Circling The Welcome Wagons: Refugees & The Con-Dem Cuts

[First published in The Morning Star, 25/06/2011]

The Con-Dem coalition were full of fine words last weekend, as NGOs across the country prepared for the launch of Refugee Week.

“The British tradition of welcoming genuine refugees to this country is a great one, and I hope we continue to show this generosity of spirit in the future,” David Cameron declaimed over the piercing shriek of a Daily Mail dogwhistle.

The PM – who just months ago accused refugee communities of “not really wanting or even willing to integrate” – even sent immigration minister Damian Green to go meet and greet with locals at the Northern Refugee Centre in Sheffield.

Green was of course “delighted” to attend. His hosts may have been less enthusiastic, given they are set to lose literally half their budget and paid staff to public funding cuts in the next three months.

But Green would have been hard pressed to find a warm welcome anywhere: despite Cameron’s talk of tradition, the Con-Dems’ cuts to public services amount to a systematic segregation of refugees and asylum seekers from the society Cameron supposedly wants them to join.

Most notably, from September the government will simply stop funding support services for people with refugee status, anywhere in Britain.

Since 2008 the Refugee Integration and Employment Services scheme has funded a national network of caseworkers who meet one-on-one with refugees for up to a year after they win their claim, helping them find a home, a job, and access benefits, health and education services exactly as Green described.

While local charities provided the expertise, the UK Border Agency provided the funding — but when George Osborne ordered the agency to shave half a billion pounds from its budget, the contract was one of the first to go.

Meanwhile the Agency has cut funding for the ‘One Stop’ service by 62 percent, leaving just £2m across the entire country to help Britain’s 18,000 asylum seekers each year with ongoing claims, housing issues and legal representation.

And the Initial Accommodations Wrap Around, which ensures newly-arrived asylum seekers get temporary accommodation and access to healthcare, has been slashed in half to just £726,000.

The agency’s contract renegotiations have been catastrophic for the sector: even the biggest organisation, the Refugee Council, relies on border agency contracts for 78 percent of its revenue.

The Council’s chief executive Donna Covey has warned they will have to lose around a third of their staff and close two of its centres just to remain solvent, while smaller charities like the centre Green visited are unlikely to fare any better.

But as shocking as that is, the cuts to border agency coffers are just part of the picture.

Take something as basic as English language lessons: further education minister John Hayes announced in a strategy document last November that funding had been “refocused”.

From September, only the 14 percent of ESOL students on ‘active’ benefits like the Job Seekers’ or Employment and Support allowances will see their course fees paid in full.

Asylum seekers on ‘inactive’ income support will have to wait at least six months from their date of arrival and then stump up half the cost‚ anywhere from £200 to £600.

It’s an all-but impossible demand when asylum seekers are barred from work and subsist on as little as £37.41 a week — and those who receive their payments in supermarket vouchers via the National Asylum Support Service will have no means to pay it at all.

Meanwhile the teachers themselves have mounted an ‘Action For ESOL’ campaign against cuts to their own budgets: in Tower Hamlets, where 44 percent of households speak English as a second language, City Gateway is facing a 50 percent funding cut for its entry-level ESOL programmes.

And in Enfield, a borough with one of the highest concentrations of asylum seekers in London, funding cuts led the College of North East London to consider axing 20 out of 27 ESOL lecturers before union members agreed to voluntary redundancies earlier this month.

And again, ESOL is just one dimension: from counselling to specialist health programmes, from youth groups to local authorities’ ethnic minority achievement teams, the cuts are gutting services which refugees and asylum seekers literally depend on for survival. Even cost-neutral programmes have been ransacked: last November the government quietly sidelined a £50m Migration Impacts Fund for topping up charities and public services in migrant communities, while keeping the £50 levy on non-EU migrants’ visas which paid for it.

It hardly needs be said that these cuts directly affect some of the most vulnerable people in Britain; traumatised by flight from their homeland, afraid they will be forced by circumstance to return to death or torture, isolated from society by a seemingly insurmountable language barrier and in many cases living on the streets at a level of poverty unimaginable for most people in Europe.

Those are the people Cameron blamed in April for creating “discomfort and disjointedness” in our society. Perhaps he and his cabinet ministers should look a little closer to home.

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