Rescue workers search for victims close to the Rafah refugee camp in Southern Gaza. Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
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The UK government must reform its treatment of asylum seekers

Theresa May has until Saturday to respond to a High Court ruling that deemed the government's level of support for asylum seekers "irrational".

Theresa May has an important decision to make before Saturday. Having lost a High Court ruling which determined that the Home Office was “irrational” to freeze asylum support for three consecutive years, the Home Secretary was ordered to review government policy. It is unclear what conclusion the Home Office will come to, yet their verdict will impact on many of the most vulnerable people in the UK.

The support currently stands at £36 per week for a single adult, and is given to individuals who are waiting for a decision on their asylum claim. When introduced in 1999, asylum support was designed to provide 70 per cent of the money that a British national on income support would receive. That figure currently stands at 51 per cent – a meagre amount which has left many in severe poverty.

Indeed, a report from the campaign group Refugee Action describes how asylum seekers are regularly unable to afford food, whilst 88 per cent are unable to buy basic clothing items, leading to “social isolation” and “vulnerability to health problems”. Similar research from the charity Freedom from Torture notes how economic poverty and financial insecurity leads to “a serious deterioration” in the mental health of victims of torture who are seeking asylum. Likewise, one clinician describes how the “hopelessness and vulnerability” caused by poverty often provokes “depression and anxiety” in torture victims, a group already prone to mental illness.

Let’s be clear; asylum seekers are some of the world’s most vulnerable people, desperate to escape persecution such as rape, torture and war. Yet their suffering continues within the UK, largely a result of the paltry financial assistance available from the government. Most striking is their lack of choice; asylum seekers are unable to legally work or receive council housing – by freezing asylum support, the government is failing to provide these individuals’ only lifeline.

Of course, such disinterest in the wellbeing and health of asylum seekers is to be expected whilst UK politics rides a wave of anti-migrant sentiment. With representatives from all parties trying to out-manoeuvre each other to provide a harsher stance on immigration, treatment of asylum seekers is suffering. Indeed, mental health care provision, support for children and the government’s detention programme have all received criticism in recent months. The lack of public outcry over these scandals is likely linked to growing unease over the UK’s immigration policy. 

Yet concern about immigration is misplaced to target asylum seekers. Polls continuously show that the public overestimate the number of asylum seekers coming to the UK, often by more than two-fold. The myth that the UK is burdened by asylum seekers is entirely unfounded. Despite the UN last month announcing that the global number of refugees is the highest since WWII, the UK ranks only 11th out of the EU15 countries for the number of asylum seekers it welcomes, after accounting for population size. Considering that the UK isn’t accepting more than its fair share of asylum seekers, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to better protect those who do apply for asylum.

The freeze in asylum support seems even more malicious when considering its limited financial benefit. Less than 0.1 per cent of the government’s spending on benefits goes to asylum seekers, suggesting that this controversy is driven by ideological, rather than practical, incentives.

Over the past few months, the media has recoiled in horror at the events in Syria and Gaza, while many politicians have spoken out to condemn such conflicts. Yet expressing empathy from a distance is not enough. Victims of war and persecution are also suffering from government policy here in the UK. Come Saturday, the Home Office’s decision will not only impact the 25,000 destitute asylum seekers in receipt of asylum support, it will reveal a great amount about the nature of this government. 

Update: 12th August, 15:15

On 11th August, the Home Office released a letter announcing that they have decided to not change the level of asylum support. Asylum support therefore remains frozen for the 3rd consecutive year, at a level from £36 a week. A spokesperson for the charity Refugee Action said that they were “appalled by the decision”. “It will have a devastating impact on the dignity and wellbeing of thousands of individuals and families in our government’s care,” commented Dave Garratt, the Chief Executive of Refugee Action.  

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.

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How to explain Brexit to your kids

It’s not hard. The Brexiteers’ tantrums are a parody of how children behave.

My parents never sat me down for “the politics talk”. I suspect they were too embarrassed. Like many children of my generation, I was left to develop my own ideas about what adults did in private.

We didn’t have the internet and our arms were too short to open most newspapers (scientists were still working on the tabloid-broadsheet hybrid). Hence we picked up news randomly, either by overhearing snippets on the radio while buying sweets in the newsagent’s or by accidentally watching the start of the six o’clock news following the end of Charles In Charge.

