International Conference on Asylum and Immigration only partially addressed the issues driving the migration debate

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By AWALE OLAD (MRN)

This was an important meeting, which showcased the power and influence of his committee. However, the meeting’s focus on asylum and refugees and victims of trafficking left me asking how the wider migration agenda would be taken up by the HASC in the coming period.

The meeting was well-attended, with a strong showing from HASC MPs Dr Julian Huppert, Alun Michael and Bridget Phillipson and from the sector Anthony Steen, Alison Harvey, Maurice Wren, Donna Covey, and Roland Schilling. The room was also packed with immigration lawyers, and some foreign diplomats and delegates from the EU and far Eastern Asia and Northern Africa respectively.

Despite the diversity of the audience, there was genuine sympathy, and collective agreement, that for refugees fleeing Somalia and Afghanistan and those trafficked into the UK from Eastern Europe, the Caucuses and Asia, more should be done by the UK government to protect them.

Anthony Steen, a former Tory MP who now serves as the Chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation, launched into an excellent keynote speech, and included some important stats which should make many of us think: 61 MPs and 17 peers are active in pushing the issues in parliament. Over 16,000 visas are granted every year for domestic migrant workers and 6 per cent of those end up as slaves.

In London alone, there are 220 brothels with 12,500 women servicing this industry, some of them incarcerated as sex slaves. In the streets of London, there are 1,012 trafficked children, a residual effect from the “massive movement” of Eastern Europeans. Men are also now being trafficked as slaves, working for no money.

Slavery is hidden, underground and unseen making it very difficult to tackle and parliamentarians tend to be ignorant of the facts. And a new phenomenon is emerging with the sudden increase in women traffickers, helping to make this industry the second largest after drugs.

The sector speakers gave a general outlook on the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, each giving a plausible argument on how to manage asylum at a national level, working closely with EU partners to pave the way forward for an international impetus that will continue to protect millions of people. Specific examples were given of unaccompanied asylum seeking children and those enslaved in cannabis farms who have had their lives saved by the Convention.

A delegate from Malta highlighted the 2,700 Libyans under international protection in his country [as a result of the Arab Spring]. However, Maurice Wren reinforced the international perception of the UK’s asylum system: it routinely fails women, in particular, those seeking protection on the grounds of gender persecution, who, sadly, found the system inherently unfair. Alison Harvey regarded the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe as “very ambiguous” which harbours a preoccupation (or “addiction”) with “unlawful detention”. This certainly got a reaction.

Still, immigration was rarely discussed, economic, academic or business related migration was missing from the debate.

The HASC decided to put forward four key concerns to the government in its next quarterly report:

Public opinion – there is a need for an evidenced-based approach that avoids conflating asylum-seekers with migrants. Redressing challenges around language while reframing the debate will lead to a change in the culture of language and operations, establishing a clear narrative which says ‘we are proud to take in refugees and asylum seekers.’ Who leads this debate? Politicians or the media?
Detention and repatriation – Delegates urged that the UK needed to put more faith in its asylum process and managment and stop turning a blind eye to the unlawful elements of its overarching policies. There was also broad agreement that voluntary repatriation is a good policy to pursue.

Fairness and equality – Equitable treatment is needed. Subsidiary protection tends to be low compared to other countries. More monitoring of the UKBA and more work needs to be done on resettlement.

Border control – Better coordination at EU level needed with more support to Turkish and Greek borders.
These concerns are important and the meeting certainly provoked a heartening discussion on asylum and refugees, demonstrating cross-party will to continue to support the plight of those fleeing persecution and war. However this discussion did not touch upon the concerns that many have about wider migration issues, including the immigration cap, the ongoing exploitation of many migrant workers, undocumented migrants, and the anticipated (and proven) impacts of immigration policies on universities, business and wider economic growth.

We hope that the select committee will follow-up with a meeting that includes a wide range of stakeholders, addressing these issues as part of the wider migration debate. In the meantime, do keep an eye on the activities of the APPG on Migration which also facilitates cross-party parliamentary discusson on key migration issues.

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