Yesterday on the South Bank in London, thousands of people gathered to hear stories from refugees, dance to music from around the world, sample food from other countries and, most importantly, celebrate the protection of refugees in the UK today. It was the launch of Refugee Week 2010.
This event, like hundreds of the other arts and cultural events taking place over the week, centred round the Refugee Week Simple Acts campaign. The aim is to bring refugees and British-born people together through small activities such as having tea with a refugee, telling stories about exile, or playing football with asylum-seekers.
Doing these simple things will encourage better understanding between communities and help to ensure that refugees and asylum-seekers are made welcome here.
The Simple Acts campaign is an idea we think the new government would do well to take on board. That is not to say the coalition hasn’t got off to a good start. We are optimistic that, by doing the simple thing of vowing to end child detention, they will put an end to the harm and trauma experienced by the thousands of children who have been detained in immigration centres across the UK. Agreeing to stop the deportation of asylum-seekers whose sexual orientation or gender identity has put them at risk is another encouraging step.
Now, as the government commits to reviewing the asylum system to make it not only faster, but better, we at the Refugee Council are urging it to continue in this positive vein.
For example, following last week’s news that the UK is seeking to start removing unaccompanied children to a ‘”reintegration” centre in Kabul, another simple thing the government could do is to reconsider these plans, so that children are not sent to countries that are still far from safe. Just thinking about the safety of such children by reviewing these plans would demonstrate a commitment to the welfare of children who seek asylum in Britain.
Likewise for adults: the simple act of giving asylum-seekers more time to share their experiences during the asylum screening process, and allowing them early access to legal advice, would help more people to get the protection they deserve, rather than being forced into a lengthy appeals process, or finding themselves destitute when their claims are wrongly refused.
At present, a third of decisions are overturned at appeal, demonstrating that an unacceptably large proportion of people who are initially refused refugee status should in fact be given protection. Simply supporting people through the initial process would not only ensure the right decisions were made first time, but would also be far more cost-effective for everyone.
With a few simple changes like this, the new government could move further towards creating a fair, humane and effective asylum system with the welfare of refugees and asylum-seekers at its heart.
As we fast approach the 60th anniversary of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, it is even more important for our government to honour our proud tradition of protecting people in need of shelter in the UK.
Refugee Week will end on Sunday with an Umbrella Parade through central London. Parades will also be taking place in eight other cities across Europe, and we will all be carrying white umbrellas to honour our proud commitment to offering care and shelter to refugees.
As we march in solidarity, we must remember the importance of working in tandem with other European countries to find a way of sharing the responsibility for refugees coming to Europe, so that those fleeing persecution and conflict can get to a place of safety and, crucially, that they be treated equally and fairly.
Donna Covey is chief executive of the Refugee Council.