As dawn broke over Baghdad on Thursday morning, some 40 asylum seekers found themselves back on the very soil they had tried to flee. Deported from Britain after their asylum applications had been rejected, and against UNHCR advice, they were flown back to Iraq in a shroud of secrecy and politely “sent on their way”. Or, to paraphrase, “sent packing”.
If the British government is to be believed, the lives of these failed asylum seekers are not in danger, because they are being returned to parts of Iraq that are now safe. Parts of Iraq? Now herein lies the problem. If, and this is a big if, as we are told, parts of Iraq are safe what about the other parts of the country where there are still high levels of violence and human rights violations. How can we be sure that these 40 some deported asylum seekers do not stray into these parts? The fact is, we can’t.
There is no mechanism in place to provide information about the whereabouts or safety of a failed asylum seeker deported to their home country. Once deported they are no longer deemed the responsibility of the country who did the deporting – they have effectively washed their hands of them. And because there is no follow-up support system in place, or even a system to gather information on the outcome of returns, we can never be sure if a correct decision has been made over an applicant. Of course, mistakes often go unrecorded as the applicant is conveniently lost in the ether – we are not looking at the overall outcome.
For some estimated 500,000 refused asylum seekers however, returning home is simply not an option. In their new report, Not Gone, But Forgotten: The Urgent Need for a More Humane Asylum System, the British Red Cross suggests the following reasons for wanting to stay in the UK:
• They cannot leave the UK through no fault of their own (eg they are stateless and have no country to return to, their government will not provide them with travel documents, they are too sick to travel or there is no viable route to return home)
- They have been in the UK for a long period and have developed some ties with the UK (eg entering relationship and having children)
- They think it is unsafe and fear death or persecution if they return
Once an asylum application is refused and all appeal rights have been exhausted, asylum support for applicants is withdrawn after 21 days, and often even earlier. Existing in a state of destitute limbo, the individual has no access to housing or healthcare, is denied the right to work and survives on the handouts of refugee organisations, charities, churches and the good will of friends, while fearing deportation. Like the lives of Abdi, Haile and Mimi and Muhammad documented in G2 this week, this is no way to live – it is barely surviving. The UK government makes even minimal support dependent on a willingness to return to country of origin. It’s a Catch 22.
Offering a solution to this growing problem, the British Red Cross have suggested the following changes to the asylum system:
• The adoption of the principle that destitution should not be an outcome of the asylum system
- Additional support for all destitute refused asylum seekers with dependent children
- An end-to-end asylum support structure, including permission to work, until the applicant is either removed or granted leave to remain
- An entitlement to healthcare throughout the asylum process until removal or granted to leave remain
The criteria for refugee status are tough to fulfil, but there are other categories of protection. We need to find a status for those who cannot be returned – even the European parliament thinks so. Asylum seekers are not guilty of anything. They do not choose to leave their homes; they have been forced out because their lives have been put in danger through war, conflict, political persecution: the impact of climate change will become an increasingly important element. So, in Refugee Week and in this the European Year of Combating Poverty consider this: if the UK really is such an easy ride for asylum seekers why do some many live destitute? And, if their claims really are phoney why then do they choose to live in squalor rather than return home to those nice safe parts we have been told about? Surely, caring for those currently living in limbo is as much a part of development aid as digging wells elsewhere.