Having worked in the Home Office for more than 20 years, I thought I was reasonably aware of how we treat asylum-seekers. I had seen Home Secretaries struggle with the public and media pressure surrounding the growth in the number of refugees. And in truth, I sometimes thought that asylum-seekers’ claims that they faced torture or death in their home countries might – understandably – be exaggerated. I now work for Barnardo’s, and I realise how little I knew. I feel ashamed that I could have been so ignorant of the poverty to which we condemn these families and the callousness with which, too often, we return them to their deaths, not from persecution, but from treatable illness.
Barnardo’s no longer runs orphanages. Our mission now is much more diverse. We work with children trapped in prostitution, children leaving care, children excluded from school, disabled children, and children who must look after a seriously ill parent or sibling. The common denominator between them is their disadvantage. We work with the neediest. And almost always, they are living in poverty. Consequently, we are working more with asylum-seeking families.
At the Labour Party conference last month – perhaps I am less cynical than some conference veterans – I was buoyed by listening to, among others, Alan Johnson and Beverley Hughes, the children’s minister, talking about Labour’s renewed determination to eradicate child poverty. I don’t doubt their commitment.
Nevertheless, the number of children living in poverty remains shameful. Despite considerable investment since 1998, which has seen 700,000 children lifted out of poverty, 3.4 million children, by the government’s own figures, remain below the poverty line. Almost half of them are in families where at least one parent is working. But most live on income support.
Frequently, the language of the poverty debate camouflages the reality. We talk about median levels of income and see poverty as relative. The truth is that, for many families, especially those on benefits, poverty is absolute. The government believes a family of two parents and two children aged under 16 need £279 a week, after housing costs, to be above the poverty line. Such a family on benefits finds itself £82 a week short. Barnardo’s, as part of the End Child Poverty coalition, is determined to highlight these realities and do all it can to persuade the government to fulfil its com mitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020.
Life is tough for Brit ish families living in pov erty. But for asylum -seeking families, the position is much worse, as the already inad e quate levels of income support are slashed by 30 per cent for each adult. So, an asylum-seeking family – who are not allowed to work – must survive on £154.23 a week, £124 below the level the government believes is the minimum needed to keep a family out of poverty. This deeply inadequate income is conditional upon the family being “dispersed” away from the south-east of England. Which is how, fresh from the Labour conference, I came to be meeting families in the north-west and to learn that, however impoverished they are, they have greater worries.
The impossibility of buying essentials, including food, for a family on these incomes is offset somewhat by Barnardo’s frequent food and clothing parcels. That kind of charity should be shameful enough in a country as rich as ours. But what is worse and, to me, deeply shocking, is that among the asylum-seekers are women such as Jane. She and her 14-year-old son are HIV positive, yet both face imminent deportation to Malawi, where they will almost certainly die. And theirs is not a unique case. In this Barnardo’s project alone, other mothers and their children are in similar situations.
Jane, who is 55, came to Britain from Malawi in November 2002 to look after her ill sister, who died within five months of her arrival. Jane applied to stay as a student and this was allowed, until September 2003. She had four children still in Malawi, including Michael who, it was believed, had typhoid. Three of them sought to join their mother in October 2003. Two were refused and were returned to Malawi. But Michael was granted temporary entry because he was so unwell. He was quickly diagnosed with HIV.
Since their arrival, Jane and Michael have received treatment from the NHS and the health of both has improved. They can expect to survive several decades if they continue to receive the anti-retroviral treatment available here. Jane is bright and articulate, but terrified for her child. Michael is at a local comprehensive and, according to those who know the family, doing well. But Jane’s application to remain in the UK on health grounds has been refused. And not only has Michael’s application to stay been refused, but his appeal to an asylum and immigration tribunal, which met in September, has been rejected. Soon, when Jane’s appeal is rejected, as it almost certainly will be, they will return to Malawi to die.
Life or death judgment
The tribunal’s decision to reject the plea of a 14-year-old boy that he should be allowed to live was based on an earlier judgment by the House of Lords in the case of N. In that case, it was recorded that:
“Aliens subject to expulsion cannot claim any entitlement to remain in the territory of a contracting State in order to continue to benefit from medical, social and other forms of assistance provided by the expelling State. Article 3 imposes no such medical care obligation. This is so even where, in the absence of medical treatment, the life of the would-be immigrant will be significantly shortened.”
