things got very difficult for me
and my husband. Then one day he didn’t come home. I don’t know
where he is – arrested maybe, killed, or perhaps he escaped – he
could be anywhere.
But because I was pregnant I was frightened for the baby and for
me, so I decided I had to get away.
I got a lift and travelled across Europe and I claimed asylum
when I arrived here in December. I have no friends here and I knew
no one. So I was found a bed and breakfast room in Thornton Heath
in south London and my baby girl was born in March. It was a
difficult labour and after 18 hours I was given a caesarian. The
hospital staff were kind to me but I was sad that my husband could
not be there.
I took Sofie home but where I live is not a good place for a
baby. I share a bathroom and a toilet with two other families and
there are no cooking facilities and the water is always cold.
Sofie keeps getting sick – one infection after another. And she
has an allergy. The hospital gave her an injection into her spine.
They told me I must find somewhere better to live or Sofie can’t
I have begged the National Asylum Support Service to disperse me
to another place – anywhere, I don’t care. But they have said no.
And so I wait and wait. It is very hard to see my child getting
Every day I come to the Refugee Council and hope there is some
good news. The Red Cross say they will try to find out what
happened to my husband. I am 23 and sometimes I wonder what the
future holds for me.”
How you can get involved
We want as many people as possible to support the Right to
Refuge campaign. There are many ways you can get involved.
- Sign up to Community Care‘s campaign petition.
- Tell us about your work with asylum seekers and refugees, and
your views so that we can share ideas and best practice
- Contact your MP (click on the “fax your MP” button on www.communitycare.co.uk).
Invite him or her to your organisation to see the work you do, and
encourage them to speak out positively in support of asylum seekers
and refugees living in this country.
- Write to your local paper with details of Community
Care‘s campaign and the importance of working together to
ensure asylum seekers and refugees are not persecuted.