Time for Scotland to support our asylum seekers - Foysol Choudhury
The scheme will require asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, who may have been in the UK for up to 18 months, to answer the 11-page document that consists of 50 questions, ranging from political persecution to trafficking experiences. More shockingly, this form must be answered within 20 days to avoid refusal and must be completed in English.
These demands being made of the most vulnerable in society are unreasonable and undermine genuine claims of asylum seekers who are traumatised from experiences of conflict or persecution. Firstly, the language barrier to filling out highly complex questionnaires will automatically exclude those who do not speak English and may also lead to people paying to use translation tools when they can ill afford to do so. Secondly, the time frame to complete this is unjustified and will exacerbate inequalities between asylum seekers who do not have the assistance to fill in the form. Legal experts say that a 20-day timeframe is not enough time to seek and receive any legal advice, which could overwhelm our legal system here in Scotland when the service is already under crippling pressure. Due to the crisis in immigration legal aid, there are simply not enough immigration legal aid representatives to assist all the individuals who must complete their questionnaires within short timeframes or face the grave repercussions of their claim being withdrawn.
This scheme comes at a time when the UK Government is introducing a controversial bill, the Illegal Migration Bill, which means those arriving into the UK by boats are not eligible for asylum claims and could lead to them being deported to a third country, like Rwanda. Recent rhetoric by Suella Braverman, Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, fuels anti-migration ideology and the tagline “stop the boats” to control the supposed “waves of illegal migrants” create a negative and manipulated image of asylum seekers. This is echoed by the Prime Minister, who joins in this discourse of hostility towards those fleeing conflict. The UK government are using their ‘fear of the other’ rhetoric to stoke fears and racism to deflect attention from its policy failures and see it as a vote winner for the next general election. They are using people seeking safety for political gain, trying to deflect attention from the cost-of-living crisis, the NHS crisis and their unpopularity in the polls.
Despite the false narrative spread by Westminster of an “invasion” of asylum seekers, the UK accepts fewer asylum seekers than other European countries. Whilst the UK issued 10,492 positive decisions in 2021, seven European countries issued more positive decisions than this. These include Germany (59,850), France (33,875), Italy (21,805), Spain (20,405), Greece (16,575), Austria (12,105) and the Netherlands (12,065).
Furthermore, Westminster is attempting to drive a false narrative that asylum seekers all choose to come to the Global North, and the UK. Suella Braverman has suggested that 100 million displaced people around the world are attempting to enter the UK. Despite this dominant discourse, the reality is very different. Most asylum seekers move to a neighbouring country and currently, 84% remain in the Global South.
Human rights groups and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claim that the “stop the boats” policy would make the UK an international outlaw under European and UN conventions on protecting asylum seekers. Fundamentally, seeking asylum is not illegal. The UK was at the forefront of signing the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the 1951 Refugee Convention, which are historic developments to protect and uphold basic human rights. Under the Refugee Convention, asylum seekers are under no obligation to apply to the first safe country they reach; enter a country by regular means; or provide documentation. It is important to note that the UNHCR has condemned this bill and has urged the UK Government and all MPs to consider the humanitarian impacts of pursuing this bill.
What is also concerning, are the claims that right-wing Tory MPs are attempting to amend the bill which would pull the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Alongside this, Braverman has been advocating for the government to leave the ECHR already, which is worrying to anyone committed to safeguarding fundamental rights. Leaving the convention would put everyone’s rights at risk. It’s a person’s last resort for holding the state to account when it has abused their rights.
Although asylum is a reserved matter for the UK Government, this new plan for applications will have a direct impact on Scotland. Scotland’s Dungavel immigration detention centre will likely see an increase in the number of people detained here, as the process for securing a successful asylum application will become much harder due to these restrictive rules. As this centre is based in Scotland and we will be impacted by the higher number of asylum seekers detained, Holyrood must hold discussions with Westminster to ensure that the UK’s commitment to the UNDHR and the Refugee Convention is upheld.
We must ensure support is provided to asylum seekers to guarantee they face a fair process. The Scottish Refugee Council are working alongside lawyers and experts to propose changes to the current plan. These suggested amendments to the questionnaire include simplifying the document; providing translations in relevant languages; creating a user-friendly guide for completion of the questionnaire and providing an extension for all unrepresented individuals.
In response to this plan and the Illegal Migration Bill, we need to encourage the Scottish Government to support asylum seekers with the application form and recognise the importance of entering into a discussion with Westminster, so that commitments in international law can be upheld.
To raise my concerns about the new bill, last Thursday I asked Shona Robison, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, what impact the UK Government's proposed Illegal Migration Bill could have on Scotland’s legal aid services. The Cabinet Secretary was unable to assess the overall impact this will have but agreed that it is likely to cause a magnitude of issues. I will continue to press these issues in the Scottish Parliament to ensure legal professions are best supported, which will ensure effective assistance is provided to asylum seekers.
Foysol Choudhury, MSP for Lothian Region