Divisive spin and scandalous neglect: this government’s approach to refugees

We welcome this statement from Leicester City Mayor & Executive:

23.9.2020: Divisive spin and scandalous neglect: this government’s approach to refugees

Leicester is a city that has been shaped by our recent history of providing refuge for people fleeing from war, conflict and oppression. Our city comprises many, many thousands and many generations for whom this plight and flight was a real, lived trauma. People who had to flee immediate jeopardy and make sudden, rapid life changing acts of survival. People who sought refuge and found a home in Leicester.

We have developed a civic identity where such compassion represents a core value, an absolute fundamental to how we relate to the world as a city. Since the mid-1990s we have volunteered to be a local authority that participates in the UK Government’s Refugee and Asylum Seeker Resettlement scheme – currently Leicester is second only to London in England as to where refugee and asylum seekers are settled.Since 2007 Leicester has been part of the national City of Sanctuary Network.More recently Leicester City Council supported the Still Human Still Here (2014) and Lift the Ban (2020) campaigns through council motions.As local leaders, we are deeply concerned that these values are not shared by the current government and as such our ability to maintain our proud record of providing refuge is being severely undermined.

At best, we are having to navigate our way through ill-conceived and inadequately funded national policies. At worst, we are having to battle with a dangerously divisive government who view the refugee crisis as a political opportunity to exploit and an international responsibility to duck.

It has long been clear – whether it is Brexit, Blacks Lives Matter or the refugee crisis – that a divisive, nationalist ‘us and them’ political environment is one which serves this government’s political prospects well. As such it’d be naïve to think there is any hope that they’ll put away their dog whistle any time soon.

The result is that we have a Home Secretary chasing overcrowded boats across the English Channel but who then routinely, and away from the glare of a stage-managed photo opportunity, runs from our duty of care, enshrined in international law.

Meanwhile, and not untypically, the reality goes unseen and unheard, obscured from view by this government’s favourite recourse for ducking its’ responsibilities: it has contracted out its’ duty of care to private providers.

As such, thousands of refugee and asylum seekers remain in a stateless, homeless  void – deprived of access to health care, education and decent housing with cooking and private cleaning facilities.

There is currently about 1000 people who live in Leicester who have been officially granted refugee or asylum seeker status. All are housed, all have access to health care, all children have school places and there are a number of brilliant groups, charities and council services who offer further support. There is no point trying to dress up too much though – they do not have the right to work or to receive the same levels of welfare support.

Many live in severe poverty.

The most pressing concern is the need to support those awaiting a decision about their status. We are aware of almost 180 people (from a total of around 7000 nationally) who are currently being accommodated in hotels in Leicester, awaiting such a decision and a potential resettlement.

We are not told who is staying in these hotels. We are just given numbers after the fact: as are the local NHS.  180 people are living in Leicester who do not have access to re-housing options, education, sometimes even private cleaning or cooking facilities. They also have no clear timetable or pathway to their future, in the UK or elsewhere.

This holding solution, apparently designed to only last for a very short time has been allowed to take root and has now lasted many months. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown were initially given as reasons for delay, but the trend began before March 2020 and we fear is now being used as an excuse to maintain this cruel practice. 

Our concerns don’t end there.  Thankfully, there is access in Leicester to some health care, but we remain unsure that about adequate access to the mental health support many of the 180 will understandably and undoubtedly need. We have grave concerns for the mental health of these refugees and asylum seekers in our city, yet we are not able to reach out to them.

And nor are we alone in our concerns.  The Home Affairs Select Committee has published a report on institutional accommodation for people seeking asylum, as part of its inquiry into the Home Office’s response to Covid. The report raises serious concerns regarding long stays in hotel accommodation. The Refugee Council similarly are ‘deeply concerned’ about the damaging impact of this practice on refugee and asylum seekers.

Until we have received assurances that this ‘holding’ practice is stopped and other policies changed (i.e., more local authorities are compelled show similar compassion to ourselves) we have asked that our status as a resettlement local authority is paused.

Leicester does not want to be a host to this inhumane practice while we remain unsure there is any government commitment to ending it or improving the living conditions of those forced to endure it.

We make this request knowing it will likely go unheard. There are plans to accommodate more refugees and asylum awaiting a status decision and resettlement decision in hotels in Leicester. Whilst there is nothing we can do to prevent this – we feel compelled to make this clear that this is “not in our name”.

Practically, we will continue to do whatever we can to support refugees and asylum seekers who have been resettled in Leicester and fight for the rights of those being held in Leicester who have yet to be granted status or a resettlement package.

The government may wish that people seeking refuge here would just go away, but we know that in the coming years people will continue to seek refuge and sanctuary in the UK. For instance, climate change is recognised by the UN as a threat multiplier; something which is producing the conditions for famine, flooding and conflict and inevitably the migration of people. People we need to be prepared to support as we have in the past.

Politically, we urge you to support calls for all refugees and asylum seekers be granted the leave to remain in the UK. We know that this is almost certainly a futile ask of this government but we believe Labour in Leicester should be leading this call and maybe one day under another government, we will be heard.

This would mean that people seeking and those granted refuge from war, conflict and oppression will have protection from the kind of worker exploitation we are working so hard to eradicate in Leicester and of course access to the core human right to housing, work, education and healthcare.

The right basically to the kind of life anyone in the UK would reasonably expect. The opportunity to contribute to where they live and receive the rights and freedoms we offer in return.

A life we want to offer here in Leicester.

Peter Soulsby, 
City Mayor 
Cllr Adam Clarke Deputy City Mayor
Cllr Piara Singh Clair Deputy City Mayor
Cllr Sarah Russell Deputy City Mayor
Cllr Danny Myers  Assistant City Mayor
Cllr Elly Cutkelvin Assistant City Mayor
Cllr Kirk Master Assistant City Mayor
Cllr Rita Patel Assistant City Mayor
Cllr Sue Hunter Assistant City Mayor
Cllr Vi Dempster Assistant City Mayor