Why Refugee and Migrant Justice must not be allowed to fail

Vulnerable people need an advocate in the face of an uncaring system.

When a bank is on the verge of collapse, financiers and politicians are apt to rally round, saying it is "too big to fail". The leading UK charity Refugee and Migrant Justice, which is under threat of closure, may not command such attention, but to the thousands of asylum-seekers it supports each year, it is a lifeline.

This week, leading figures including the Archbishop of Canterbury joined calls to save RMJ, which is the largest charity of its kind in the UK and provides legal advice to roughly 10,000 vulnerable people, including 900 unaccompanied children. It is threatened by changes to the legal aid system which determine that money is now paid upon completion of casework.

As a result, the charity faces a huge cash shortfall. Caroline Slocock, RMJ's chief executive, said:

RMJ is not asking for new money, simply prompt payment of legal aid for the work it has carried out. Until recently we were given regular, ongoing payments for the work we do. As a not-for-profit organisation, we cannot expect to make sufficient profit to finance millions of pounds of working capital.

In its defence, the Minstry of Justice says that RMJ has had three years' notice of the legal aid changes and that it has worked with the charity to help minimise "disruption". But a spokesperson for the charity pointed out that while it needs £1.8m over the next six months to survive, the closure of RMJ would cost the government more than £2m, as the government would need to pay other providers to take on cases.

The issue is about more than money, however. No one knows the value of RMJ's work better than John "Bosco" Nyombi, who fled Uganda in 2001 in fear for his life. Nyombi, 31, is gay and his lifestyle had long made him the target of abuse in his home country, where homosexuality is a crime.

The final straw came when police raided a bar near his home. "My friends were arrested and they were beaten up really severely," he says. "The police mentioned my name. They went to my mum's house and my place of work. That's when I decided to leave."

If Britain fully honoured its commitment to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which defines a refugee as someone with "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion", Nyombi's struggle might have ended there. Instead, he fought a six-year battle with the Home Office to have his asylum claim accepted.

In 2008, he was detained for four months ahead of being deported back to Uganda, during which time he was not allowed to contact his solicitor. But lawyers at RMJ working on his behalf were able to appeal against the decision and he was finally granted leave to stay.

"I wouldn't be here talking now if it wasn't for RMJ," Nyombi says, simply.

The uphill struggle that asylum-seekers face in this country is a particularly poisonous legacy of the last government. Thanks to Labour's attempts to seem "tough" on immigration, refugees who arrive in the UK are confronted by an inhumane system in which adults and children alike are detained for months on end despite having committed no crime. The asylum system is under constant pressure from strict government targets and there have been allegations of institutional racism at the UK's main asylum processing centre in Wales .

The new administration has already taken one positive step on asylum in pledging to end child detention. Its wider attitude to immigration remains unclear, with one half of the coalition having pledged limits and the other having favoured an amnesty for illegal immigrants, prior to the election.

Swift action to help RMJ would indicate how far Cameron's government is going to live up to its claim to progressive politics. Failure to do so will reveal just how little substance lies behind the "big society" window-dressing.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.