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Disabled Asylum-Seekers are Falling Through the Cracks of a Flawed System

Luna Williams is the political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation that offers full and free legal advice and assistance for asylum seekers, trafficking survivors, and detainees.

 

It is no secret that, over the past decade, Britain has become an increasingly hostile place for those seeking refuge in it. 

A combination of stricter border controls, hostile policies, and anti-immigration rhetoric has meant that the UK’s asylum process has become infused with a ‘culture of disbelief’, with the default response to claims founded in scepticism. 

This has evolved over time, and has been shaped by various factors, including the hostile environment policy, which has introduced a number of practices that continue to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people looking for safety in the UK, including unaccompanied children, victims of modern slavery, and pregnant migrants. Reports have surfaced recently which show these individuals continually falling through the cracks of the asylum process, as these individuals are unable to receive the care they desperately need. This fact is true for those awaiting the outcome of their asylum claim in the community and in detention centres.  

 

Lack of care is widespread

In detention, victims of trafficking — including people who have been held hostage and tortured — are detained indefinitely for months, and sometimes years. If this was not damaging enough in itself, reports have consistently found that these individuals have not received proper care during this time, despite the fact many are victims of physical violence still recovering from their wounds and most experience some form of mental health issue, like PTSD. In fact, analysis by the organisation Women for Refugee Women found that all the women interviewed at Yarl’s Wood in 2017-18 were suffering from some form of mental health condition, which was brought on by traumatic experiences in their home countries, on their journeys, and during their ongoing detention. 

Unfortunately, for those awaiting the results of their claim in the community, the story is not much brighter. Recent cases have shown high numbers of asylum-seekers refusing to seek care, including pregnant women, on the basis that they may risk their asylum claim or must pay extortionate fees. 

The hostile environment feeds directly into this. The Immigration Act 2014, which was rolled out as part of the policy, encouraged NHS trusts to refuse their services to those who couldn’t produce the proper documents, as well as share the data of those receiving healthcare. Although the latter practice was stamped out at the beginning of last year – owing to the fact it was seen as a breach of trust and data – it still continues to influence the decisions of those who need care, as many still fear they will still have their details shared with immigration officials if they visit a practice or hospital. 

 

Asylum seekers with disabilities at a high-risk

While this issue is certainly harmful to any vulnerable asylum-seeker, there are certain groups which are disproportionately affected. For instance, asylum seekers who have a disability of any sort are especially susceptible to missing out on the care they need in the UK. 

A disability is an umbrella term which can be used to describe any form of long-term condition which restricts a person in some way from completing everyday activities and tasks.   

Britain’s immigration system is already brutal in its treatment of and effect on asylum seekers and refugees, but it is even harder to navigate for those with physical, mental, emotional, educational, or sensory impairments and care needs. And hostile attitudes and practices shoulder a significant blame for this, resulting in many disabled people’s care needs being either debated or ignored by immigration officials – particularly in detention facilities. 

One case from last year saw a 22-year old man with severe learning disabilities and medical issues (including epilepsy) wrongly detained and cut off from his basic human rights without essential care by officers.

 Charles, who was being cared for by his Pakistani parents Ruth and Wilson Mukerjee was physically grabbed and held by immigration offices when he visited the British Home Office in Liverpool for what he thought would be a routine check up last April.  When Charles’ medical records were presented to the officers his father, who was with him at the time, said that they were met with indifference and disbelief. “This is not in our records, nor do I want to see this” the officer told him. 

After this, Charles was forced into a van with his parents, and driven without food, water or bathroom breaks for approximately six hours. During this time, Charles have several seizures due to the stress, and told his father that he wanted to commit suicide. 

Though the length of time Charles was detained was relatively short, as his lawyer stood in to have him removed from the centre, his treatment bought to light the extent to which those with disabilities are not only neglected, but also punished by Britain’s asylum process.

 Sadly, this story is not unique. Asylum seekers with disabilities and long-term care needs have been falling to the wayside since the hostile environment policy was first implemented in 2012. As a result of the policy, innocent people looking for refuge have been treated as criminals, refused vital services and cut off from essential care. A report released this January found that there had been various instances in which disabled asylum seekers in Scotland were refusing to seek medical assistance because they are worried about high costs (though these fees only exist in hospitals in England) and their identities being shared with the Home Office. This is particularly true for asylum-seekers with mental health issues, or mental disabilities – as many believe it will affect the outcome of their claim if they come forward to report them to health professionals.   

