Last week’s front pages were awash with one image. It was the heart-breaking image of a child who had drowned at sea as his family sought refuge from violence in the Middle East. On Friday, David Cameron announced that Britain will provide refuge for thousands of Syrian refugees, fulfilling our ‘moral obligation’. This was a marked change from Wednesday, when the Prime Minister asserted that Britain would not accept “more and more” migrants. On this issue, it appears as though the Prime Minister’s moral compass has blown in the direction of public opinion. It should not take an image of a dead child to do what is and always has been right. This story of mass suffering is clearly a tragic story, but it has been tragic for many months now. I merely hope that this axis-shifting week can finally lead to a sensible and civilised discussion about our role in this humanitarian crisis.
Recently, I have been despondent with the language used in relation to immigration and asylum seekers in the UK. The image portrayed by the media and politicians is destructive. This is evident from the top down. Our Prime Minister remarked on the “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean”. His Foreign Secretary labelled migrants as “marauding”, and the Daily Mail weighed in, arguing that “this tidal wave of migrants could be the biggest threat to Europe since the war”. This language is clearly divisive.
I would like to define four terms that I believe have been used interchangeably, with dangerous consequences; asylum seeker, refugee, economic migrant, and rejected asylum seeker. Asylum seekers are people who have escaped from their homeland for fear of their individual safety, or their family’s safety. Asylum seekers are legally entitled to stay in Britain while the relevant authorities process their claims. They are provided with housing and a small sum of money. Single persons are entitled to £36.95 per week. A single parent with one child receives £73.90. These amounts were recently reduced by the government. Furthermore, asylum seekers are not permitted to work whilst their claim is being processed; this can take up to six months.
Refugees are individuals who have had their claim for asylum accepted. The authorities have deemed that these people would be at risk if they were forced to return to their home country. They are thus permitted to stay in Britain indefinitely, to work and live. In contrast, a rejected asylum seeker is someone whose application has been turned down. Unless they can successfully appeal, these individuals are required to return to their home country. In Britain, 59% of asylum applications are rejected.
Crucially, economic migrants are those who have applied to live and work in Britain without any humanitarian necessity to do so. For example, as a member state of the EU, Britain agrees to the principle of freedom of movement within the Union. This policy allows individuals to move from one member state to another with minimal restrictions. Economic migrants are confused, often intentionally (by the tabloid press), with those who seek refuge because their lives are endangered.
In the past year, more than half of the world’s asylum seekers have fled five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. Of the 50 million people forced to flee their homes last year, and of the 13 million recognised refugees in the world, 126,000 live in Britain; or 0.19% of the British population. There were over 36,000 pending cases in 2014, according to the UNHCR.
Britain needs to act with compassion in the global arena. If even one more death can be prevented through our actions, we should seek to prevent it. Asylum seekers should be perceived and treated as human beings. Most Britons have never feared for their lives, and we shouldn’t have to. But neither should those who are drowning in the Mediterranean, pursuing the desperate hope of living a normal life.
Of course, more has to be done to stabilise the regions where these asylum seekers originate. However, this requires a complex, long-term strategy involving multiple international actors. In the meantime, we can’t shirk this burgeoning problem.
I want to live in a country that represents the politics of civility, decency, and compassion. I want to live in a country that treats asylum seekers as human beings and acts with moral authority. I want to live in a country that does not neglect problems until they become too overwhelming to ignore. Currently, and ashamedly so, Britain is not that country. We should all contribute to help Britain become that country.