Hidden Lives New Beginnings Debate – 30th May 2017

Motion S5M-05802: Christina McKelvie MSP

“That the Parliament recognises that destitution has a detrimental impact on people, affecting their mental health, their ability to access health care, and also increases their risk of exploitation and abuse; thanks those who shared their personal experience of being destitute with the Equalities and Human Rights Committee; notes that destitution can also impact on families, communities and on the provision of support from non-governmental organisations and public authorities, and notes the findings and recommendations of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s 3rd Report 2017 (Session 5), Hidden Lives New Beginnings: Destitution, asylum and insecure immigration status in Scotland (SP Paper 147).”

(From 50:22)

I welcome the opportunity to debate the report from the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, “Hidden Lives—New Beginnings: Destitution, asylum and insecure immigration status in Scotland”.

I thank the committee’s clerking team for their help and effort during the evidence sessions, and for bringing the report to its final conclusion. I also thank all the organisations and individuals who submitted evidence, or came before the committee to give evidence. However, I stress my disappointment at the lack of engagement by the UK Government, which refused to contribute any evidence, either in person or by video conference.

Since January, the committee has worked hard to understand the challenges that are faced by asylum seekers and refugees, and what the Scottish Government, the UK Government, local authorities and the third sector can do to effectively tackle the risk of destitution for each and every person fleeing persecution and seeking a safer and fairer life here in Scotland.

Scotland has a proud history of inclusivity and our approach to helping asylum seekers and refugees to integrate into mainstream society has been praised by the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee of the National Assembly of Wales. That is in stark contrast to the approach being taken by the UK Government. Evidence received by the committee showed that destitution is built into its harmful process, which creates a two-tier system of protection, forces far too many people into hardship, and has a detrimental impact on their integration into our communities. Individuals who have fled from dreadful circumstances find themselves trapped in destitution and homelessness, often for years, as a direct result of the asylum process.

The system places on claimants unfair stresses and constraints that impact on the whole of our society. We need a more inclusive and fairer approach to the assessment process. Andrew Morrison from COSLA summed up that view when he stated that destitution is

“an inevitable consequence of the United Kingdom immigration system” —[Official Report, Equalities and Human Rights Committee, 23 March 2017; c 2.]

as it seeks to create a “hostile environment” for those who do not have a legal right to be in the UK.

Graham O’Neill of the Scottish Refugee Council described the UK Government’s policy as “inhumane and senseless” and advised there was a significant risk of exploitation, including sexual, to newly arrived asylum applicants who are seeking to fund their travel to Croydon. That includes individuals who have been refused asylum and are required to travel to Liverpool to submit a fresh claim. The Scottish Refugee Council has called for the Home Office to make use of its extensive network of local and regional offices to make the system more accessible for newly arrived destitute women, men and children to register their claim.

The committee recognises that the UK Government and Parliament have the power to legislate on asylum and immigration. It has asked the Scottish Government to continue its negotiations with the Home Office to allow people who arrive in Scotland to be allowed to register their claim in Scotland, and to allow fresh claims for asylum to be submitted in Scotland. National and local government and the third sector are paying the price for the failure of the UK Government’s policies and an ineffective asylum process and immigration system, and this cannot go on.

In particular, Glasgow City Council and its third sector organisations cannot sustain the level of services that they are providing without additional funding help. Local authorities are cautious about becoming involved because of the lack of funding, but the success of the Syrian resettlement programme highlights what can be achieved when programmes are sufficiently funded and more local authorities become involved.

Many third sector organisations have played a tremendous part in helping to meet the needs of destitute asylum seekers and those with insecure immigration status but, without the necessary backing, they will simply be unable to continue providing such vital assistance.

I welcome the report’s recommendations, which ask the Scottish Government, COSLA and third sector partners to consider providing a fully funded independent advocacy service for destitute asylum seekers and people with insecure immigration status, and the creation of a national co-ordinated practitioners network. I firmly believe that early advocacy would result in long-term savings for health and social services while providing people with the best opportunity to start the integration process. A national co-ordinated practitioners network comprised of representatives from a number of sectors would enable all parties to share best practice and highlight concerns about legislation and practice.

We need to better understand and address the issues that are faced by those who seek asylum in Scotland. We must strive to combat the misperception, often attached to asylum seekers, that they do not need to be destitute in this country because they can simply choose to return to their country of origin. That is unfair and unjust. Given the choice, most people would choose to continue living in their home country, but because of devastating situations and events outwith their control, they find themselves with no choice but to seek asylum and a safer life for their family in a different country. Many claimants have fled from terrible violence and hardships.

We need to ensure the provision and successful delivery of the help and support that those who are seeking asylum need in order to continue learning, thriving and developing both mentally and socially. However, research shows that many barriers continue to impact on a daily basis, ranging from difficulty with travel costs to the emotional strain that day-to-day uncertainty brings. Isolation and a feeling of disconnection to wider society can also hamper opportunities and, in turn, create further barriers.

Too many asylum seekers are left with no legitimate means of securing a livelihood. Denied access to financial support or the right to work, they are often forced to adopt strategies to cope with having no income and no home while dealing with extreme levels of despair at the long periods they spend in the uncertainty of the asylum process. A high proportion of claimants report mental health issues, but the issue is substantially underreported in asylum seeker and refugee populations.

A determined response is required to ensure that the appropriate support is given at every stage of the asylum process to all asylum seekers living in Scotland who have been forced into destitution because of delays in the administration of a complex and inefficient asylum system. We must all work together to find solutions to the causes of the destitution that is experienced by asylum claimants and make efficiency a matter of priority.

The 2016 act and subsequent changes to support have the potential to exacerbate the issue of destitution for many who come here for a safer environment and risk exposing even more people to further trauma. I urge the Scottish Government to consider the report’s key findings and recommendations and to undertake a Scotland-wide consultation. I look forward to a Scottish Government report being submitted to the committee in one year’s time.

Link to the Scottish Parliament Official Report

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