Updated: Jan 23, 2021
Last week, the UK was shocked by the news that Mercy Baguma, an asylum seeker from Uganda, had died, starving in her Glasgow flat. More saddening was the fact that Mercy’s one-year-old son was found crying next to his mother, severely malnourished. The story also angered me, this was a mother who, by all accounts, was devoted to her son and worked hard towards a new life, until her right to work was revoked. It’s naïve to think that there isn’t a growing disdain towards refugees, which is slowly bleeding into the policies of the government. This ideology is one lacking empathy towards refugees in the name of protecting British interests, particularly endorsed by Secretary of State, Priti Patel, who is ironically born with an immigrant background. When I read about Mercy, my mind immediately thought of all the other families in a similar position, whose voices are underrepresented in British society. Asylum seekers endure at least six-months of uncertainty, patiently waiting for the Home Office to decide on their future as a UK citizen. Without a right to remain, asylum seekers can’t apply for employment and with no access to benefits, on a small £37.75 per week contribution from the Asylum Support fund to cover all necessities from food to transport. According to the Office of National Statistics for the year ending December 2019, figures show that 677,000 people migrated to the UK intending to stay for 12 months or more. By the year ending March 2020, statistics from Gov.uk reported that there were 35,099 asylum applications with resettlement offered to 20,339 people. The number of arrivals has increased by 11% since the previous year but is lower than the figures recorded in 2016 (36,546). In the UK ethnic people still only account for 14% of the population, meaning that Britain is a majority ‘white’ country, despite protests from right-wing nationalists. An unwillingness by the government to condemn anti-immigration activists only seems to enforce an ‘us vs them’ narrative, contradicting Britain’s welcoming policy. People will often disregard refugees as ‘migrants’, insinuating that all asylum seekers are relocating by choice, despite there legally being different definitions of each term. While the difference between a refugee and asylum seeker may seem slight, quality of life based on which category you fall into can have stark differences. To apply for refugee status, you must be able to prove that you can’t return to your home country due to fear of persecution, such as Syrian refugees under the threat of ISIS. An asylum seeker is someone whose claim is still awaiting approval from the Home Office, which can take up to six months or more. In this time, asylum seekers can’t seek employment or apply for permanent accommodation, with many living in a state of destitution. It’s only once an asylum claim has been granted by the Home Office, that people have the right to seek employment or apply for benefits if unable to work. To add more uncertainty, any asylum support, (the £37.75 per week), will stop within 28 days and accommodation can be revoked, regardless of whether refugees are in employment. This increases reliance on charities such as Positive Action in Housing in Glasgow who work tirelessly to give asylum seekers support whilst their fate is decided. Two years ago, I spent a month observing Positive Action in Housing, observing daily both the determination and anxiety in the eyes of asylum seekers. One asylum seeker had been seeking the charity’s help after his flatmates fled the country, leaving him in substantial council tax arrears. I was moved by the man’s ambition and can’t begin to imagine the stress of your right to live being questioned, coupled with debt threatening to destabilise his hopes for the future. Still, he spoke of his future ambition to become a sports coach and be able to contribute his talent to better the UK. Recently, we've watched Politician, Nigel Farage hunt down asylum seekers who have been offered accommodation in local hotels during the pandemic, filming his trips for documentaries uploaded to social media. His actions could be contributed to a group of Britain First nationalists storming the Daresbury Hotel in Warrington last week, demanding answers as to why they've arrived in Britain. Despite Farage’s denial that the anti-immigration rhetoric has racial undertones, it’s clear that more people feel they now have a platform to express racist views. The more we provide a platform to those who oppose immigration and distance ourselves from different cultures the more Britain will regress to the country of intolerance it's removed itself from. I fear that if we continue to silence the voices of refugees and dismiss their experiences, we’ll hear more stories like that of Mercy Baguma, who’s new life was silently robbed.