go to top

Britain's Asylum Problem

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

GLASGOW, Scotland - The British government has recently been accused by a parliamentary report of deliberately making asylum seekers destitute in an effort to push them out of the country or prevent them from entering in the first place.

The March report by British Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights called the government's treatment of asylum seekers inhumane and degrading. The government's policies of refusing asylum seekers permission to work, coupled with an overly complex support system, mean vulnerable people are ended up on Britain's streets with no income and completely reliant on charity, according to the report, made public just days after the death of a Nepali asylum seeker who set himself on fire in protest of his treatment.

Andrew Dismore, the Labour Party Member of Parliament who chairs the Joint Committee on Human Rights, said asylum seekers don't attract much sympathy in the United Kingdom and aren't treated with common decency.

Dismore dismissed popular perceptions that asylum seekers receive benefits to which they're not entitled, and criticized the tabloid press for skewing the facts. "Many people don't get what they are entitled to which is in fact very little, contrary to what the tabloid press would have you believe," he said.

The report, meanwhile, expressed particular concern over the treatment of children, citing dawn raids by immigration officers to detain families, and the locking up of child asylum seekers for long periods in detention centers.

"Vulnerable to Exploitation"

Britain previously had a strong record of welcoming asylum seekers, but Office of National Statistics figures show that in 2005, asylum seekers and their families made up only 11,000 of the United Kingdom's total 565,000 immigrants -- the lowest level since 1991. Many of the current asylum seekers are from countries such as Iraq, Iran, China and Zimbabwe.

A spokeswoman for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), a group that provided evidence for last month's report, cited public misconceptions about immigrants, and stressed that asylum seekers cannot claim full benefits or work legally in Britain. "They are not here for an easy ride and many immigrants are vulnerable to exploitation and live a precarious existence ... We don't lay the blame for whipping up immigrant hate at the door of the popular press, rather it's at the door of politicians from all parties," she said, adding members of parliament could provide leadership by shedding light on the truth about immigration.

In response to the report, the British Home Office, which oversees the police, justice, national security and immigration across the United Kingdom, said it will study the conclusions and recommendations of the report, but added: "We simply do not think that it is right that those without any right to be in the UK should be given the right to work or access other services."

"Invisible" Population

The Human Rights Committee's report followed a recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, which the government's asylum policy a scandal and warned there could be an "invisible" population of as many as half a million failed asylum seekers in Britain. The Trust said most asylum seekers were homeless and hungry and suffering "grave" social and health problems.

Evidence from a survey by the Trust of more than 100 refused asylum seekers and refugees in the city of Leeds found that one in four had slept rough and a third had been living hand-to-mouth for more than 12 months. Cases cited in Leeds included a pregnant woman sleeping rough in a telephone box, a pensioner denied surgery to prevent blindness and women refused chemotherapy for cancer.

Nepali Burns Self in Protest

In March, Nepali asylum seeker Udhav Bhandari, set himself on fire after being refused permission to stay in the United Kingdom. Bhandari, 40, died in hospital in Glasgow 11 days after pouring petrol on himself at an asylum and immigration tribunal.

A former Nepalese policeman, Bhandari claimed he was terrified of being sent back to Nepal, where colleagues had turned against him for exposing police corruption and he claimed to have received death threats.

He had been forced out of the police service and became a journalist, but then inflamed authorities by accusing one of Nepal's famous actresses of being a prostitute, claiming that her clients included Nepal's crown prince and several politicians. Actress Shreesha Karki hanged herself to death following Bhandari's reporting in a Nepalese newspaper.

Bhandari smuggled petrol into the tribunal building and set himself on fire, suffering serious burns. He had come to Britain six years ago and had his asylum claim refused in
June 2002. He had been contesting that decision, which the Court of Session decided was legally flawed.

Billy Briggs is a freelance journalist and occasional World Politics Review contributor based in the United Kingdom.

MORE WORLD POLITICS REVIEW