 

What needs to happen next?

Urgent action must be taken to address this issue and ensure that vulnerable people with disabilities receive the care and support they need. 

According to the current 2014 Care Act, which outlines how asylum seekers with disabilities should be cared for, they become the responsibility of a local authority if ‘the adult is ordinarily resident in the authority’s area or is present in its area but of no settled residence’. 

However, there is an issue with this statement. It leaves local authorities entirely responsible for the wellbeing of asylum seekers and forces them to find and account for individuals who are stateless, or without a home, which leaves the onus entirely on them. This leaves far more room for such individuals to fall through the cracks. 

Notably, the Act also fails to set up any clear referral scheme with which those applying for refuge with care needs can be easily pared with their local authority and does not put provisions in place to monitor whether these are being met. 

As a result, it is imperative that the 2014 Care Act is reviewed and redrafted to ensure that there is a clearer passage for referrals so that the care needs of individual asylum seekers can be more effectively assessed and provided. 

As well as this, movements should be made to secure a ban on detaining anyone with disabilities where this is not an absolute necessity and, where it is absolutely necessary (for example, if there is a clear history of violence or they pose a demonstratable flight risk) that they be detained in an environment which has been catered for them. This would be safe and accessible and would host care professionals to suit a range of disability needs. Here, individuals would be able to wait out their claim with the support and care they require and deserve as a human right. 

Ultimately though, detention and hostile practices must stop being the default approach to dealing with vulnerable people – particularly those who are disabled, who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to making the perilous journey to the UK in the first place.

 

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CHOOSE LOVE POP-UP SHOPS ARE BACK FOR 2019!

Please note: our pop-up shops in London, New York and LA are now closed. But you can still buy real products for refugees online at www.choose.love!

The ‘Choose Love’ stores are back with more love, fun and surprises than ever before! 

Come and visit the world’s first shop where you can buy buy real gifts for refugees. The shop is packed with much needed items like kid’s coats, winter boots, tents and sleeping bags. Buy what you want, but leave with nothing as each purchase you make is sent to someone who truly needs it. 

Whether you’re shopping for your Secret Santa, best friend or in-laws, give a gift that really matters. With every purchase you’ll get a beautiful gift card to go under the tree and the items you buy will be supplied to refugees around the world.And if that wasn’t enough… the store will be busy with performances, DJs, talks and some extra-special guests. 

Since first opening their doors in 2017 the Choose Love shops have distributed more than 1.6 million items! With so many people in camps and shelters across Europe, the Middle East and America/Mexico border in desperate need we want this year store’s to be bigger and better than ever. 

So come down, shop your heart out, buy everything, leave with nothing and feel the love.

If you can’t make it in person, please check out our online store at www.choose.love


Choose Love London

Choose Love New York

Choose Love LA

  • 611 N. La Cienega Boulevard, West Hollywood, CA 90069
  • 29/11/2019 – 24/12/2019
  • Mon-Sat: 11:00 – 19:00
  • Sun: 11:00 – 18:00
  • Choose Love LA Facebook event
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Drones and Dogs: The EU’s Pursuit of Refugees Undermines Basic Human Rights

Elise Middleton, content writer for the Immigration Advice Service (IAS), writes about the criminalisation of rescue work at Europe’s borders and the lack of safe, legal routes for asylum seekers to the UK. IAS offers legal aid for asylum-seekers, trafficking survivors and survivors of domestic abuse.

 

War, the climate crisis, oppression and violations of human rights across the world consistently result in the displacement of people looking to escape life-threatening situations. Figures from the UN International Organisation for Migration estimating how many people will migrate as a result of the rapidly developing climate crisis range from 25 million to 1 billion by 2050, bringing the consequences of our own selfish greed directly to our front doors. The UK, alongside the other EU member states, has a moral and legal responsibility to hear their claims.

 

After the Libya migrant shipwrecks of April 2015, the EU established ‘Operation Sophia’. Described as part of the EU’s ‘response to the migration issue’ and with a mandate to reduce and prevent instances of international smuggling and trafficking, the operation began with a focus on cracking down on the trade yet ended up aiding victims and rescuing migrant boats in distress. The operation’s name was actually amended from EUNAVFOR MED in a touching move when 453 migrants were rescued including a Somali mother who subsequently gave birth to a baby girl who she called Sophia. The operation was changed to “honour the lives of the people [the EU was] saving”, but this now seems to be more performative than indicative of their intentions. 

