What could devolution mean for asylum seekers in Yorkshire?

In this guest blog post by refugee and migration activist, and local primary school teacher Ian Martin, he ponders what the impact of democratic devolution to Yorkshire might have on how we treat migrants.  For more on what Ian thinks about devolution and migration see his video below.  Follow Ian on Twitter @ianeastleeds.

What would happen if Yorkshire could decide for itself how to welcome those fleeing war and persecution?

If you want to help somebody who is starving, can you? Are you ‘allowed’?

The answer is of course ‘yes’. Sort of.

If for example you are wanting to help an asylum seeker who couldn’t skilfully and successfully navigate our complex asylum system even though things were so frightening in their homeland they risked their life to reach the EU, you could offer them food, drink, clothes, somewhere to sleep and keep warm. If you were part of Yorkshire St Pauli, you could make friends by playing and watching football together. But none of the taxes you pay to local or national government could be used to help them. Many people fleeing war and persecution are specifically denied ‘recourse to public funds’. Apparently it’s a big pull factor. Like those rescue boats in the Mediterranean.

insert-image-1-yorkshire-flag

White Rose of Yorkshire, courtesy of britishcountyflags.wordpress.com

At the moment therefore even if you are more than happy for some of the money you give to the state to be used to keep asylum seekers alive, to help them retain some basic human dignity, it won’t happen. So in a sense, you’ve been prevented from helping someone who is starving.

Is this what you want? Does this sound like the way that you and your neighbours want to welcome people to Yorkshire?

This is why so many asylum seekers in Yorkshire are destitute, without access to food, drink, toiletries, clothing and somewhere warm, safe and dry to sleep. The decisions made by our representatives mean that people who want to work to support themselves, who have no control over the minimum wage nor employment rights, are deliberately forced into unacceptable poverty. This is why brilliant charities like PAFRAS in Leeds and ASSIST in Sheffield are having to work so hard to help desperate people with the basics, even though they cannot use any taxpayer funds to do it. PAFRAS alone help as many as 1000 destitute individuals each year.

But surely you can change this. You could lobby your councillor, your MP and MEP, you could join a campaigning organisation like SYMAAG or Leeds No Borders to put pressure on the Home Office. In this country, ordinary citizens can influence policy that matters to them. Theoretically.

See what Ian thinks about devolution here.
But who is making these decisions? Where are they? Who is influencing them? Why are they making these decisions? There is a feeling of political powerlessness in many EU states and the ability to make a positive impact on government policy towards those fleeing war and persecution feels just as remote as anything else.

But what if it was different. What if the political engagement, that inspired long term residents and asylum seekers alike, around the Scottish referendum led to devolution within England? What if a movement of civil society organisations successfully campaigned for a new democracy in the North? Perhaps directly elected City Regions (like Hamburg in Germany) or a Yorkshire regional assembly or a government uniting the 15 million citizens of the North?

Even whilst retaining UK border controls within an overall EU framework, could Yorkshire choose ourselves how we welcome, accommodate, support and integrate refugees? What if we made those decisions ourselves within a lively new democracy? The Scottish Refugee Council recommend that ‘executive devolution of welfare support of asylum seekers to Scottish Ministers will ensure that people seeking asylum in Scotland are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve throughout the asylum process’.

Could the same be true in Yorkshire?

Even if the UK government maintained a policy of forced destitution for those asylum seekers lost in the asylum labyrinth, could a new Yorkshire democracy welcome those asylum seekers entitled to support without stigma and prejudice? Without pre-paid cards at below the poverty line levels that actually make life more expensive by telling fellow human beings what they can buy and where they can shop? Even if we did not have the power to allow asylum seekers to work, to support themselves legitimately, to contribute to the tax base, could we ensure asylum seekers had cash support that enabled them to buy the things they need from the nearest, cheapest shop? Could we set a lead for other devolved regions to follow?

Historically Home Office contracts to manage asylum accommodation and integration projects have been allocated at a regional level but the policies were decided and implemented nationally. Did they reflect the welcome that we in Yorkshire wanted to extend? Could a new Yorkshire democracy take responsibility for using local knowledge better? For ensuring that people locally are properly informed about and engaged positively with the new arrivals in their neighbourhood? That they are properly supported to meet each other, have fun together, build understanding and share their common humanity? Perhaps even funded to hold street parties as proposed by the think tank IPPR. Could the 5.3 million people of Yorkshire and the Humber give a proper welcome to the 5,500 asylum seekers in the region?

