Wednesday, 16 June 2010

How we treat asylum seekers is a test of our humanity

The author Pat Barker once wrote, "it's the hardest thing in the world to go on being aware of someone else's pain." When it comes to British politicians empathising with the plight of asylum seekers, there is much truth in her words. Years of the political establishment stoking up prejudice against asylum seekers has left many a heart cold to their plight. Hopefully this shocking report from the Red Cross might make some rethink their attitudes. They highlight that up to 20,000 failed asylum seekers are living in destitute conditions. 87% often surviving on one meal a day.

We are one of the wealthiest nations in the world. We like to pride ourselves on being an advanced and civilised society. Surely one test of that is our ability to show empathy with the most desperate people in our society?

The current asylum system is in urgent need of reform. A good place to start would be to implement the recommendations of the Red Cross ‘for a support system that will ensure individuals have the right to work, and access to healthcare, throughout their application until they are either granted leave to stay or helped to leave the country’. It is the very least we should do.

 Despite the politicians, it is the people, as ever, that offer hope. I take some heart from the finding of this poll conducted for Refugee Action that shows the majority of refugees found the average member of the British public welcoming towards them. Ignorance, prejudice and racism towards asylum seekers can be undermined. But only by challenging the politicians who peddle myths about this country sinking under the weight of asylum seekers coming here. And only too if we challenge those politicians who are desperate to attack the welfare state and pit poor communities against each other in a race to the bottom for scarce resources.

There is no shortage of wealth in Britain. The Sunday Times Rich List reports that the richest 1,000 people have seen their personal wealth increase by 30% to £77 billion pounds. As Mark Steel points out, that is the half the entire national deficit. There is plenty of wealth out there. It is in the interests of society that it is distributed more fairly.