On World Refugee Day, Communities Secretary Angela Constance has written to the new UK Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis calling on the UK government to live up to its moral responsibility on its approach to refugees.
Read the letter in full below.
I would like to congratulate you on your new role as Minister of State for Immigration and look forward to developing a productive working relationship in the coming years.
I am proud that Scotland has been able to make a significant contribution to the UK’s Syrian Resettlement Programme. 31 of our 32 local authorities have been able to participate in the programme and offer a place of safety to over 1,750 Syrian refugees since October 2015.
Scotland’s ability to respond quickly to the humanitarian crisis is a testament to the hard work of our local authorities, the strong and welcoming support of people across Scotland and the collaborative networks we established through our New Scots refugee integration strategy.
We are currently developing a refreshed New Scots strategy to continue Scotland’s distinctive approach to supporting refugees and asylum seekers from day one of arrival and importantly we intend to keep refugees at the heart of New Scots. This week on World Refugee Day, I will launch a programme of engagement to inform the new strategy.
I hope that in your new role, you will seek to make a difference to the lives of refugees and people seeking asylum in the UK. There are unfortunately a number of issues which I remain concerned about and want to bring to your attention.
The Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee recently undertook an inquiry into ‘Destitution, Asylum and Insecure Immigration Status in Scotland.’ I was disappointed that your predecessor declined the invitation to attend the Committee during the inquiry, though I appreciate that written evidence was provided. I recommend that you read the Committee report and I would hope that on seeing the evidence the committee has gathered, you will consider the devastating impact of current asylum policies on the most vulnerable people and respond to the committee on actions your government could take to improve the lives of many people.
I strongly believe that destitution should never be an outcome of our asylum system. It is unacceptable that people fleeing war and terror should end up destitute or homeless in a country where they have sought refuge. In Scotland there are limits to what we can do with devolved powers to mitigate the impact of the asylum system. It is far better to prevent destitution in the first place than to try to pick up the pieces once the damage has been done.
I continue to hear of issues relating to the 28 day move on period new refugees are allowed before they have to leave their asylum accommodation and support. There is a complete mismatch between the time allowed for people, who have been denied access to employment or mainstream benefits and have had no experience of accessing housing in the UK, and the time it takes for benefits to be paid. 28 days is not sufficient time.
Administrative and bureaucratic processes should not be putting people under pressure and causing destitution, at a time when they should be able to get on with their lives. The Scottish Government supports the Home Affairs Committee’s recommendation that the move on period should be extended, based on a realistic assessment of the time it takes to get benefits and housing in place.
I am further concerned about the detrimental impact the Immigration Act 2016 will have once commenced. Proposals to further cut support to refused asylum seekers, including families with children, are wrong in principle and I believe they will not achieve your objective of ensuring the departure of refused asylum seekers from the UK.
Organisations which support refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland have been telling me of their increasing concerns due to the emergence of a two-tier system of support for refugees in the UK. There is a huge disparity between the level of support which is able to be provided through local authorities and supporting organisations under programmes like the Syrian Resettlement Programme and the support available for asylum seekers and newly recognised refugees. It should not be the case that two people from the same town, who have both been forced to leave their homes because of war and violence, should find that one can be welcomed and supported effectively and the other not only has to navigate the complexities of the asylum process but at the end of it is given 28 days to become self-sufficient. The effectiveness of properly supported resettlement programmes is clear. The UK should do all we can to offer similar access to support for refugees however they have arrived, including providing appropriate resources for the services which are essential to supporting people to settle in their new communities.
I have long been concerned about reports of the poor condition of asylum accommodation and the treatment of asylum seekers by people who should be ensuring that they feel safe and secure in their accommodation. I welcomed the publication of the Home Affairs Committee’s report of its inquiry into asylum accommodation in January. That report highlighted the importance of the role of devolved governments in arrangements for asylum accommodation. I would like to confirm my commitment to work with the Home Office and other key partners to take the Committee’s recommendations forward.
In March I wrote to your predecessor, Robert Goodwill MP, regarding asylum accommodation and support in relation to the Home Office Asylum Accommodation and Support Transformation project. I believe it is crucial that the next asylum accommodation contract is properly funded to deliver a quality service, which enables asylum seekers to be safely housed and which supports their integration into communities. I welcomed Robert Goodwill’s commitment to ensure that the Scottish Government is involved in the development of the new contracts and that an open dialogue would be maintained throughout the process. I look forward to engaging with you during the transformation project.
As you will be aware, we remain opposed to the closure of the so-called ‘Dubs’ scheme, and continue to urge the UK Government to reinstate this important route to safety for unaccompanied children. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss with you the financial pressures faced by Scottish local authorities in accommodating unaccompanied young children. Local authorities here are willing to offer help to this vulnerable group of young people but, as I have outlined in previous correspondence, they are emphatic that the per capita rate offered by the Home Office is not enough to provide a service that best meets the needs of these children. I also look forward to resuming dialogue around access to legal advice and provision of support to care leavers and those at the end of the appeals process.
I understand that the Home Office is conducting a review of the aforementioned per capita rates; that its findings are expected to be published this summer, and that work is underway to better support those whose appeal rights are exhausted (ARE). I look forward to learning of progress in both of these areas and Scotland stands ready to support the UK Government in any way possible.
Scottish Ministers have longstanding concerns about the situation in Dungavel and have argued for its replacement with a more humane system. I wrote to the Home Secretary in February to outline my support for calls to limit immigration detention to 28 days and for alternatives to detention to be used wherever possible, particularly in cases where no crime has been committed or where a sentence has already been served. I am yet to receive a reply.
Detention causes long term harm for people’s mental health, social connections and future prospects. I am extremely interested in work to explore alternatives to immigration detention, such as the community support pilot which is taking place in England. I would therefore like to explore with you how we could take this work forward in Scotland, perhaps through a similar pilot approach with people who would otherwise be detained in Dungavel. I am keen to discuss this further with you and to work in partnership to facilitate the development of alternatives to immigration detention in Scotland.
I would welcome a face to face meeting at the earliest opportunity to discuss these further so we can work together to make improvements and resolve the issues which are affecting refugees and those seeking asylum as they settle into our communities and begin to rebuild their lives.