A SOLUTION TO PRISON PROBLEMS

Lord Andrew Stunell and Suzanne Fletcher with Lib Dem policies on ending indefinite detention for immigration purposes

Lord Andrew Stunell and Suzanne Fletcher with Lib Dem policies on ending indefinite detention for immigration purposes

“Tackling overcrowding in the prison system” was the title of a debate at Lib Dem Spring Conference. It was highlighting the problems caused by overcrowding, and the drastic cut in the number of prison officers. There has been a cut of 30% in their numbers since 2010, despite the rise in the prison population. Amongst other things the policy motion being debated called for was an increase in prison officers beyond the additional resource promised by the current Government to reach a safe prisoner-to-officer ratio and to increase the quality and effectiveness of work done with the inmates of the prisons. It was agreed overwhelmingly and the text is here.

Obviously funding is a huge problem – but LD4SOS Council member Suzanne Fletcher spoke in the debate about a solution. Cut the numbers of those in immigration detention, and release £75 million a year, only part of which would be needed to increase prison officers to a level needed. Also it would release lots of the detention estate, so could be easily adapted for prisoners – they are already described as “prison like”, as in this recent report on Morton Hall detention centre.

Detention for immigration purposes is indefinite, those in detention do not know how long they will be there for, and costs £75 million a year. Liberal Democrats have called for detention to only take place if absolutely necessary and there is no workable alternative; never for those that are vulnerable; and then for a maximum of 28 days.

The money and space saved could be spent much better, and very importantly people who were not being imprisoned for a criminal or civil offence would not have lives wasted.

Common sense for the Home Office, Common decency and humanity for all.

 

ACTION ON UNACCOMPANIED REFUGEE CHILDREN FOR YOU TO TAKE.

An Emergency motion on unaccompanied refugee seeking children was chosen for debate by members at Liberal Democrat Conference in York. The debate was opened by Baroness Shas Sheehan Conference emergency motion, Shas Sheehan speech “……. it is for me a matter of shame that this Government announced last month that it is backsliding from its legal commitment under the Dubs Amendment and unilaterally declaring that it will cap the number at 350. I can tell you that they will be challenged on this in the courts……”

There were a series of other very moving contributions, including Bradley Hillier-Smith who told us “it is our moral duty to provide safety and hope for these children, we have the resources and we have the capacity”. Lord Roger Roberts gave a spirited speech and reminded us that we are “not just the party of Remain, but we are the heart and soul of welcome”. You can see part of the debate on this clip here, which will be updated by next week.

Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary spoke saying that we needed to do more than put up our hands to vote, we needed to take action, and the ideas would be on our website by tonight, so here they are!

  1. Lobby your MP on the importance and need for them to do all they can. Do it by e-mail, letter or visits to their surgery.       If your name is well known to your MP make sure it comes from others too, not already known. Use template letters in the Citizens UK Action Pack It will need to be undated a bit to take into account that MPs have already voted, but the principles are the same. Some ideas on extra things to put are here ( IDEAS FOR LOBBYING IN CAMPAIGNING FOR DUBS AMENDMENT TO BE ENACTED)
  2. Work with others in your area to engage with your local Council. What have they offered, what has been the Government response? Encourage them to do more.       There is more information on this and other lobbying in this Citizens UK Dubs UK Action Pack. Please do let us know about responses you get.
  3. You can donate money to organisations working on the ground with the unaccompanied children that are stranded in Europe. Spread the word to others to donate too, think of fund raising opportunities, and if the organisation you are donating to is a charity and you are a tax payer, then please make sure you Gift Aid the donation, so that the Government adds 25% of what you give! The list below is not exhaustive, but gives a number of organisations and ways to give to.

Safe Passage is a charity that works with unaccompanied children and vulnerable adults in Europe to find safe and legal routes to the UK. It also helps to support them when they arrive in the UK.

