“What about us?”: the UK’s discriminatory treatment of refugees must end
No one chooses to be a refugee. The sheer tragedy in Ukraine has made this abundantly clear - as the violence has raged, families have fled their homes and sought sanctuary across borders, underlining the forced and traumatic nature of displacement.
Yet, as the UK government has responded with schemes that provide a pathway to safety for Ukrainians, it has simultaneously pressed ahead with its draconian Nationality and Borders Bill, which seeks to criminalise people seeking refuge and deny them protection. Alongside this come abhorrent new plans, as revealed last week, to offshore those who arrive via so-called “unauthorised” means over 4,000 miles away to Rwanda for ‘processing’.
This startling contradiction cannot go unchecked. Schemes such as Homes for Ukraine, while riddled with issues, provide Ukrainian refugees with rights that are simply unavailable to the vast majority of people seeking asylum, from safe passage to the right to work.
There is no valid reason why this disparity should exist. All people deserve protection and support, yet the government has seemingly taken the view that some are more deserving than others. To understand why, the relevant policies must be looked at in more detail.
The Right to Work
The difference in treatment is perhaps best illustrated by the right to work. As it stands, people seeking asylum are banned from working while their claim is being processed and given just £5.84 a day to live on, plunging them into a life of destitution and misery.
This injustice has given rise to the Lift The Ban coalition; a movement of charities, trade unions and businesses demanding that people seeking asylum are allowed to work and contribute to society. Lifting the ban would not only help asylum seekers integrate into their new communities and support themselves financially, it would be of enormous benefit to the UK economy.
According to Refugee Action, it would secure much-needed cost savings of £97.8 million per year, as well as providing the economy with the expertise of a highly-skilled workforce. Yet, despite the plethora of evidence in favour of lifting it, the government is steadfast in its opposition. Or, at the very least, steadfast where the vast majority of people seeking asylum are concerned. In contrast, those seeking refuge via the Homes for Ukraine scheme are permitted to work for a minimum of three years, helping them rebuild their lives in the UK.
Recent weeks have seen politicians such as Dominic Raab espouse the virtues of letting people work while they await a decision on their asylum claim. Yet if this is the case, why is it a right only afforded to a select few?
The answer likely lies in the racialised nature of the asylum system. At present, only those with a place on an official resettlement scheme are treated with anything resembling dignity, yet there are currently none of these schemes available to the majority of refugees in the UK, who are overwhelmingly from African and Middle Eastern countries. This suggests that race plays a part in the level of support a person is afforded.
No Recourse to Public Funds
No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) sheds further light on the double standards at play. A condition that prohibits access to the benefits system, NRPF is applied to the vast majority of people seeking asylum, cutting them off from vital support and making destitution an inevitability.
According to The Children’s Society, there are thousands of children in the UK facing abject poverty due to NRPF, which disproportionately affects migrants and asylum seekers from non-white backgrounds.
Conversely, refugees on the Homes for Ukraine scheme are granted full access to the benefit system, providing them with a crucial lifeline in times of crisis. While this is of course positive, it should be the bare minimum available to all people fleeing conflict, irrespective of ethnicity, nationality or religion. The fact that it is not raises serious questions about the ethics of the system.
Whether or not a refugee is deemed worthy of support has life-threatening implications. As it stands, there is a disgraceful absence of safe routes available to people seeking asylum, forcing many to attempt perilous journeys in pursuit of safety.
In 2021, more than 28,000 people crossed the Channel from France to the UK in small boats. At least 44 people died or went missing during the attempt, highlighting the tragic impact of a system that turns its back on people in urgent need of support.
As the response to Ukraine reveals, it does not have to be this way. Leaving refugees to attempt Channel crossings and other dangerous journeys is a choice, not a necessity.
Both Homes for Ukraine and the Ukraine Family Scheme - although overly-bureaucratic and responsible for trapping refugees in dangerous situations on the European continent - allow refugees to reach the UK safely and without risk of criminalisation.
As the Nationality and Borders Bill progresses through parliament, the UK is approaching a crossroads. It either turns its back on the international protection system - which states that refugees must not be penalised based on how they arrive - or provides all refugees with an equal level of dignity and support. Choosing the latter is essential. Sanctuary should never discriminate.
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