COVID & Asylum – 24th November

Our fortnightly summary of ongoing advocacy initiatives, interesting surveys and research, government developments and useful resources. Contact us if you’d like to get this update directly into your inbox!

1. Ongoing advocacy initiatives

Lift the Ban: Westminster Hall debate

Last week MPs from across the UK and across the political spectrum pressed the Government on the need for reform to allow people seeking asylum to work.

At a Westminster Hall debate in the House of Commons, secured by Labour MP Neil Coyle, MPs raised the many compelling economic and moral arguments to lift the ban. You can read the transcript of the debate; or view the footage of the debate in full; or this tweet captures some of the highlights.

Disappointingly, Minister for Immigration Compliance Chris Philp repeatedly fell back on claims of the risk of a “pull factor” if the right to work rules were changed. The minister said he would report to the House on the Home Office’s review of its policy on the right to work, which has been ongoing for almost two years, “as soon as we’re able to complete it.”

Earlier in the day, Conservative MP David Simmonds published an op-ed in The Times setting out his support for reform; while the Lift The Ban coalition published a new campaign animation, which within 24 hours of launch had received over 135,000 views.

Subsequently, Refugee Action has shared a series of ‘fact-check’ tweets on statements made by the minister during the debate; and the Lift The Ban coalition has shared a new video highlighting findings from new opinion polling in the 35 most marginal Conservative-held seats, showing strong public backing for reform.

Meanwhile, the Metro published Ghadaq’s story – a fully qualified doctor from Iraq banned from working in the NHS as she awaits a decision on her asylum claim, despite a “catastrophic shortage” of hospital doctors.

Pressure builds on the Home Office to shut down MoD sites being used as asylum accommodation

Residents, advocates and politicians have continued to raise concerns about the suitability of Napier and Penally barracks to house people seeking asylum. Residents have organised protests within Penally camp, describing the camp as “very old and dilapidated, and not intended for asylum seekers and refugees.” A local health board has also released a series of papers outlining key issues logged with the MoD site at Penally, and a FOI release has revealed correspondence between the Welsh Government and the UK Government about the site. Over the weekend, there have been news reports of rising tensions in Napier and of volunteers being asked to sign non-disclosure agreements when supporting people seeking asylum in the sites.

On the 18th November, the Senedd debated a motion submitted by Helen Mary Jones (the Member for Mid and West Wales) which proposed that the Senedd:

  • Believes that the UK Government should have held discussions with the Welsh Government and local representatives before housing asylum seekers at the Penally military base, near Tenby;
  • Believes that the decision should be reconsidered because it is an unsuitable place for asylum seekers, as it is isolated from appropriate support networks;
  • Condemns the violent protests organised by far-right groups from outside Pembrokeshire;
  • Praises local residents and volunteers from across Wales who have welcomed and support the asylum seekers.

The motion passed with 39 voting in favour, 15 abstaining, and 1 voting against.

Hope not Hate launch ‘Respond’ project 

Following an increase in far-right activity around immigration and asylum issues, Hope Not Hate are launching a new project to help equip the sector to understand and mitigate the threat of the far-right. To sign up for updates from the project, click here. Hope Not Hate have also created an online form where partners can submit and share intelligence.

Destitution: Evictions for people who have been refused asylum remain paused 

As we reported in our previous update, following the lockdown in England and ongoing legal action, the Home Office has paused evictions from asylum accommodation for people who have been refused asylum.

The Home Office have still not provided a public confirmation of their policy position in relation to evictions during lockdown. A written question from Neil Coyle MP on this subject was due for answer on the 4th November, and to date remains unanswered. David Linden MP’s question in the House of Commons on the subject was also left unanswered.

It is our understanding that people who have been granted refugee status are still expected to move on from asylum accommodation within the 28 day period, and there is no pause on evictions for people in this situation.

In other news, the Independent and The Guardian reported that the Home Office did not consult local councils on its decision to restart evictions for people who have been refused asylum. This longer piece from the Guardian features our colleagues NACCOM, and outlines the impact of evictions in the middle of a pandemic.