Help Refugees is a charity that works with organisations on the ground such as Auberge D’Migrants and also is appealing for funds to give phone credits to the young people to enable them to vitally stay in touch with those helping them and each other.

Refugee Youth Service supports displaced 10 – 18 year olds on the move through Europe. They are currently running projects in Calais, Ventimiglia Italy, and Athens Greece. Also they are collecting phones! You could think about asking at lost property at police, work, school, local cafes…..they may be willing to pass on unclaimed phones.

Social Workers Without Borders also supports the children.

Refugee Council is a charity that works with separated children who have managed to get to the UK, and we must not forget those either.

DETENTION UPDATE

A small security window at an immigration removal centreWe have had the All Party Parliamentary Group Report on Detention (2015), chaired by Sarah Teather, and the Government commissioned Shaw Review (2016), both of which had strong recommendations around detention for immigration purposes and called for an end to indefinite detention, with a maximum of 28 days.

However little progress has been seen in the last year, as this document with statistics and comment explains although Liberal Democrats have kept up the pressure with constant questioning, and raising the issue wherever they could, in both Houses of Parliament and at Lib Dem conferences.

There is no excuse at all. The present system is cruelly wasting lives, wasting vast amounts of money (£76 million a year), and there are a number of good alternatives as talked about in this report.

Yesterday there was a Westminster Hall debate, on the issue. MPs from all parties spoke up, and spoke well, on how much the present system needed reforming. You can see what our own Alistair Carmichael here. The Minister responded with rather vague assurances that all was in hand. We hope that he takes note of the passion and unanimity in the debate and makes sure there is progress that is quick, and makes a real difference.

In the meantime, the campaign continues, and you can see 2 updated factsheets on our website here and here

G4S giving welfare support to detained children !

G4S-Tinsley-HouseThe news that the contract for welfare support for asylum seeking families with children, before being removed to the country they came from, has been granted to G4S has shocked Liberal Democrats and charities in the asylum field. The news was sneaked out just before the half term recess when Ministers could not be questioned, but Lib Dems in Parliament are getting questions ready for the return !

LD4SOS had been in correspondence with the Home Office last year, putting 15 key points to them that had to be taken into account in any new contract. We are not at all convinced they will be, with G4S’s record and background.

Nick Clegg has said “Charities have been clear that moving families waiting to be deported to Tinsley House is not in the best interests of the children. The truth is, the prison-style environment is not physically safe for children and could impact on their emotional wellbeing. That is exactly why the Liberal Democrats, whilst in coalition, insisted on the establishment of Cedars as suitable accommodation in the first place.”

LD4SOS Council member, Margaret Lally, has written this letter to The Guardian, but it has not been published. You can read it here :

I was saddened but not surprised to read your article that the Home Office is expected to announce that it has asked G4S to take over the contract to provide welfare support to detained families facing deportation when Tinsley House opens its new unit for those families in May. Previously these families had been accommodated at Cedars with welfare support provided by Barnardos which has substantial experience of working with children. Cedars was closed last July – there was no discussion allowed of this decision which was announced on the last day of Parliament. Since then it has been difficult to find out get information on the new provision (the specification was confidential), the level and quality of support they will provide and, also, any assurance that for families taken to Tinsley House it really will be the last resort.

I was not surprised because the last six months have seen an inexorable rolling back of a number of commitments that the government has made to protect and look after vulnerable children and their families. Deporting families and children is not what I want to see but if it has to happen they should be kept in an environment which is suitable for them. Cedars was opened following pressure from the Liberal Democrats to end the detention of children. With the support of Barnados, it provided a child friendly and caring environment which was suitable for families with children at a very traumatic point in their lives.  Children and families facing the stress of deportation are going to be looked after by G4S rather than an organisation whose core role and track record is in supporting vulnerable children. Cedars had not been operating to full capacity because the Family Returns Panel had been relatively successful in facilitating voluntary returns.

