Recession: no excuse to trample on refugee rights

It's Community Relations Week in Northern Ireland, with the theme this year being how community divisions hamper our economy. The call for more action by politicians on community relations will receive the backing of business leaders later in the week at a major conference organised by the the Community Relations Council

I'm leaving the office shortly to speak at an event, hosted by Belfast's Lord Mayor, for the city's refugee and asylum-seeker community. I will emphasise that it is not economics, but war and persecution, which drives refugees to our shores and that human rights should not have a price-tag which makes them 'unaffordable' in times of recession.

Here is the gist of what I will be saying in the Lord Mayor's Parlour:

"The Community Relations Council is linking this year's Community Relations Week with the economy, noting how a stable and united community can lead to a more prosperous society. That is true, but it is also important that the financial imperative is not the only driver of political decisions in Northern Ireland – we must also look to the moral and the legal imperatives.

"For instance, it is important to distinguish between asylum seekers and economic migrants. Migrants choose to move in order to improve their lives. Refugees are forced to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.

"Over the years, I have met refugees and asylum seekers here from many parts of the world – from Kosovo, Rwanda, Colombia, Zimbabwe: none of whom could be accused of coming to Northern Ireland in pursuit of economic gain; all of whom fled their homes to preserve their lives and the lives of their children.

"Sadly, turn on the news any night of the week and you will soon find the reasons for refugee flows around the world. From Sri Lanka to the Congo, from Afghanistan to Sudan, people daily face the scourge of war, ethnic cleansing and persecution.

"This country, like most States, is signed up to the UN Convention on Refugees. But, Amnesty International is concerned that the interpretation of the UN Convention is often very narrow. Many applications are rejected on ‘non-compliance’ grounds – for example, the applicant may simply have failed to correctly fill out the paperwork (the initial claim form is complex and may be only be completed in English), may have missed an immigration interview for lack of money for transport, or may have had to flee their home country without their passports or the right visa.

"The fact that someone’s claim for refugee status has been rejected does not turn that person into a so-called 'bogus asylum seeker'. In the UK, legal experts in this field now believe that the range of ‘deterrent measures’ introduced by the government in recent years (such as a range of new criminal convictions for breaking immigration rules, minimal support for the destitute and the detention of many asylum seekers), means that it is very rare for an individual to claim asylum unless he is she is in genuine need of protection.

"Many refused asylum seekers end up forced into abject poverty, living a hand-to-mouth existence, including in Northern Ireland. Indeed, there is a widespread concern that governments may be deliberately using destitution in an attempt to drive refused asylum seekers out of their country.

"In a time of local and global recession, as a society  we must take care not to leave some of the world's most vulnerable people in an even more vulnerable situation, sleeping on the streets and forced to turn to churches and charities for their basic needs.

"Tough times call for warm hearts, but also for clear heads and strong voices. This is a time for people in Belfast and across Northern Ireland to rally round our refugee and asylum-seeker community to make sure that they receive the full protection of their human rights and have the opportunity to live lives of dignity which we too would want for ourselves and our children."

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