Refugee Council Chief Executive’s address to the HCLC AGM

Maurice Wren addressing HCLC AGM

On Monday 24th February 2014, Hackney Community Law Centre was delighted to have Maurice Wren address our Annual General Meeting as  its Guest Speaker.  Maurice (pictured above) is the Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, a leading UK charity working directly with refugees and asylum seekers and supporting them to rebuild their lives.  Maurice gave a stimulating and detailed talk of around 40 minutes, which was followed by a lively question and answer session.

Connection to Hackney

Maurice began his talk by informing the attendees of his close connection to Hackney.  He was a local Hackney resident and his children had attended Clapton Girls school.  His aunt had been a mid wife in Lower Clapton for over 30 years and it was claimed that she had delivered children in every road in Hackney!

Immigration and Asylum

Maurice then turned to the issue of the UK’s asylum policy.  The numbers of people given protection in the UK had shrunk and immigration had become an emblem for everything that’s wrong with the UK.  In recent years, the term ‘asylum seeker’ had become a form of abuse. The UK faced a number of challenges as a signatory to the Geneva Conventionmigration flows were on the increase all over the world as a result of a deepening of poverty and immigration around the world.  It was the 100th anniversary of the First World War but some things never change – the Syria fights over spheres of influence and the arms trade, for example, were having an impact on forced migration.  There appeared to be no political gain for articulating the case for liberalisation.  In Europe, the building of ‘Fortress Europe’ continued.  There was a real locus of injustice by being criminalised if  you tried to enter the UK.  Tons of money was being spent on Frontex.  Private contractors were now administering the asylum system, with Capita now also involved in reaching the determinations.

The UK Asylum System today

The UK’s asylum system had fewer resources and we were seeing economies of scale and short cutting.  There was a persuasive strand of thinking that an asylum applicant was lying rather than having a genuine protection need.  The quality of the Home Office’s decision-making was a cause for concern. The ring fencing of asylum cases appeared positive but many cases were dual cases and that meant that those people could not be helped. The introduction of a ‘residency test’ was another concern.  It was a “peculiar market” that didn’t allow the consumer to choose; when one organisation had used up their matter starts the client would have to go elsewhere.  Detention in the immigration system was a scandal.  It was punitive and unnecessary.  The Refugee Council would be campaigning hard on this in the future.

Opportunities

Asylum did, however, represent some of what’s good about the UK.  There remained a high level of of consensus among the general public – and by extension politically – that there should be some support for “genuine” refugees.  The City of Sanctuary campaign, for example, which included a ‘Welcome to Leeds‘ project was helping asylum seekers to lead fulfilling lives in the UK. There was a bigger appetite for using the law in a protective way – by, for example, mounting a challenge to the asylum seeker fast-track.  Asylum seekers needed to have access to good lawyers at the beginning of the witness making stage rather than at the appeals stage when it’s too late.  The Refugee Council was keen to be constructive and creative how how it challenged poor practice in the asylum system.  There was growing scrutiny of the system by Parliamentary select committees but political leadership in the area was needed.

Campaigning

We should not neglect campaigning and politics – there was a General Election campaign coming up in 2015.  There were two policies that had been implemented since the last general election which were positive – the first was ending the detention of families and children and the second was introducing a more liberal approach to asylum claims regarding sexuality. Even though the public discourse on immigration and asylum had been gloomy, a new statelessness recognition procedure had been introduced as a result of Refugee Council campaigning. Similarly, with regards to making the asylum system more gender sensitive, the police had changed how they deal with female victims of sexual violence.

There were two elements to the Refugee Council’s campaign strategy – picking fights they could win (as nothing bred confidence more than success) and spending more time on investing in relationships.  One of the strengths of the voluntary sector was that it was founded on a “bed of empathy”. That empathy was now needed to be used to try and understand the thinking of officials and decision-makers.  Nothing existed in a vacuum.  It was important to always look for connections and break out of silos. There was a big demo planned for March 22nd to celebrate UN Anti-Racism Day.  People should get out onto the streets and join in!

Syria

The Refugee Council had effected a complete reversal of Home Office policy regarding the resettlement of Syrian refugees.  It decided to focus on the Prime Minister, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.  Talking to the Home Office was a waste of time.  The Refugee Council got people to contact their Members of Parliament (MPs) and out of 650 MPs, 640 were contacted by at least one constituent.  A lot of peers and MPs were mobilised as a result.  The UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, has called for 100,000 resettlement places in 2015.  There needed to be a rethink on how we tackle some of these problems.