Since David Cameron announced that Syrian women and children would account for the majority of the 20,000 refugees to be admitted to the UK, over five years, for resettlement, I have expressed sombre alarm. The reason is straightforward and incontrovertibly valid.
This grave concern has not been adequately articulated by many elements of the mainstream media. Jennifer Saul has proffered an informed, and very eloquent, effort for the New Statesman, which succinctly delineates the dangers inherent in Cameron’s prioritising of women and children, in tandem with the insidious attitude toward Muslim foreigners that underpins it.
The experience of those granted asylum in the UK has been a mixed bag of fortune to say the least. On the one hand, many with asylum status in the UK have – through their talent, perseverance and ingenuity – been reborn with a stable and secure life in their adoptive home; a life rich in happiness, self worth and payment of taxes (to satisfy the any UKIP readers of this piece).
When these success stories occur, they do so in spite of state ‘support’, or lack thereof, rather than in conjunction with it. For example, in 2010 the British Medical Association’s ‘Refugee Doctors Database’ listed 1,297 UK asylum seeking and refugee doctors. Since it was shown, back in 2004, that a tiny percentage of these medically-trained refugees were in NHS employment, initiatives, such as Rose, have been brought in to retrain and assist refugee medical professionals, so that they can be absorbed into the NHS.
Currently, there are over 1200 doctors from refugee backgrounds in the UK. The government still has a long way to go in assimilating these individuals into the UK Health Service. According to the above report, only 15% (fewer than 200) of the refugee doctors living in the UK have been placed in a healthcare role. This represents a stark shortcoming in government policy, but where there has been success for those 200 who are engaged in the practice of medicine, their value is inestimable to a struggling NHS. And the NHS has provided a new lease of life for those 15% who can now support themselves, and their family, and enjoy the full rights and freedoms of a UK citizen.
The profligacy of the governments over the past 10+ years is impossible to overstate, especially when the asylum system in the UK quite often impedes access to employment for extended lengths of time. The UK asylum process is one that will only lead to a loss of confidence and ‘deskilling’ of many specially-trained asylum professionals, like those with life-saving skills mentioned above. There is no excuse for the government’s continued inertia, not when:
- The cost of retraining a refugee doctor (£25,000) is, approximately, one-fifth of the cost of training an adult in the UK from day one of medical school (£250,000). So it is cost-effective.
2. The need for trained medical professionals has never been higher with an ageing population and a Health Service bursting at the seams. With over 1000 refugee doctors frozen out from access into the NHS, it is time to empower local government to remedy the inaction and impediments surrounding this issue.
3. There is an opportunity to facilitate a rewarding integration process that will see asylum families achieve economic independence, together with a restoration of pride and dignity, and an increase in revenue to the Treasury.
The UK asylum system is fragmented and has been failing for some time. However, Scotland has shown signs of moving in the right direction with respect to those Syrians who are medically-trained refugees. However, nowhere does the system fail more than in its weak and inadequate support for women and children.
Financial support and accommodation provision for asylum seekers underwent some regressive changes last month and – like with the regressive tax credit cuts – those who are single parents (overwhelmingly women) and those families with children will be hit hardest.
Firstly, the changes have seen a significant reduction in asylum cash support, which is down to just £36.95 per person per week. If asylum is granted, then individuals are permitted to seek employment and access public services, including welfare. But the refugees are left uninformed of their rights, entitlements, and how they claim. During the period before a decision is made the government offers additional financial support to pregnant women, and those women who have a child under the age of three. This equates to £3 and £5 per week, respectively. Which is a pathetic token which offers little-to-no advantage on top of the standard weekly payment. Not when pregnant women and young children are particularly in need of good quality sustenance to ensure a healthy gestation and a advantageous start to a child’s life.
Prior to the allocation of permanent accommodation, refugees are housed in hostel-style accommodation (or ‘initial accommodation’) for an indeterminate ‘short-term basis’. This temporary living situation is normally the point when refugees make their applications for financial assistance, and they will often be moved into a permanent accommodation that is far from where they are initially situated. This unstable and itinerant beginning to a new life can often be very stressful and disorienting. Considering the physical and mental trauma that many refugees have suffered in their home countries before arriving in the UK, the UK asylum process is wholly insensitive to the well-being of asylum seekers. It is shown to be harmful to the psychological state of lone women and their children, but particularly distressing for pregnant women, as a joint report by the Refugee Council and Maternity found.
