Tuesday’s reports that more than 120 people are feared drowned after a boat sank off the Libyan coast is a stark reminder of the global refugee crisis. A stark reminder that every day people in their tens of thousands are risking their lives in search of safety. Taking these steps because embarking on a perilous journey to a place they have never been to before, often alone with loved ones left behind, with nothing on them but the clothes they are wearing actually holds more hope than staying where they are.
You would be forgiven for not always having this stark truth at the front of your mind. What with the general election; speculation about the relationship between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party; Brexit; pensions and social care; several extreme acts of terrorism, not to mention the tragedy at Grenfell Tower firmly dominating the headlines, there is rather a lot else going on to think about.
But make no mistake, the refugee crisis is going nowhere. In fact it is only getting more troubling, more deadly. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that nearly two thousand people lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2017. This came just a day before the UNHCR reported that 20 people were forced into displacement every single minute of 2016 and that the number of refugees worldwide has soared to a record high of 65.6 million – 300,000 more than it was the year before. Over half of these are children.
It was therefore welcome news that the proposed legislation and policies for the next session of parliament as set out in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech included a new Immigration Bill and a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill. These present real opportunities to improve the lives of refugees – and we so hope the government grabs them with both hands.
The forthcoming Immigration Bill is a chance for the UK to expand existing safe and legal routes to refugee protection in the UK, and to create new ones. This would reduce the need for people fleeing war and persecution to turn to smugglers and risk their lives while trying to reach safety. We hope the government decides to take this opportunity.
There is also scope for this legislation to change that relate to refugee family reunion: To expand the definition of “family”so that, for example, elderly parents and children who have already turned 18 can too be granted permission to be reunited with family members, and to give lone refugee children the chance to reunite with their family in safety here. This important issue is the key focus of the Refugee Council’s latest campaign. This could be coupled with an expansion of the UK’s resettlement schemes beyond 2020, to give more people the chance to build new lives here. Once again, we implore the government to take this opportunity.
Just before parliament rose before the general election, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees published the report of their Refugees welcome? Inquiry. The report highlighted the problems that newly recognised refugees face in the period after they have been granted status – issues the Refugee Council has been campaigning on for many years. What better time for the government to put these changes in place – changes that could prevent refugees becoming homeless and destitute – than now?
Here at the Refugee Council we support refugee women who have experienced terrible violence – violence before they left their country of origin, while on their journeys to safety and also once they have reached the UK. The way that the asylum support system currently operates makes it very difficult for women seeking asylum who are experiencing domestic violence to escape their abusers. Introducing a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, which aims to protect victims of domestic violence and abuse, is a chance to put this right by recognising the specific issues faced by women in the asylum process and enforcing measures to help them. Once again – let’s hope the government sees sense and puts a right to these wrongs.
Maurice Wren is the Chief Executive of the Refugee Council. Our latest campaign calls on the government to introduce a Refugee Family Reunion bill to help refugees be reunited in safety. To see how you can get involved, go to: https://action.refugeecouncil.org.uk/togetheragain/