The change in contractor and location may seem to be relatively minor shifts but it is yet another step away from accepting that government has a particular responsibility to protect children because they cannot be expected to do so themselves, and that sometimes it is not possible for their parents to do so either. Only a couple of months ago the government agreed to accept the Dubs amendment to bring the most refugee vulnerable children into the UK – they are now stepping back from this agreement arguing that it might encourage adults to traffic other children. Since when was it right to allow children to suffer (and those children camping out in the cold in other European countries are suffering) in order to change the behaviour of adults not associated with them?

The UK can be proud of the funding it provides to refugees in the regions from where they have fled but it also needs to take on responsibility for ensuring those who reach the UK and treated with care and kindness right up to the point they may need to leave.

Report on Euro-Arab Seminar in The Hague, 2016 by Bradley Hillier-Smith.

bradley

 The seminar was a meeting of activists, charity workers, campaigners and policy makers representing their countries, institutions and projects from Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands and the UK.

They each presented best practice techniques and projects ranging from lobbying governments, integration initiatives, advocacy, education and humanitarian aid.

The most informative aspect was hearing the distinct perspectives and challenges of the refugee crisis from each represented country. In Jordan and Lebanon we heard of the significant impact of the large numbers of refugees hosted in the countries. Naturally, owing to their geographical location bordering areas of conflict they each host over 1.3 million refugees. The challenges faced centred on meeting the basic humanitarian needs of the refugee populations, food water and sanitation. Host nations are dependent on international aid to provide this. A lack of education or job prospects for refugees is of course significant but secondary to these basic needs. We learned of a great project in Jordan to educate refugees who had fled oppressive regimes on human rights, freedoms and democracy to empower them.

However similarities with European nations were found in the way that the influx of refugees can cause domestic internal tensions and some backlash and stricter border controls. Fears relating to wage undercutting, job losses and housing demand fuelled some resentment within host countries.

Nonetheless an important thing to note was the relative welcome and acceptance of refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. On the whole it was evidenced that the host populations were more tolerant, understanding, accepting and open towards refugees. This could be explained by a historical experience of hosting refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as cultural solidarity and a general understanding, knowledge and appreciation of the plights and circumstances of refugees. Regular and historical experience and daily confronting and exposure of the issues faced by refugees seemed to foster a more compassionate understanding of refugees circumstances. This could provide some insight as to how we might influence public opinion in European countries spreading accurate information, exposure and education on the circumstances of refugees.

A key theme is once you are face to face with a refugee, once you are exposed to the experiences and stories of a refugee, once the refugee is humanised to that extent then this appears to dispel fears, suspicion and fosters understanding and tolerance in its place.

It was noted that a common theme across European nations was after an initial welcoming and positive sentiment and de facto accommodation towards refugees, public opinion became more negative.

A common theme found through Morocco, and European countries is the public perception of unfairness of refugees having access to housing, welfare and resources having not contributed to it. This fostered a hostility to refugees and migrants. This was particularly strong in countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands which have a strong welfare system which newly arrived refugees have access to. It was noted however that this was not as evident in Greece. This can be explained by a lack of a strong welfare system and a more tolerant welcoming public opinion.

The shift in public opinion towards more negative attitudes against refugees has been rising in Sweden, Denmark, the UK and Austria. This has led to rise in far-right nationalism drawing on a fear of loss of cultural identity and then to tighter border controls and restrictions on intake of refugees. This of course has significant implications on refugees themselves, making crossing more dangerous and the rise of informal camps with poor conditions along border lines.

To me this brings out the central problem that we in the UK face along with other European countries. Negative public opinion towards refugees was agreed to be the most significant challenge we currently face. This in my view can be countered through the public being exposed to the personal stories, journeys and identities of refugees, positive narratives and a more effective asylum system which facilitates greater integration and engagement with local communities.

An important best practice on asylum applications which we might seek to adopt in the UK is that of the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, from day one of an asylum application the asylum seeker is provided with language lessons, is able to apply for work and is expected to attend cultural exchange events.

