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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.