Permanent accommodation is decided on a ‘no choice’ policy foundation that actively exempts London and the South East from the duty of housing refugees. Housing is made available by ‘private providers contracted to provide the services on behalf of the Home Office’. The accommodation offered, therefore, is, unsurprisingly, hard to let properties in undesirable and run down urban areas that usually suffer from higher than average levels of unemployment and experience social tensions as a result. Already it is an intimidating, low prospect atmosphere for a refugee woman, with the £36 – graciously provided by the state – in her back pocket, and her children to survive in.
The government offers little additional support outside the meagre initial financial assistance, provided while a decision is being made on their application, that equates to less than half the amount of mainstream benefits that many UK citizens struggle to live on. (900,000 using food banks). Furthermore, with councils having to adapt and find efficiency savings following stringent cuts to their budgets, local authorities are mercilessly placed in an untenable position to try and sufficiently integrate asylum seekers into the community. The redirection of foreign aid money to local government to help settle the refugees will be of little consequence if it is only made available for the planned 12 months.
There is currently little assistance given to help refugee women access the labour market, improve their English language skills, or become better informed regarding their entitlements to healthcare, welfare and other public services. This isolation is not only stressful and frightening, but it is severely detrimental to the well-being of children as well as the women. A Children’s Society report found that roughly 10,000 refugee children were living well below the poverty line as a result of the state’s inadequate support, both financially and in terms of providing information and actively integrating new arrivals into their host communities.
The situation is compounded by two factors: one is the racial abuse that is often endured by asylum seekers, especially children in schools, and the disregard people in the communities have for their welfare and status. As I mentioned above, most refugees are housed in neglected urban areas that already suffer a lack of social cohesion and a high degree of popular resentment toward outsiders who are seen as a threat to their current standard of living; a widespread belief that is eagerly fomented by right wing demagogues who find support in such deprived areas.
Secondly, it has emerged that David Cameron wants to prioritise, specifically, disabled children, which places their mothers in an untenable position when it comes to trying to maintain their child’s full-time care needs while attempting to enter the labour market. The government is taking financial and social support AWAY from its own native disabled population, plunging them into further poverty and, increasingly, into a declining state of mental health as a result. So what hope does a Syrian refugee mother have of securing the required support for her disabled child? Many Britons have been forced to quit their jobs in order to care for severely disabled dependents due to budget cuts and inadequacies in home care and support provision. This places them into an economic hole from which they struggle to escape, as they rely on ever decreasing benefits to survive and care for their families. The situation will be much worse for a refugee who has no knowledge of her rights and entitlements and no way of sufficiently accessing any assistance that can be provided.
A 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into the Asylum Support given to children and young people found that the asylum system in the UK is in desperate need of reform “if it is to have regard to the safety and well-being of children and meet its obligations to promote children’s best interests.” Shocking revelations in the report revealed instances where children were “left destitute and homeless, entirely without institutional support”. They became reliant on food parcels and charitable donations to survive. In some cases children made up to 20% of the the local destitute population.
The report also found that state financial support to a refugee family was not enough to meet children’s ‘essential living needs’. The financial aid does not take into account children’s needs to learn and develop, nor does it offer additional support for those families with a disabled child. Their education is, also, often disrupted by continued changes of accommodation.
David Cameron’s plan to take in 20,000, mainly women and children, refugees from the camps of the neighbouring countries surrounding Syria flies in the face of all the evidence regarding the particular vulnerability of women and children who arrive in the UK, cut off from their traditional support network of a husband, elder son or other male relative. The refugees in the camps of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt are not all of the educated middle class that we see wandering the terrain of Europe. They are less likely to speak English, especially the women, or have relatives and contacts in Europe to help their transition into life as a settled refugee.
Women and children from the camps in the Middle East will have to endure a likely very intimidating situation in the UK, where they will have little to know knowledge of how things work in the country, or of their rights and entitlements, due to the failings in the present asylum system. For a woman, who is already a sole full-time caregiver, it will be a momentous battle to achieve the skills (i.e. English as a spoken language), if she does not already possess them; the knowledge and confidence to enable her to achieve economic independence and escape a quick downward spiral into poverty, grief and mental health issues that a dilapidated and underfunded UK asylum process manages to expedite.
It is, therefore, paramount that coordinated plans are put in place to take in complete families (where possible), with a male and female head, in order to maintain the traditional support systems of many Syrian households. It is also crucial that the councils concerned been continuously endowed with extra funding, beyond the 12 month period currently outlined, to help resettle refugees. Networks of financial and informational support should be made available until decisions on individual asylum application are final, and an adult member of a family is engaged in work. From then on, councils and local institutions should remain on hand to provide any assistance, that may be required of them, relating to the rights and entitlements of the refugees in their care. It is essential to their continued integration that refugees are supplied with local knowledge and given local government support to engage in the community and take an active role in civil society.