The Independent View: A fair, humane and effective asylum system can quite literally be an issue of life or death

Last week, people across the UK celebrated Refugee Week – a time to reflect on the contribution refugees make to their communities around the UK, and celebrating that refugees are welcomed and valued here.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of the UN Convention for Refugees next year, it is ever more important that the new government honour our proud tradition of offering shelter to those fleeing persecution in their own countries. It is clear that the main countries refugees have been fleeing from over the last ten years – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Eritrea – are countries where conflict and human rights abuses are abundant, and where democracy is more often that not absent.

Before the election, 219 of our current MPs, as well as David Cameron and Nick Clegg signed our election pledge to remember the importance of refugee protection. So far, the new government have done well to keep to this promise by vowing to end detention of children, and agreeing not to deport gay asylum seekers to countries where their lives will be under threat – things we and our partners have been campaigning to change for years.

Life for asylum seekers in the UK is tough, and there are so many simple things the government could do to make the asylum process more bearable, and to ensure people in genuine need of protection can receive it.

Under current policy, for example, when asylum seekers first arrive here and apply for asylum, they are not given adequate support or early legal advice to help them explain why they need protection here. This frequently leads to wrong decisions being made and people are forced into a lengthy appeals process. Statistics show that almost a third of these decisions are overturned at appeal – these people should in fact be given protection. Better supporting people through the initial process would not only ensure the right decisions were made first time, but would also be far more cost-effective for everyone.

On another note, asylum seekers are not allowed to work to support themselves, and so a shocking number of asylum seekers across the country are left destitute as a result. Allowing them to work and contribute, a policy the Liberal Democrats have previously supported, would not only allow asylum seekers to live in dignity while their claims are being decided but also to contribute to society – not only financially, but also with the skills so many of them have. And while asylum seekers cannot work, they should be given access to benefits in cash for the duration of their stay, not via vouchers or payment cards which are problematic and limiting to use, which would help thousands out of poverty.

These are asylum seekers living all over the UK, and in the constituencies of new MPs. We would urge MPs who may be coming across asylum policy for the first time to take a closer look at how it is affecting the lives of those in their constituencies, and how their lives could be improved through a few simple policy changes. These are people who have no voice and no representation, yet are among the most vulnerable in our society and most in need of their human rights being protected.

With a few simple changes like this, the new government could move further towards creating a fair, humane, and cost effective asylum system, with the welfare of refugees and asylum seekers at its heart.

As the Chancellor lifts his red briefcase for the first time this week, let’s hope he remembers the spirit of Refugee Week, and that the cuts he has warned he must make will not be to the detriment of the lives of so many in need of protection here. For these people a fair, humane and effective asylum system can quite literally be an issue of life or death.

Jonathan Ellis is Director of Policy and Development at the Refugee Council

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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