In previous years local authorities were funded by the Home Office to provide accommodation and support services. This was achieved by elected councillors, council officers, related civil servants and local charities working together. They lacked the direct democratic legitimacy of an elected regional assembly but they oversaw a relatively groundbreaking period in cooperation and integration between people fleeing war and persecution and their hosts.

Subsequently the local authority consortium contract was not renewed and asylum seeker accommodation in Yorkshire has been run by private companies lacking the overall strategic responsibility for community cohesion exercised by local authorities. As the South Yorkshire campaign group SYMAAG have so brilliantly exposed, the central government contracted accommodation run by G4S and Serco in Yorkshire has been a disaster, leaving vulnerable individuals in squalid conditions, and was even described by the Parliamentary public accounts committee as ‘often unacceptably poor’.

Would this have happened in a Yorkshire democracy with real knowledge of its area and the impact on it of getting such a key policy wrong? Maybe. But I would argue much less likely.

Of course there are other factors to consider here: How would other parts of the UK and asylum seekers themselves react to a ‘kinder’ environment in Yorkshire? Would there need to be ‘minimum’ standards for welcoming asylum seekers across the UK (or even EU) to prevent any new regional democracy going too far the other way and becoming unwelcoming? Or does that undermine the very basis of devolution itself? To what extent would UK/EU procurement rules promote the involvement of private companies with no experience of working with asylum seekers in organising accommodation and therefore limit the authority of devolved governance? How would migrants from other parts of the EU and the rest of the world be welcomed alongside asylum seekers? Could integration projects for those with refugee status also engage other migrants with host communities?

Maybe a new Yorkshire democracy would enable those struggling in our many different communities, whether migrants or locally born, to find common cause in reclaiming power for their part of the world and demanding decisions are made closer to them and their experiences?

For these reasons I would like any future devolution proposals for this part of the world to consider including the right to fund and make policy on asylum support, integration and community cohesion. For truly worthwhile devolution that empowers those most left out by our centralised state, the process of building a grassroots coalition of citizens able to speak to power will take time. It will be the issues that will engage more than structures – what if we got ambitious about being more welcoming to asylum seekers? Could devolution allow us to stand up, take responsibility and be kind?

More from Ian Martin @ianeastleeds, at the Yorkshire Devolution Movement and Republic.

For more background information:

Asylum seeker rights and entitlements

http://www.leeds.ac.uk/sociology/people/pddocs/ESRC_8pp.pdf

http://www.northlanarkshire.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=4227&p=0

Meditteranean rescue programme
https://news.vice.com/article/surge-in-migrant-deaths-predicted-as-italy-ends-mediterranean-rescue-program

Views of asylum seekers in Glasgow on the referendum
http://mappingimmigrationcontroversy.com/2014/09/18/that-was-in-london-not-here-talking-anti-immigration-campaigns-and-belonging-with-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-in-glasgow/

Scottish Refugee Council submission on devolving asylum support:
http://www.scottishrefugeecouncil.org.uk/news_and_events/latest_news/2529_our_submission_to_the_smith_commission

IPPR proposals
http://www.ippr.org/big-issues/immigration

Detailed statistics and background on migration in Yorkshire
http://www.migrationyorkshire.org.uk

SYMAAG article about Public Accounts Committee report on G4S and Serco accommodation in Yorkshire
http://www.symaag.org.uk/2014/05/05/its-official-g4s-and-serco-asylum-housing-unacceptably-poor/

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The Fifth Annual Politics and Applied Global Ethics Festival

The Fifth Annual Politics and Applied Global Ethics Festival
It doesn’t really matter how engaging, witty and charismatic one may be (and here at PAGE, I am sure we all are!), by mid-way through the semester, that first year introductory module can start to feel a bit tired, and tiring, for all concerned. So this year, for the fifth annual Politics and Applied Global Ethics Festival, we tried some thing different. Classes were cancelled for the week and students were asked instead to attend a variety of simulations, debates, round-tables, guest lectures and film showings. The aim was to carry on learning but at tangents from the main curriculum.

Attendance, participation and engagement with the various events suggests it was a roaring success.