 

Despite these humanitarian origins, by 2017 Operation Sophia began to lose its focus. Italy’s parliament passed a law that wanted to penalise NGO boats attempting to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean, with a threat of fining the captains up to €1 million and the destruction of Libyan fishing boats. This also gave Matteo Salvini, the far-right Interior Minister, the ability to prevent migrant rescue boats docking in Italian ports. 

 

Yet it is not just Italy that is cracking down on asylum seekers with an iron fist: the UK and EU have collaboratively designed new techniques and methods to essentially ensure refugees never reach the doors of sanctuary, even if it means the death toll increases. 

 

The first initiative of this new strategy saw Operation Sophia close its rescue missions this March – although the EU did decide to open it again this September for another six months, but seemingly pointlessly so as it functions without any ships. Many critics such as the  EU Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, have spoken out against the move as her spokeswoman declared that “Sophia is a maritime operation and it’s clear that without naval assets, the operation will not be able to effectively implement its mandate”. The UN similarly claims the Mediterranean risks becoming a ‘sea of blood’ as a result

 

Alongside the sea restrictions, responses to the migrant crisis have also been met with militarised borders and technological advancements – supposedly to catch traffickers. Yet in a sadistic turn of events, naval vessels have been replaced with unmanned aerial vehicles which record devastating scenes of migrants struggling and potentially drowning instead.

The UK poured over £44 million into the drones alongside additional super-sensitive security scanners, the construction – and destruction – of Calais and Dunkirk camps and night vision technology goggles

 

Not one single official rescue mission has taken place in the Mediterranean since August 2018, and the journey to the UK to try and claim asylum has become increasingly dangerous. Consequently since 2015, the number of people dying as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean has dramatically increased nine-fold while the Channel witnessed its first ever refugee drownings from August to October this year in which four people have so far lost their lives. 

 

The fact that the UK and EU wish to diminish crossings – jeopardising lives in the process – is a serious cause for concern. Not only does it undermine basic humanitarian principles, but it has a drastic and terrifying impact on the lives of those who are merely exercising their international human right while traffickers gain even more margin to make profits since higher risks comes with a higher cost.

 

There are no planes to board when fleeing from a war-torn country. Slavery and torture victims similarly can’t flee easily, often escaping in a rush and out the backdoor to avoid unscrupulous officials. The decision to migrate is not one ever taken lightly and it is always in the hope of having a better qualify of life, to flee from human rights abuses and to raise children in a country free from violence. Asylum seekers are often leaving behind the only country they’ve ever known, including friends and family, and must travel for days – if not weeks – by foot, car, bus, train or however means necessary in their search for sanctuary. 

 

Refugees arrive in Britain via dinghies and lorries in the absence of legal alternatives – and they are only following protocol in doing so since asylum claims can only be filed once physically in the UK. What’s more is that international law protects asylum seekers from being penalised for illegally entering; the way someone makes their way to the UK in pursuit of asylum has no bearing on the outcome of their case for asylum.

 

39 Vietnamese and Chinese citizens have recently been found dead in a refrigerator trailer in Essex, serving as a timely and tragic reminder of what happens when asylum seekers are both forced to take the most dangerous routes and put their lives in the hands of smugglers. Tra My, a Vietnamese woman named by a human rights group as one of the victims, reportedly texted her parents: “So sorry mum and dad. The route to abroad didn’t succeed. Mum. I love you and dad so much. I am dying because I can’t breathe.” This is irrefutable proof that placing more barriers in front of people looking for safety and survival outside of systems of oppression and countries savaged by war or poverty can only lead to more death.

 

Such horrendous loss of life that is tallying up could have been avoided if the member states were truly committed to preservation. Instead, the Home Office sees fit to funnel millions into prevention, building barriers, walls and traps to ensure migrants can’t arrive into the UK – or at least can’t arrive while they’re still alive.

 

Vulnerable individuals should not have to risk their lives just to have their story heard in the UK – which is their right. The UK must do more to protect refugees by implementing safe passages. Setting up a safe route or allowing asylum seekers to claim in juxtaposed ports abroad would rapidly reduce the death toll and the trafficking trade. It would also come at a far cheaper cost than scattering dangerous obstacles. 

 

However, even if it were more expensive, there is surely no such higher priority than the preservation of life. Without serious revaluation into the UK asylum system and treatment of refugees, rigid immigration policies will continue to serve as a death sentence. 

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