treeRefugees and Asylum Seekers in the UK: The Last 20 Years

For CLEAR’s 20th anniversary this month, we take a look back at how policy and attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers in the UK have changed since our beginnings in 2001…

When considering developments in government legislation affecting refugees and asylum seekers, it can be hard to feel positive. A previous blog post explained CLEAR’s membership of the Lift the Ban Coalition, campaigning to allow asylum seekers the right to work after six months of waiting for their asylum claim to be processed, instead of the current twelve. In 2001, this coalition wouldn’t have been necessary, as until mid 2002, asylum seekers could apply to work after six months of waiting (Asylum seekers: the permission to work policy report, p7). From 2002 asylum seekers could only be granted the right to work in ‘exceptional cases’, until the current 12-month policy was introduced in 2005.

Part of the reason the work ban is so cruel is because it forces asylum seekers to live off their governmental allowance of £39.63 a week, denying them the chance to earn more than this. But how has this allowance changed over time? The 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act granted financial support to people waiting for a decision on their asylum application in the form of vouchers worth around 70% of income support at the time. This was subsequently replaced by cash payments in 2001. Whilst one might hope that these payments are greater now than in the past, the 2021 allowance of £39.63 is closer to 50% of income support for an adult aged 25 or over, suggesting a reduction in the relative value of these payments, even if the actual cash figure has slightly increased.

These are just two of a myriad of ways in which recent governments have acted against the interests of refugees and asylum seekers. However, more has happened in the last 20 years than changes to governmental policy. When considering the amount of support available from organisations like CLEAR now compared with in the past, the improvement is evident. The normalisation of these kinds of groups appears in stark contrast to their relative scarcity in the early 2000s, and the fact that they’ve now been around for a while means that they are becoming increasingly experienced and skilled in providing support to those who need it.

Writing for CLEAR blog, the founders of the organisation noted how in the early days, it was not uncommon for CLEAR to receive hate mail and suspicious packages in the post that resulted in bomb disposal being called in, such was the controversy around an organisation which helped refugees receiving National Lottery funding at that time. Now, organisations which provide similar services to CLEAR can be found all over the country. Whilst anti-refugee sentiment undoubtedly remains high amongst some politicians and the media and there is still controversy when pro-refugee groups receive funding, the increased size, visibility and public support for CLEAR and other similar groups speaks to the fact that help for refugees and asylum seekers has grown in at least some ways in the last 20 years, despite the media and political efforts against this. Even extremely well known nationwide projects such as City of Sanctuary didn’t exist 20 years ago, whilst now there are numerous Cities of Sanctuary across the UK, including Southampton. The project has also branched out into Universities, Schools and Libraries of Sanctuary, demonstrating the relatively rapid expansion of a movement that hadn’t even begun when CLEAR was founded.

In spite of this increased support for pro-refugee groups, there is still a long way to go in terms of bringing about changes in policy and attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers. However, with multiple services available to our clients every weekday and a dedicated team of staff and volunteers, CLEAR looks forward to continuing its role in supporting these groups in Southampton for as long as is necessary, putting its 20 years of experience to good use.

To find out more about what the future might hold for us, check the blog again soon!