Plans by the Government to remove loopholes allowing failed asylum seekers to remain in the UK could end up costing local authorities dear. Neil Hudson reports
While the terrible image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee who drowned after his boat capsized and whose limp, lifeless body was washed up a Turkish resort, may have stunned an entire continent out of habitual apathy, events since then have, arguably, made matters even worse.
While Europe flounders, its leaders torn between long held ideals and practical reality of what they entail, it has done nothing to stem the tide of immigrants and without doubt there will be more tragedies to come.
In the UK, the Government is pressing ahead with long-planned reforms of the asylum laws, effectively removing loopholes which are at present used by failed asylum seekers to continue to live here.
The planned changes - outlined last week by Home Secretary Theresa May - may please the hard right but one critic in Leeds argues they will merely shift the cost of looking after ‘failed’ asylum seekers from the Government onto local taxpayers.
Jon Beech, director of Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network (LASSN) said: “The bit of policy coming down the line is trying to cut support to people who are at the end of the asylum process. The council are really worried about this. It will make life objectively worse.
“If central Government remove that support, local authorities will be faced with looking after children under Section 17 of Local Government Act. They have a choice - either take the children away from their parents and into care or keep them with their parents. If they adopt a duty to them and their parents, this becomes a cost borne by local people.
“Putting children in danger in this way is a pretty brutal act. I would like to think that the Government would think again before they bring out the bill.”
Consultation on the bill ended in September and Leeds City Council said they too had “significant concerns”.
Executive member for communities Debra Coupar said: “Leeds City Council has taken part in the Home Office consultation on changes to the asylum system, and we have expressed our significant concerns about their effectiveness and the impact the proposed reforms would have in terms of increasing the burden on local authorities and charities as well as the risk of asylum seekers and their families falling into harmful situations. We hope our views and those given by other local authorities are fully considered when Parliament debates the Immigration Bill for the first time next month.”
Under Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (the 1999 Act), support is usually provided in the form of accommodation and a weekly cash allowance to cover the asylum seeker’s essential living needs.
As of 31 March 2015, the Government was providing section 95 support to an estimated 20,400 asylum seekers whose asylum claim had yet to be finally determined, including pending the outcome of an appeal, and who would otherwise be destitute.
In 2014-15, such support cost an estimated £100m.
According to a report to the Government: “The way in which the 1999 Act is framed has resulted in support also being provided to large numbers of failed asylum seekers. In particular, section 94(5) allows support to continue after the asylum claim has been finally determined if the asylum seeker has with them a dependent child.”
The report said that as of March this year, such support was being provided to 15,000 failed asylum seekers and their dependants, costing £73m.
It concludes: “This means that the system of support for which Parliament legislated in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to discharge our international obligations towards those seeking asylum in the UK is now being used in large measure to support those whose asylum claim has failed and who have established no lawful basis to remain in the UK.”
It goes on: “This is wrong in principle and sends entirely the wrong message to those migrants who do not require our protection… and also undermines public confidence.”
Jon Beech says the changes would essentially remove all financial support to anyone deemed to have had their application rejected and councils will still have obligations to look after children (and in most cases their parents) under both the Human Rights Act and the Children’s Act.
So, while the Government could then wash its hands of the problem, councils would suddenly find themselves footing the bill.
“Since the image of the child being washed up on the beach, you can see a very clear connection between those images and the swell of people who are concerned about this issue - it’s been happening for a long time.
“It has brought people’s focus to the Syria situation but the issue of migration and specifically is much much bigger. It’s not just about Syrian people in Leeds, it’s often about Eritrean people, people from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan.
“Most asylum seekers we see in Leeds are not allowed to work, they have to go where you are told. If you try to work, you are arrested and that’s a good reason to send you back.
“If you’ve been living in a squalid refugee camp for a couple of years, you might want to try somewhere safe. It’s a heck of a schlapp, it’s a long way and if there are no legal routes to make that journey...
“If we can start to have those conversations in the camps and say, come to our country and we will try to spend the money we spend on investigating things that went on five years ago half way round the world and instead we will buy you a house for a year and we want you to get a job…
“At the moment, we spend lots of money keeping people in limbo, where people cannot get a job, they cannot learn the language… they get here and we say, ‘No’.
“We are very good at teaching people how to be on the dole. People learn what we teach them. We say you cannot work, you have to live where we say, you have to rely on handouts from the state. When people get to the end of that process, any vim and vigour they had beforehand has been systematically drained from them.
Leeds City Council have been working for a long time to see how they can help. The asylum system is really complicated. They have been trying to negotiate with central Government to say we would like to be helpful to people in dire straits. They have set up a scheme - part way through and will come to end in October - whereby a number of people… getting support from a number of services to enable them to make a good life for themselves. Leeds City Council have been instrumental in making that happen and it costs nothing to the taxpayer locally, because they are already classed as refugees… the accommodation is paid for for a year, NHS and schooling… the idea is that people can then get a job and start to contribute with a view that they will be paying council tax and will be a benefit to Leeds.
Jon added: “We have to work out if building higher fences and putting people on gun turrets is what people want to see. If we ignore people travelling by sea, then people will die and children will wash up on the beaches. That’s just a fact.”