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Government's approach to refugees needs to improve

4 min read

Let’s mark Refugee Week by shaping policies to help refugees integrate and contribute to society in the UK, says Thangam Debbonaire


As we celebrate refugee week from 17-23 June 2019, I hope we will all be reflecting on the positive contribution refugees make to our country, and on what honouring our international obligations says about us as a country. There is information on www.refugeeweek.org.uk about events around the country.

As a parliamentarian, I want to reflect on what progress we have made in policy and legislation.

Of the 68 million people who are forced migrants, 26 million are refugees; that’s about 10% of all international migrants. Yet the public narrative about migration has unfortunately become conflated with asylum, with myths and misleading information resulting in mistrust of asylum seekers – blaming them and refugees for problems which are not of their making.

I would like us to mark Refugee Week with some clarity and honesty about the figures and also about our legal obligations. I would also like us to celebrate being a country that honours those legal obligations. That says something profound and important about us and who we are.

Most people, I believe, would share my conviction that we should welcome our fair share of the world’s people fleeing persecution. Many of them, however, are unaware of the fact that the majority of the world’s refugees are forced to remain in their own region, often stuck for months or years either displaced in their home country (internally displaced people) or in the countries bordering theirs.

Last year, at the UN, the UK and most of the countries of the world pledged to support the global compact on refugees, which aims to tackle forced migration, protect more people, and share the responsibility.

In order to share these responsibilities, we should be taking more refugees under the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) resettlement scheme, whereby people are assessed in the conflict region and helped to make safe and legal journeys to third countries of safety.

Numbers of people needing resettlement are rising, but numbers offered are falling, and this needs to change. Central government needs to take a lead here and expand numbers of people in, celebrate the success story that resettlement is, and support local authorities and NGOs who do the work of welcoming refugees.

The Home Office has just published a review on what helps with integration of refugees. While I welcome this, I am frustrated it has still not taken on recommendations made by the APPG’s Refugees Welcome? inquiry two years ago into exactly this subject.

The review rightly identifies language classes, access to the labour market, and reunion with family members as important for integration. But in practice, we have massively reduced language provision as a result of cuts, asylum seekers are still mostly not allowed to work, and the refugee family reunion bill is still stuck in the legislative process because the government has so far refused to pass the money resolution necessary for it to move to the next stage.

This Refugee Week, I would like us as a legislature, and the government as the executive, to consider these clear recommendations for how we could live up to our reputation as a welcoming country:

  • Invest in language classes so everyone who needs them has access to them, including childcare to allow people to attend.
  • Reform the rules on asylum seekers working so that if they have been waiting for more than six months for a decision, they are automatically allowed to work.
  • Unblock the Refugee (Family Reunion) Bill so it can continue its progress through parliament.
  • Put an end to the use of indefinite immigration detention.
  • Expand the resettlement schemes, in line with the UNHCR request to resettle 10,000 refugees per year to the UK, and help other countries to do the same.

Welcoming refugees says something wonderful about us as a country – let’s do it as well as we possibly can.

Thangam Debbonaire is Labour MP for Bristol West and chair of the APPG on Refugees

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