The judge in the case of N made it clear that if an applicant was dying, they would be allowed to stay in the UK. But in Michael’s case, because his health here has improved and – if he stayed here – it would be unlikely he would die for many decades, he can be returned to Malawi.
Many people would be surprised at the conclusion of the judge who heard Michael’s appeal. He said: “I am satisfied that treatment is available in Malawi, although not necessarily comparable to that in the United Kingdom.”
The George House Trust in the north-west of England, the second oldest Aids charity in this country, supports HIV-positive adults and their children. Lynda Shentall, who works for the trust, is an expert on the availability of treatment in sub-Saharan Africa and knows Jane and Michael’s clinical condition. Michael has multi-drug-resistant HIV and is receiving a specific combination of drugs – and this is important – in a children’s dosage. Such combinations of drugs are not available in Malawi.
Treatments available here are based on combinations of just four anti-retroviral drugs, compared with over two-dozen in the UK. But the competing health problems in a population of 12 million, cared for by just 2,200 nurses, are overwhelming. Life expectancy is 36 years. Overcrowded and understaffed hospitals struggle to cope. Hepatitis A, typhoid, hepatitis B, rabies, polio, tuberculosis and cholera are prevalent. Fifteen per cent of the population is HIV positive: that’s 1.8 million people. Shentall believes that only 30,000 of them are being treated. So while we watch the soap opera of Madonna adopting baby David from Malawi, we are about to send teenager Michael in the other direction. And he will die.
Shentall told Michael’s tribunal this: “The treatments that Jane and Michael need are clearly not available to them in Malawi. They would fall ill without treatment interventions because both have advanced and complex HIV. Michael’s health is more complicated because he is a child. If Michael were to be returned to Malawi, he would quickly fall ill and probably quickly die. By quickly, I mean within a matter of months.”
We should be ashamed
How can we let this happen? I don’t for one moment believe the Prime Minister wants this; neither does John Reid. So are the media to blame? Are there editors out there who really want to support what we are about to do to Michael? I doubt it. Do the public want it? I can’t believe that either. But whoever is to blame, collectively, we are about to end Michael’s life, needlessly and callously. Can we not just pause and imagine how we would feel if this were our teenage son? Have we lost any sort of moral compass?
Barnardo’s is not calling for the removal of all immigration controls. But Jane and Michael are here, and their case demands a compassionate hearing based on that reality. If they were at risk from serious political persecution, they would be allowed to remain. Instead they are, with absolute certainty, destined to lose their lives unnecessarily. To return them to certain death, having controlled their illness here, seems cruel and inhumane.
At the Labour conference, in discussions about child poverty, I quoted Gordon Brown’s encouraging words, made just before the conference, when he told Andrew Marr: “As a father, any time I see a child suffering, any time I see a child neglected, any time I see a child whose talent has been wasted and not fulfilled, I feel that’s not just something wrong and a stab at our conscience. It’s a waste for our whole society. It’s a stain on the soul of our society.”
Returning Jane and Michael to certain death would be just such a stain. We should be ashamed. It is economically unnecessary in this, the fourth-richest country in the world, and morally repugnant. As Shentall concluded in her report to the tribunal: shortly after arriving home, Michael can expect to watch his mother die, before – possibly alone – dying himself.
Martin Narey was director general of the Prison Service and a permanent secretary at the Home Office. He is now the chief executive of Barnardo’s
Asylum in the UK
Research by Sam Alexandroni
There were 26,000 asylum applications in 2005.
Asylum applications have fallen dramatically since 2002, when they peaked at 84,000.
This reduction is due to more effective NGO work abroad, displacement being contained close to troubled areas, the absence of a major disaster close to Britain, and an increase in people arriving clandestinely in the UK.
75 per cent of asylum applications are processed within two months.
83 per cent of asylum applications made in 2005 were rejected.
Iranians make up the highest percentage of asylum-seekers (12 per cent), followed by Somalians, Eritreans, Chinese (7 per cent each), and Afghans (6 per cent).
A family of four asylum-seekers must survive on £154 a week – £124 below the poverty line. They are not allowed to work.
The Home Office does not keep statistics on the number of asylum-seekers with HIV or other terminal illnesses deported from the UK.
An estimated 285,000 failed asylum-seekers are living in the UK, according to the National Audit Office.