2. Research and reports

Public Accounts Committee publishes report into accommodation and support contracts (AASC & AIRE) 

The Public Accounts Committee has published its report into the asylum accommodation and support transformation programme, following the report of the National Audit Office in July this year. The report concluded that:

  • it was unacceptable that the Home Office failed to consult key stakeholders on the location of contingency accommodation;
  • that the Department’s failure to prepare effectively for the new AIRE and AASC service meant it has yet to deliver what was promised;
  • that the Home Office had not yet demonstrated that it was getting value for money and that a lack of transparency on service performance was hindering engagement;
  • It also found that the Home Office had failed to ensure the safety and security of some of the vulnerable people who use asylum accommodation and support services.
  • It recommended that the Home Office set out a clear plan within three months for how it will quickly and safely reduce the use of hotels and ensure that asylum seekers’ accommodation meets their individual needs.

Once again thanks to everyone who provided evidence to go before the National Audit Office and subsequently the report ‘Wake Up Call’ on the AIRE and AASC transition, which has in turn fed into a strong Public Accounts Committee report with clear, welcome and robust recommendations.

ICIBI publishes new reports
The ICIBI has published new reports on refugee resettlement, the Home Office’s use of language services in the asylum process, and on the Home Office’s response to lorry drops. News coverage of the report on lorry drops can be found here, whilst Pink News covered concerns that “interpreter bias” has a large impact on applications made by LGBT+ asylum claimants.
RAS Voice survey on quality of interpreters

RAS Voice is a UK advocacy group made up of refugees and people seeking asylum. They are investigating the quality of interpreters during Home Office interviews and would love to hear your experiences. They are particularly interested in the impact of the Covid pandemic on interviewing. All your comments will be anonymous and you can answer whichever questions you feel comfortable answering. They really appreciate your contribution and hope to launch a campaign to improve the quality of interpreting.

Click here to complete their survey!

HASC inquiry into Channel crossings, migration and asylum seeking routes through the EU

Last week the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) heard evidence on channel crossing, seeking international perspectives from an Australian lawyer and Director General of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration. You can watch/read here, or see a twitter thread summary here. The comments from the Australian lawyer criticising offshore processing made the headlines in The Mirror.

The Committee held another evidence session with legal and policy experts in international law and migration, considering what the UK’s international and legal obligations to asylum-seekers and refugees are.

Red Cross releases new report on family reunion 

The British Red Cross has released a new report about family reunion, after speaking with 100 families about their experiences. The report found that:

  • 49% of families faced significant barriers and protection concerns due to the current procedural requirements.
  • Around 90% of all families granted a visa in the past 10 years have been adult women (33%) and children (58%).
  • Almost 60% of families reported as being displaced before and/or during the application process.
  • Associated costs, danger and distance of travel to the visa application centre were the main challenges faced by families.
  • The level of difficulty faced was impacted by personal and environmental factors such as gender, age, displacement and legal status of the family, finances, stability of the country and the nature of the border crossing.
  • 44% of families had to cross at least one border. Of those, over 60% were families travelling with children.
  • 17% resorted to using smugglers to cross borders.

You can read the report in full here.

3. Home Office and Government Developments 

Government responds to Home Affairs Select Committee Report on Institutional Accommodation 
The Government has produced a response to the HASC’s report on Institutional Accommodation published in the summer. Asylum Matters submitted evidence on behalf of partners to the HASC prior to oral evidence sessions with accommodation providers in May 2020. You can read the government’s response to HASC’s recommendations here.
Reporting continues despite second lockdown

Despite the second lockdown in England, the Home Office has confirmed that it will continue to maintain physical reporting for some people subject to immigration control. The new Coronavirus Health regulations exempts travel to “fulfill legal obligation, including attending court or satisfying bail conditions” and access “asylum and immigration service and interview” from restrictions. Whilst this is not a return to business as usual, and not everyone subject to immigration control will be expected to report, this has resulted in people seeking asylum being forced to travel miles on public transport to reporting centres. 

Migrants Organise have published a helpful update on their website that covers the impact of in-person reporting, what people can do if you are expected to report, and ideas on how to take action. Campaigners in Yorkshire and allies have also written to the Home Secretary calling for her to immediately suspend all immigration bail reporting conditions.

Legal challenge on screening interviews 

A recent High Court case has ruled that the Government has not been following its own anti-trafficking policy during the pandemic when omitting certain questions from the screening interview. Claimants in the case brought by Duncan Lewis said they had not been asked specific questions about their journey to the UK during their screening interview, before being placed in immigration detention and threatened with removal. Only after engaging lawyers, they were identified as victims of trafficking and their removals were halted.

The judge ordered that all asylum screening interviews must ask people to outline their journey to the UK. The case will be then heard in full in December. An easy read summary of the case can be found on The Guardian, as well as a more detailed piece on Free Movement.

4. Reports, events, jobs and training


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