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Jul 2007 Journal

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In support of today’s refugees

The asylum-seekers who depend on Barnet Refugee Service are often destitute and all are seeking safety having fled from persecution and frequently abuse, torture and rape. Family members and friends may have been killed in what had been their homeland.

Our clients are not economic migrants looking to improve their lives. We have no argument with economic migrants but their circumstances and problems are totally different from those of people seeking asylum and the two categories should not be confused in the debate over immigration: economic migrants are deliberately coming to a new country and new opportunities; asylum-seekers are fleeing from persecution.

Barnet Refugee Service is an independent charity supporting local asylum-seekers regardless of their country of origin, race or religion. Our role is to offer practical support to these vulnerable people and to advise them on access to health, education and housing and to guide them hopefully towards integration into a new life and into our society. At all times we treat them with dignity and respect in order to help in restoring their sense of their own worth.
Many refugees need emergency support with food and clothing. The ‘lucky’ ones receive 70 per cent of the basic state benefit and are forbidden from working to enhance this meagre income. Those in politics and the media who imply that asylum-seekers are a drain on our resources should question a policy that actively prevents people from making any contribution to society.
Most asylum-seekers would like nothing more than the opportunity to work and enjoy the financial and psychological rewards that employment brings to them and to the wider community.
The unlucky ones, who may have absented themselves from the records for fear of being forcibly removed to a distant town where they know nobody or who perhaps have had their asylum claim arbitrarily rejected, receive no state support and are totally dependent on organisations like Barnet Refugee Service for food and clothing.
Reports late last year from Amnesty International and Refugee Action claim that the government, by cutting off support for refused asylum-seekers, is using destitution in an attempt to drive refused asylum-seekers out of the country.
The reports reveal that many refused asylum-seekers are being reduced to penniless poverty. If they cannot find a friend or acquaintance’s sofa to sleep on, they often end up sleeping in parks, public toilets and telephone boxes and have to go without vital medicines even after they may have survived torture. These people rely on the charity of friends, acquaintances or organisations like Barnet Refugee Service in order to survive.
The local Barnet council has closed its refugee section and we are the first port of call for most asylum-seekers in Barnet. We deal with more than 3,500 enquiries a year as well as running specific support groups for refugee women and teenagers. We provide information and education to local service providers such as health professionals, including GPs and housing officers.

Please think back to those trapped in Germany in 1939 because most countries had closed their doors to any more refugees. The doors were closed because allowing in new people with strange customs and a strange language is difficult, untidy and politically unpopular because it so often brings out peoples’ worst fears and prejudices.

The destiny of those refused asylum at that time was to die in the camps. Surely we, of all people, must fight to prevent such things from ever happening, both on the scale of genocide but also in the case of any one person. Death, or at best torture and abuse, is often the true cost of deciding that we have no room for one more fleeing person.

So many of us, our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents, were asylum-seekers. Let us honour their memory and the contribution to this country made by them and their descendents by supporting today’s refugees.

Peter Salomon is Chairman of Barnet Refugee Service. His father, who grew up in Landsberg an der Warte (East Prussia), fled to England in 1938.

 

Peter Salomon

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