The language lessons naturally meant the asylum seeker could speak the native language and as such became more independent and autonomous. It also fostered an immediate understanding of Dutch culture, ways of life and provided a means of integration.

An example of a cultural exchange event is that local Dutch residents are invited to meet and share food with newly settled refugees. The refugees and native residents each prepare traditional food from their home countries and share with each other. This fosters understanding of different cultures as well as providing a way for Dutch persons to meet and understand the journeys and stories of refugees, which as I have noted above dispels fears and fosters tolerance.

Purpose built asylum accommodation centres have been established in response to the influx. These also include provision for social housing thus alleviating that demand as well. Here is an example of how the accommodation of refugees can actually improve social housing and infrastructure rather than place additional pressure.

To compare to our asylum application system where the process can take up to two years, asylum seekers are given no language lessons, are not entitled to work, and given no incentives for integration and may be accommodated in immigration detention centres, we can see how this could make a significant difference to the well-being and integration of asylum seekers. We can ask how welcome does one feel under such a system, how likely are you to want to integrate or feel you are able to. It is likely that our system could be perceived as hostile to asylum seekers which in turn could make the asylum seeker themselves feel hostile towards it. This opposition is not conducive to an effective asylum and integration process.

In sum the take away points ought to be the following.

  1. It is a shared problem among western European host countries that after an initial welcoming sentiment they saw a backlash in the form of resentment, anti-migration rhetoric and far-right nationalism. This in my view is the biggest challenge we face. It is crucial to change public opinion on refugees in order to have the public support for a more welcoming and accommodating environment for refugees and to push for the government to take in more refugees.
  2. A clear solution to this problem is public exposure to the stories, journeys and identities of refugees, thus humanising them. This dispels fears and intolerance and fosters acceptance and accommodation. This is shown in numerous examples in the Netherlands as well as in host countries bordering conflict zones. Positive narratives and personal exposure are essential.
  3. We ought to research further into and push for the UK to adopt what we may call the Dutch system of asylum applications and integration. This also helps significantly to address points 1 and 2.

Bradley Hillier-Smith is a long term-volunteer in Calais, a charity worker and political campaigner for refugee rights. He is currently studying for his PhD in moral and political philosophy researching ‘our moral obligations to aid victims of rights violations, specifically refugees’.  He is also a member of the Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary Council and represented them at the seminar. He told the about the Liberal Democrat campaigns to raise item donations for the camps as well as  our lobbying campaigns working alongside Citizens UK and Calais Action to pass the Dubs amendment, and continuing to work for the subsequent transfer of unaccompanied children that come under the remit of the Dubs amendment.

 

 

CONSULTATION ON ASYLUM ACCOMMODATION IN THE UK

There is a consultation on issues around accommodation for asylum seekers being run for the voluntary sector and NGOs, currently taking place. The document was only released by UKVI (UK Visas and Immigration) on 20th December, and the responses need to be in by 31st January 2017, so time is short.

We are sure that all who are involved in anything connected with accommodation for asylum seekers will have comments and suggestions to make, so please do have a look at this document, spread the word around other interested people, and make a submission before the end of January.  You can access the document here AAST- NGO and Voluntary Sector written exercise Dec 2016 (Final) (2)

For those not familiar with how Asylum Seekers are housed in the UK, there is more detail in this document, and briefly, the responsibility for housing asylum seekers in the UK is with a contractor for the area, such as G4S covering the NE and Yorkshire. They usually subcontract out the actual housing provision to a housing provider, in the NE that is Jomast. The contract between the Home Office and contractor is referred to as the Compass Contract.

Suggestions of questions for using with asylum seekers can be accessed in this document. consultation draft 10 q it is important that asylum seekers know that they cannot be identified in any submissions made to the consultation.

Any feedback that you would like LD4SOS to see can be sent to us via info@LD4SOS@org.uk