WHAT would be the effect on the politics of immigration if, instead of calling those who come to our shores seeking refuge “asylum-seekers”, we started using the word “sanctuary” instead? A study by the Independent Asylum Commission suggests that the effect would be substantial.
“Sanctuary” is a term that evokes more effectively those fundamental principles of compassion and hospitality for the stranger that “asylum” has lost. Jews in the Nazi era were afforded sanctuary, as were Huguenots and other victims of oppression before them. It has a nobility of spirit that is rarely conveyed by the term “asylum-seeker”.
The reasons for this were discussed on Beyond Belief (Radio 4, Monday of last week). All agreed that the main reason is the clouding of the issue of asylum with that of economic migration. Although, as Canon Nicholas Sagovsky pointed out, there is a finer line than one might like to think between economic and actual physical persecution, the law understands a legitimate asylum-seeker to be one with a well-founded fear of persecution. Of the 26,000 applications made in the UK in 2008, however, the vast majority failed to make that case convincingly enough for the authorities.
The panel was asked to recommend the best course of action for someone seeking asylum in the UK. The majority view was to find a good lawyer. This, as Face the Facts (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) revealed, is easier said than done. This was the kind of investigation that provokes extreme anger — not least because the solution seems so obvious.
It all starts with the former Labour Government’s campaign, in Tony Blair’s words, to “derail the gravy train” that is legal aid. Under Labour, the bill for legal aid had risen sharply, and there was a legitimate cause for concern. New restrictions mean that lawyers are now paid a flat fee for each type of case, and are no longer paid for “work in progress”.
In cases of asylum appeals, which can stretch over several years, the new rules mean that specialist firms are pulling out of the area, and one — Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) — has recently gone bust, with thousands of cases still on its books.
Few are going to shed a tear over straitened fees for lawyers, but they might over the case of Osman Rasul, an Iraqi Kurd and a client of RMJ, who reacted to the news of the withdrawal of legal support by taking his own life.
Entering the market to take over the cases that RMJ might have worked on are an increasing number of non-specialist solicitors, who, in the words of one expert, come to “feast on the vulnerable”. The cases of legitimate claimants, such as the woman from Burundi who, as a result of poor advice, was prevented from bringing her children over, or the man who found himself in prison because the documents given to him by his lawyer were fake — these, and several more, are as depressing as they are avoidable.
That the Legal Services Commission could not even bother to put up a representative to discuss these cases simply adds to the sense of frustration. As witnesses on both these programmes made clear, Britain has forgotten its tradition of sanctuary.