This week saw the third annual Sanctuary in Parliament event at which local City of Sanctuary groups gathered to discuss issues around asylum rights, integration and safe routes to sanctuary. Chaired by Thangam Debbonaire MP, it was also an opportunity for MPs to hear powerful first-hand accounts of the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers, and to meet their constituents who have sought or are seeking sanctuary, and those involved in initiatives to support them.
A party of five travelled to London to represent Brighton and Hove: volunteers from Sanctuary on Sea and the Hummingbird Project, and representatives from the local Syrian and Ethiopian communities. We had the opportunity to absorb a series of testimonies on the asylum process – with extremely dispiriting but also some uplifting anecdotes about individuals’ experiences of arriving in the UK – and the grandeur of Parliament itself.
Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavilion), came along to meet us, as did a representative from Nick Herbert MP’s office (Arundel and South Downs), and we will be following up with both these and other local MPs with further thoughts and ideas for policy reform.
Among the issues discussed:
- Family reunion: Since 2013, there is no legal aid funding available for family reunion in England and Wales. Importantly, adult refugees can only be reunited with their partner and children, but only if their children are under 18. Child refugees cannot sponsor their parents or family members
to join them in the UK at all. This means that families are left torn apart by conflict, with some family members left with no other option but to take increasingly perilous routes to reunite with their family.
- Higher education access: Some refugees have found themselves facing costly and prohibitive international student rates when offered a place at a UK university. MPs are urged to support the amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill that offers the opportunity to remove the barriers to higher education for resettled Syrian refugees, and those who have been given limited leave to remain or discretionary leave.
- English language teaching: Refugee Action is calling for increased funding of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision, the publication of an ESOL strategy for England, better provision for women and the provision of free English language teaching for asylum seekers.
- Employment rights: A major issue is that refugees are not permitted to work for the duration of their asylum claim. They can also face difficulties accessing employment relevant to their skills, owing to their lack of UK-based work experience and qualifications secured outside the UK.
- Alternatives to detention: The UK is the only country in the EU which detains people indefinitely. There is persuasive evidence that detention doesn’t work and there has been a continuing decline since 2011 in the proportion of detainees being removed from the UK following their detention.
City of Sanctuary is calling on the government to end the inhumane practice of administrative detention by securing a 28 day time-limit on detention and investigating alternatives to detention.
- Unaccompanied minors: Almost one in three Calais child refugees are missing since the demolition of the camps. The Government should use the Dubs Amendment and Dublin III to provide safety for more vulnerable adults and children stranded in Europe. The changes to asylum support for refused asylum seekers in the Immigration Act 2016 are likely to result in increased levels of asylum-related destitution, especially among vulnerable children.
- Refugees outside the SVPRS: While the UK’s commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by May 2020 under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (SVPRS) is very welcome, we must not neglect the needs of other nationalities who don’t have access to the same protection and support.
There are also other issues specific to Brighton and Hove, such as the shortage and high-cost of housing which limits the number of refugees the city is able to take. A recent meeting of social workers and other groups in Brighton identified pressing concerns for the support and care of unaccompanied minors, particularly in view of forthcoming changes brought about by the Immigration Act 2016.[Update 5/12/16]: Members of our local Syrian community also encourage Parliamentarians to engage with the ongoing emergency situation in Syria, and ask for the safe passage of the people who are under siege in Aleppo and cessation of Russian and Syrian airstrikes on hospitals and schools. The conflict in Syria has led to what Filippo Grandi, UNHCR High Commissioner, has described as the “biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time”. In particular, an urgent issue is the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2139 (2014) to provide aid and relief in Syria. It was recently noted by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, that despite the resolution, demands for unhindered humanitarian access were being ignored, and that human rights violations continued. He told the Security Council that they must find “a political settlement that brings an end to the crisis”.
We will continue our discussions of national and local issues for refugees at our Annual General Meeting on 7th December – details here. The theme of the AGM is “how together we can best harness the enormous public support in Brighton & Hove towards seekers of sanctuary and make the city’s commitment to being a City of Sanctuary a reality”.