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Tough Times for Asylum Seekers as Britain Cracks Down - 2004-06-23

According to British government statistics, the number of people seeking asylum in Britain has declined by 60 percent in the last year and a half, to just over 10,000. The government partly credits its new tougher policy toward asylum seekers. But the asylum seekers, and their advocacy groups, say the new policy has left many people impoverished and homeless.

An asylum seeker who calls herself Fatmata is among the tens of thousands of people who fled the civil war in the West African country of Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

"It's fear of persecution, fear of being killed, fear of being maimed or hurt, anything," she said.

Fatmata did not want her real name used for this report, as she is still fearful of retaliation against her family in Sierra Leone.

She arrived in Britain in 1994, along with her five children. Although she was 50 years old, she immediately enrolled in a university to prepare for her new life. But adults who arrive now do not have the right to study, or to work, under a new law passed in 2002. Fatmata says the British government is too tough on asylum seekers, especially newcomers. She says the government focuses too much on the burden of processing the asylum seekers, and fails to see the contributions they can make to British society.

"They've overlooked the fact that a lot of people come with skills, skills that are needed in the developed countries," she said. "The fact is that people are prepared to do jobs that the indigenous people don't want so they've overlooked the fact that asylum seekers can be contributory towards the economic development of the country."

An asylum seeker is a person who is seeking protection as a refugee but has not been formally recognized as one. To qualify for refugee status the asylum seekers generally have to prove that they would face persecution if they returned to their home countries.

Many countries where people seek refugee status find them to be a burden - financially, bureaucratically and politically. Many local people in Britain and elsewhere see the asylum seekers as freeloaders, potential criminals and people who will take away their jobs. Advocacy groups say those stereotypes are wrong, and that asylum seekers are mostly desperate people whose lives are in danger and who can become valuable citizens of any country that will give them refuge.

Officials of Britain's Home Office, which handles asylum claims, declined to be interviewed for this report. But, in a recent news release, senior official Des Browne is quoted as saying the new policy has reduced the number of people who are abusing the asylum system.

After ending the asylum seekers' right to work or study two years ago, the British government further tightened its immigration policy last year. The most controversial part of the new regulations is Section 55, which denies financial support to asylum applicants unless they apply for asylum within 72 hours of their arrival.

Officials say most legitimate applicants ask for asylum as soon as they arrive. Those who apply later are suspected of having come for economic or personal reasons.

But at the advocacy group Refugee Action, Susie Renshaw says that is not necessarily true.

"It doesn't necessarily mean someone is making a false claim at all," she said. "It could be that someone has come and [been] told not to talk to anyone, and they are fearful. They don't speak English and they don't understand the system."

Under Section 55, those people are not eligible to receive housing, a monthly stipend, legal assistance and other benefits the British government provides to recognized asylum seekers.

But Ms. Renshaw says it can take years to process the asylum claims, leaving people who are not allowed to work and do not qualify for the benefits with no way to support themselves and their families.

"There is a long time of waiting for a decision so their lives are really interrupted for often several years," she said. "And in that time they are not allowed to work or study, so they are being forced to sit around with very little money to actually find anything to do."

Refugee specialist Jan Shaw at the London headquarters of Amnesty International says asylum seekers who have been denied support suffer a range of hardships.

"We feel that everybody should have access to benefits for the duration of their claim, or the right to work so that they can support themselves," he said. "Otherwise it makes applying for asylum very, very difficult."

South of London, in the town of Bromley, activist Rob Cartridge of the Bromley Refugee Network says his organization encounters a large number of people who are homeless as a result of the denial of benefits under Section 55.

Mr. Cartridge says his main concern is that Section 55 makes it too difficult for people with genuine asylum claims to remain in Britain while their claims are processed. He says that forces some of them to return home, where they may face persecution, arrest and possibly even death.

"What we need is a fair system, a transparent system and a quick system," he said. "We, as wealthy democratic countries, do have a duty to help people who will be persecuted and tortured in their own countries."

At the offices of the Bromley Refugee Network, volunteers like the woman from Sierra Leone, Fatmata, help recognized asylum seekers find the services they need by referring them to the appropriate government agencies. But through her work, she has also met a significant number of people who have been denied all benefits by Section 55.

"I can empathize with them," she said. "I know exactly what they are going through. I know the hardship, the sleepless nights, the worry, the pain of leaving family behind and leaving the known and coming to the unknown."

Her colleague, who gives her name only as Nadia, also knows what it's like because she, too, is an asylum seeker. Nadia fled Burundi four years ago, just before the new rules went into effect, and is now in law school.

"It's very hard for someone like me to start a new life in a country," said Nadia. "You don't know a lot about this country, you don't know the language. You have to start your life from scratch and we do work really hard and then we go back to study. We have to be three times, even four times, six times better than someone who was born here."

Nadia and Fatmata are both in the final stages of their asylum claims.

The British government's effort to reduce the number of asylum seekers in the country will continue. And the would-be refugees and their advocacy groups will continue to try to ensure that asylum seekers get the protection they need, and at least basic rights and services, while they wait for the government to decide their fate.