이번 주, the home secretary, Priti Patel, has set out a reform of the UK’s asylum system. And she’s right, the system does need an overhaul – but in ways very different to those she sets out.
Under the changes, people who travel to the UK to claim asylum will be assessed on the basis of how they entered the country, with those who arrive by “illegal” means no longer having the same entitlements as those who arrive via legal routes.
In my work as a rabbi, I often support people who have recently arrived in this country. They may have reached the UK in ways the government describes as illegal, but people fleeing persecution don’t have the luxury of choosing how they get to what they hope will be a safe haven. “I saw lots of dead people on the way,” D told me, as we sat in my garden. “When we got to the sea, the boat began to drift. You think you’re going to drown. You entrust yourself to God.” The proposed reforms lack compassion for the journey so many refugees have faced.
Equally wrong is the threat to reassess at any time the status of asylum seekers who arrived by “illegal” routes even after their claim for asylum has been approved. The vast majority of refugees are seeking security so they may re-establish their lives and build a future. Their path is already strewn with administrative obstacles and delays in the processing of applications and appeals, and the proposed reforms would only exacerbate their insecurity.
Z was tortured in Iran because he belongs to a persecuted minority. Despite the testimony of a senior psychiatrist, his claim was rejected. Now he’s waiting for the Home Office to respond to his appeal. “When will I hear?” he asks me anxiously, whenever I take him some hot food. His friend, also a refugee from Iran, regularly texts me his concern. They know all about the “hostile environment”.
Almost every asylum seeker I’ve come to know personally has been beset by similar fears. When will I know? What if I’m rejected? What if I’m suddenly detained? Will I be dispersed to somewhere no one knows me and will help me? They have undergone a range of suffering beyond not only my experience but my imagination: indefinite separation from loved ones, seeing family killed, watching children die of thirst and hunger on the long and wretched trek to reach a country where they could claim asylum.
Added to these experiences, which haunt not just their past but their present, is a further form of mental cruelty: being trapped in an indefinite limbo between the torture of the past and the torment of being unable to work, earn, build a future and live with the dignity due to every human being.
“People just give up. One man carried out two suicide attempts within days,” a young man who’d been lucky enough to be freed from a detention centre told me. “Other people just don’t understand what’s being done to them or why. They just despair.”
I do not write this as an expert or as the spokesperson of a refugee organisation. I’m a leader in the Jewish community, a faith rooted in the Bible, which repeatedly teaches us to care for refugees because “you have known the soul of the stranger”.
I’m also the child of two refugee parents. I grew up hearing the stories of my family’s near despair at being unable to escape Nazi Europe until almost the last moment. My father and mother both stressed their indebtedness to Britain, a country they experienced as deeply hospitable. I wonder what they would think of these proposed policies now?
On Saturday night the Jewish community will celebrate Passover, the festival of freedom that marks our deliverance from slavery to liberation. It’s a journey that many fleeing war and persecution today are travelling in misery and desperation. They need not our condemnation but our compassion.