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.