By the time I was nine, the same age my eldest child is now, I had unrealistic expectations of politicians and the democratic process. Due to the fact that I had no idea what anyone was talking about, I assumed everyone in the House of Commons was having serious, informed thoughts about the most important issues of the day.

I now know that the real reason I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying was because what had sounded like “roargh roargh [insult] <braying laughter>” really had been “roargh roargh [insult] <braying laughter>” all along. I’d assumed it was a language I had yet to learn, one of the more specialised dialects of Adult-ese. I’d already wasted one vote by the time I realised that Prime Minister’s Questions was basically Jeremy Kyle with posher accents and minus the lie detector tests.

I don’t want my children to make the same mistakes as me. Thankfully, it turns out Brexit Britain is the ideal place to teach your kids how politics really works. Never has there been a time when those stalking the corridors of power were more in tune with the average tantruming toddler. There’s no point in rational argument; you just have to hope that those in power burn themselves out before too much damage is done.

This particular tantrum has of course been building for some time. The dominant rhetoric of the Leave campaign – like that of the Tory party itself – always offered a spoilt child’s view of the world, one in which you are the centre of the universe, depending on no one else for your survival.

When others point out that this isn’t the case – that perhaps you wouldn’t have a home and food on the table if it wasn’t for Mummy or Daddy, or perhaps the UK would not have a strong economy were it not a member of the EU – you simply tell them they’re being mean. You’ll show them! They’re not the boss of you! So you pack your bags and leave.

If you are six, you might get to the corner of your road, realise with disappointment that no one is following you and turn back, hoping no one noticed you were gone. If you are the UK, you hang around for a while, maybe hiding in some bushes, thinking “any minute now they’ll come looking for me.”

But they don’t, so eventually you think “sod ‘em, I’ll go to my mates’. Unfortunately, you cannot get there without Mummy to drive you. This is a problem. But at least you can tell yourself that you were doubly right to leave, since everything that is happening now is Mummy’s fault.

Never in British politics has the panicked outrage of those who know they are making a terrible mistake been so palpable. It reminds me of the time when I was teaching my eldest son to drink from a beaker. He kept spilling small amounts, which caused him so much distress he’d end up pouring the rest of the juice onto the carpet to make it look deliberate. Whenever I tried to stop him, I’d only make him more panicked, thus even more likely to get juice everywhere.

I have since asked him if he remembers why he did this. He says he does not, but I have told him this is what the British government is doing with Brexit. The referendum was the initial spillage; we now have to sit and watch, biting our tongues, in the hope that the “well, anyhow, I totally meant to do that!” response can be averted.

There is little chance of that, though. When my middle son told his older brother he could fly, he quickly backed down on being asked to demonstrate this by jumping from an upstairs window. Liam Fox would have thrown himself headlong, then blamed Project Fear for his broken neck. Or rather, he’d have thrown someone else – one of the millions of people whose lives really will be ruined by Brexit – then tried to argue that the exceptionally bendy necks of UK citizens could be used as one of the “main cards” in negotiations.

The behaviour is beyond childlike; it is a parody of how children behave. When I asked one of my sons to clean his teeth this morning, he called me a “poo head” and said his teeth wouldn’t get decay. He still brushed them, though.

He did not conclude I was some sinister sore loser out to trick him because his teeth are young and white and mine are old and stained. He still has some basic sense that people who ask you to do things you don’t want to do might yet have your best interests at heart, regardless of who is right or wrong. He did not call me a sneering member of the elite trying to override the will of all toothpaste-rejecting British children (to be fair, I think “poo head” may have been meant to capture that, but at least he only called me it once).

Then again, the teeth in my son’s head are his alone. The consequences of neglect would be his to endure. Those stage-managing the Brexit tantrum are insulated from its most devastating consequences. Thus they can hurl insults, stick their fingers in their ears and take more than a little pleasure in the sheer recklessness of it all. It is not just an extended childhood; it is childhood without having to come to terms with the consequences of your own behaviour, because others will suffer them for you.

I want my own children to understand that what they see now is not what politics should be. That there is not some deep, meaningful logic underpinning what the adults in charge are doing. What looks like bitterness, point-scoring and sheer lack of self-control is, more often than not, just that. We have indulged these people too long. Let’s raise a generation with higher expectations of those who will claim to speak on their behalf.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.