ImageA series of blog-posts over the next few weeks will look back at the festival, reflecting on things learned by both students and staff. First up, last week was Dr Sophia Price’s reflection on using the Russian Punk Protest band Pussy Riot as a way in to teach about feminism and International Relations. Those that attended and were perhaps only partly aware of the group’s protest politics will not just have learned about patriarchy and feminism but also about the incredible bravery of band members Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich.

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In today’s post, Dr Paul Wetherly records his reflection on the ‘Building Civil Society Power Locally’ and ‘Debating Immigration’ events.

Building Power Locally
Andrew Grinnell from Citizens UK ran a workshop on ‘Building Civil Society Power Locally’, drawing on campaigning over several years in one of Leeds’ most deprived areas, East End Park. Building civil society power means developing the capacity of a community to hold politicians and other decision makers to account, influencing decisions and improving lives. Andrew cited the ideas of Saul Alinsky as one of the principal influences on this style of community organising. In the context of anxiety about disengagement from formal politics, evidenced by low turnouts at general elections, low trust in politicians and falling party membership, this is a model of an alternative form of participation that challenges the narrative of apathy.

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Courtesy of Citizen’s UK website: http://www.citizensuk.org/

There were questions in the workshop about the limits of civil society power at a local level in challenging mechanisms of power that operate on a larger scale and are embedded in the basic structures of society, and whether community-based campaigns can be easily bought-off through minor concessions or even merely through commitments to better communication and consultation.
Andrew made a strong case that community organising had made a difference in East End Park through small victories in areas such as housing policy. Perhaps best-known at a national level is the growing campaign for a living wage. A Leeds Citizens group is being developed to bring this campaign to our city. In the final keynote lecture of the PAGE Festival Labour Work and Pensions Spokesperson Rachel Reeves MP argued that support for the living wage is a central element of Labour’s ‘one nation’ politics in her lecture on ‘Building a one nation economy’.

Community power requires some sense of community. From videoed interviews with East End Park residents it appeared that a sense of community had been undermined by anxieties about ethnic diversity resulting from recent immigration into what might be described as a formerly predominantly white working class area. Some of this anxiety was clearly expressed as opposition to immigration and hostility towards the newcomers, though there were also voices that welcomed the resulting diversity.

One interviewee expressed stridently racist attitudes towards the immigrants. However, Andrew Grinnell described how this person subsequently reflected on his own Irish name and learned about his ancestors who were themselves migrants to England, and this led him to rethink his hostility to the new incomers. They became people like him.

It is often remarked that Britain is, on a larger historical canvas, a nation of immigrants. However, it is doubtful whether wider understanding of this truth would have much effect on attitudes to immigration. This may be because the point is too abstract to affect people’s sense of their identity as members of the indigenous British population – it doesn’t unsettle an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. And even recent migrants or their descendants can express anxiety about or opposition to further immigration.

Debating Immigration
Alp Mehmet from Migration Watch exemplifies this fact, as a first generation immigrant for Cyprus who is vice-chairman of a leading thinktank calling for immigration to be reduced. In another Festival event Alp debated the question ‘Is immigration good for Britain?’ with Sunder Katwala, director of British Future. Britain has undoubtedly benefitted economically and culturally from immigration, and Sunder spelled out some of these benefits including students, entrepreneurs and the labour force.

Immigrants are, on average, net contributors to public finances by making a larger contribution through taxation than the claim they make on public spending. However the question needs to be unpacked. Alp Mehmet accepted that immigration had been good for Britain ‘most of the time’ and argued that migration for study should not be limited and that ‘genuine refugees’ should be accepted. However, the fact that Britain has benefited from migration in the past does not, he said, mean that more of it is good. In his view current levels of net migration need to be reduced.
But it is not clear on what basis current or projected levels of immigration are too high, what ‘balanced migration’ means in terms of numbers, or how a reduction would be achieved.

Although Alp acknowledged the benefits of migration in the past it is difficult not to conclude that immigration has always been ‘too high’ from this point of view. On the other hand, the alternative is not to argue that immigration does not bring challenges as well as benefits, and this was recognised by Sunder Katwala. Whether immigration is good for ‘Britain’ conceals its differential impacts on different groups. For example, Sunder emphasised the risk of unskilled migrant workers undercutting wage rates in some sectors and the need for effective enforcement of the minimum wage.