Alice Arkwright says the new ‘compliant environment’  treats asylum seekers with abuse and rejection

On the 6th February this year, 90 migrants were intercepted by UK authorities attempting to cross the English Channel – the highest number to be intercepted on a single day ever.  

The numbers of people crossing the Channel has risen sharply in 2019, compared to 2018, but as we move from the ‘hostile environment’ to the ‘compliant environment’, what can migrants expect when they arrive in 2020? 

Government rhetoric 

The rhetoric of the government has not appeared to change. When being asked about migrants making the journey, Boris Johnson recently said: “We will send you back. The UK should not be regarded as a place where you could automatically come and break the law by seeking to arrive illegally. If you come illegally, you are an illegal migrant, and I’m afraid the law will treat you as such.” 

Charities and lawyers have rightly called for the government to recognise that everyone has the right to claim asylum and using the term “illegal” to describe those seeking asylum is wrong.   

The government has also recently scrapped a commitment from the Brexit withdrawal agreement that allows unaccompanied child refugees to reunite with families in Britain.  

Policies of the Home Office 

Since the announcement of the compliant environment there has been virtually no change to the policies that push people into destitution.  

Asylum seekers in the UK are not permitted to work and must survive on asylum support, amounting to £5.39 a day. A condition of receiving this is that asylum seekers must not receive support from other sources. Many experience delays in receiving their asylum support and the Home Office has recently scrapped its target of processing most asylum cases within six months, with some people waiting up to 10 years for a decision. Due to these compounding factors, most are unable to accrue any savings whilst in the UK. 

If refugee status is granted, people then have 28 days before their asylum support is cut. Given that it is virtually impossible for most to find a job within this time and many have no savings to fall back on, the advice is to apply for Universal Credit as soon as possible. However, the minimum amount of time between application and receipt of funds from Universal Credit is five weeks, meaning most will have at least a week where there is no support, pushing many into homelessness. 

If the asylum claim is refused, support is cut after 21 days and is only continued if people meet clear criteria, for example if they have a pending Judicial Review claim. In reality it is incredibly difficult to continue receiving asylum support after a claim is refused without high quality legal advice which, due to cuts in legal aid, many can’t access.  

These policies are actively designed to deter people from seeking asylum, but research by Women for Refugee Women done this year demonstrates they are ineffective. They spoke to 106 asylum-seeking and refugee women about their experiences of destitution and almost all said that despite the hardship they had faced, they would not return to their home countries as they did not feel safe. 

These policies are enacted in an environment of disbelief and suspicion, not only from the Home Office, but also wider society. Public service providers and private individuals such as landlords are now forced to carry out immigration checks. 

Sexual violence 

The research by Women for Refugee Women also found extremely high levels of sexual violence amongst this group.  

Their results demonstrated that: 

  • Almost one-third of the women who had experienced rape or sexual violence in their home country also experienced it in the UK
  • Over a third of destitute women were forced into unwanted relationships, in many cases leading to sexual and physical violence 
  • As a result of being homeless, a quarter of women were raped or sexually abused when sleeping outside or in other people’s homes  
  • Fears of deportation and detention stopped the majority of those affected from reporting abuse to the police

Home Office policies are actively resulting in experiences of sexual violence and fear which prevents people from reporting and seeking help. 

Our system also expects women to talk openly, clearly and frankly to a stranger about the sexual violence and trauma they have experienced without counselling. This is often impossible for people who have experienced it and are therefore at risk of not being believed.   

What needs to change 

The violence and poverty that asylum seekers experience in the UK is a consequence of the way our system is designed. Instead of providing an empathetic, human rights-centred response, our system requires that asylum seekers not only relive their trauma but also creates new forms of suffering through experiences of sexual violence, detention and the torment of not being able to find safety in a country where they have sought refuge.  

There are clear policy changes that could end this, including: 

  • Asylum seekers being granted the right to work in the UK 
  • Extending the period people who have been granted refugee status receive asylum support
  • Ensuring support continues for those who have been refused asylum until they have confirmed immigration status in the UK or have returned to their country of origin
  • Ending the requirement for specialised services to share immigration data so asylum seekers can seek help from the NHS and police

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