Wednesday, 2 February 2011

UK government takes axe to refugee and asylum services

By Paul Canning

Refugee and asylum seeker services are facing massive cuts in government funding. The three national Refugee Council's face a two-third cut in their funding, the speed and the size of which will "make it impossible to adapt services quickly enough to stop people falling through the gaps," said Refugee Council chief executive Donna Covey.
"Our clients will either not receive the help they need to accurately make their asylum applications – which means they will be wrongly returned to murderous regimes – or they will be trapped in a limboland of delays, during which they will often be forced into destitution," she said.

Other services also face the axe. From April, funding for advice services for newly arrived asylum seekers will be cut by two thirds, funding for initial accommodation services will be halved, and contracts for the Refugee Integration and Employment Services (RIES) will end completely from September.

This, said Covey, "means that for the first time in living memory there will be no UK government statutory funding to support refugees to integrate in the UK."

The Refugee Council's government funding has been cut by almost 62%. It will have to lose around one third of its 300 staff and close two of its seven centres to meet the cuts of 61.7%. Cuts to frontline services across England will begin "almost immediately" and be fully implemented in three months' time.

In Scotland, the One Stop Service, which offers advice to asylum seekers and refugees from the headquarters of the Scottish Refugee Council in Glasgow, will be cut by 62%, and the grant for their orientation and support services for people who have just arrived in the city will be halved.

The Welsh Refugee Council faces a 60% cut with its four drop-in advice centres for asylum seekers and refugees all under threat. They said:
"The numbers of asylum seekers and refugees in Wales are small and so many mainstream services are not used to working with them and specialist services are needed. About half of Welsh Refugee Council’s staff are refugees and they are able to provide a unique service. The proposed cuts come at a time of cuts across the voluntary sector so vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees will have fewer options for help from other organisations."

"In Wales it is difficult for asylum seekers to get access to the legal advice they need, WRC helps them to find lawyers and offers other forms of advice. Without this help, more will be without legal advice on their asylum claims."

"WRC’s offices run on a shoe-string with a lot of volunteers, every penny is needed, and every penny is well spent."
The Home Office has admitted that the agency which largely funds the services - UK Border Agency (UKBA) - is imposing significantly greater cuts on the service providers that it is facing itself
"Because the UKBA is not facing uniform cuts, some areas – including asylum – will be required to bear a greater proportion of cuts," the Home Office has acknowledged.

"But [it] will be having further discussions with its voluntary sector partners to ensure that asylum applicants and refugees most in need receive the assistance they need.".
Other threats include the slashing of legal aid budgets.

Writing after the comprehensive spending review announcement last year, the Refugee Council said of Chancellor Osborne's vague statement that "major reforms to the legal aid system involving taking tough choices about the types of case that should receive public funding, focusing support on those who need it most, and giving better value for the taxpayer":
Rather vague, but likely to affect asylum seekers. A government document leaked to the Times in August stated legal aid for asylum seekers seeking to judicially review negative decisions would be slashed. This part of the process has often proved an essential safeguard of people’s safety. And following the closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice [the biggest provider of legal aid to asylum seekers which closed after the government withheld payments due to it] earlier this year, this is yet another blow to those in need of legal advice.

Without being allowed to work, asylum seekers have no choice but to rely on publicly funded representation. Legal advice throughout the process is essential, and judging by the success rate of appeals (around 28% of decisions are overturned), legal advice is particularly crucial at that stage. The Ministry of Justice has already announced they will charge some asylum seekers for appeals (though not those on asylum support or getting legal aid) - suggesting a taste of what may be to come as the pressures grow on legal aid funding.
The IRR notes that the 'dispersal' policy whereby asylum seekers are sent out of the South-East to be housed in cities around the UK has polarised city councils, with some having their contracts terminated and others abdicating their responsibilities to house asylum seekers.

Glasgow and North-East England councils have clashed over government decisions to contract not with the city but with private agencies. UKBA has said that its intention is to "drive down the cost of asylum support."

Massive local government funding cuts will also impact, though different councils are making different decisions. In contrast to Glasgow, housing support for 410 refugees in Nottingham is going to disappear entirely.

IRR notes that despite clear evidence that dispersal policies had created fertile ground for racist violence and exploitation, decisions on ongoing contract procurement for housing "appeared to be underpinned more by financial considerations than the protection of those seeking safety in the UK."

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