By Rosa Brown
Dr Thierry Grah is a qualified GP from the Ivory Coast. He is ready to work and keen to help support the Welsh NHS, but has been unable to do so because he is an asylum seeker and does not have the right to work. Dr Grah is a symbol of the failures in current legislation’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. For too long this debate has been driven by numbers and straplines: the UK government’s pledge to rehouse 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, the use of the UK’s £12bn international aid budget to house Syrian refugees. Such an approach reduces the subject to a matter of statistics rather than one of human life, in addition to overlooking the quality of living conditions and health that is provided to refugees and asylum seekers. Furthermore, it risks the creation of a hierarchy in the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers based on where they come from, a categorisation of ‘who has suffered the most’.
Whilst Dr Grah’s story indicates the shortcomings of immigration policy issued from the Home Office, the role of the Welsh government has also left a lot to be desired, particularly in relation to matters of health, education and integration.
Last week Dr Grah and many others who seek to make Wales their home were invited to tell their stories at the ‘Sanctuary in the Senedd’ event, organised by the Welsh Refugee Coalition (WRC). The WRC unites over thirty organisations- including the Welsh Centre for International Affairs (WCIA) – to speak as one in the interest of asylum seekers and refugees. Personal testimonies from asylum seekers and refugees along with written evidence produced by WRC members will be recorded and submitted to the Equalities, Local Government and Communities Committee as evidence for their inquiry into the support available for refugee and asylum seekers in Wales.
In March 2016, the Welsh government published its Refugee and Asylum Seeker Delivery plan, to detail how Wales would support these people in need. The report largely considered issues such as mental and physical health, social cohesion and education- particularly in terms of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). A Welsh government spokesperson has claimed that the plan has already resulted in positive changes, though they acknowledged the need to update its information on new schemes as they develop.
However in the last few weeks members of the WRC have largely criticised the Welsh government’s plan, namely under the accusation that it has attempted to present already established schemes as a means to solve all issues relating to the refugee crisis. Rocio Cifuentes, Director of the Ethnic Youth Support Team in Swansea, implored the Welsh government to do more to consider how asylum seekers and refugees are being perceived, particularly in local and national media. There have also been calls to put pressure on the UK government to invest more money in ESOL schemes, as the persistence of language barriers is detrimental to any person’s education, development and employment prospects. As education policy is devolved in Wales, the Welsh government have a responsibility to exert this pressure and deliver.
A further issue which the Welsh and UK government must be held to account is in regards to the housing of asylum seekers in Wales. As a result of the Home Office’s responsibility to implement UK policy on asylum, a £119m contract was issued with Clearsprings Ready Homes to provide all asylum accommodation in Wales. The condition of many of these houses has been severely criticised, from broken fire alarms and electrical sockets to leaking plumbing and damp.
According to the Welsh Government’s report on asylum seekers and refugees, the government ‘will work in partnership with the Home Office and relevant agencies and service providers to encourage the development of efficient and fair services for asylum seekers who come to Wales’. However, in regards to Clearsprings, there appears to be little evidence of this. A spokesperson from the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) admitted to the Equalities, Local Government and Communities Committee that no evidence of the poor housing conditions in Wales had been presented to the Home Office.
The existence of the ‘Sanctuary in the Senedd’ event is important, as it provided the opportunity to not only hear the stories of asylum seekers and refugees but hear what needs to be done. The Welsh government’s Refugee and Asylum Seeker Delivery plan does not currently appreciate the context of the refugee crisis and the needs of those who look to Wales and the UK for sanctuary. The Welsh government’s partial impact in this area of legislation may complicate this issue, though this should not be used as an excuse. Once any refugee or asylum seeker has reached Wales, the government is obliged to help them rebuild their lives and currently it has fallen short of this responsibility.