Background

We are a charity and a company limited by guarantee, established in 1999 by concerned local people who realised that numbers of asylum seekers and refugees were either being “dispersed” or were settling themselves in Suffolk, particularly in the Ipswich area. These concerned local people saw the need for advice, advocacy and practical support for asylum seekers and refugees.

Who are Asylum Seekers and Refugees?

An Asylum Seeker is someone who has left their country of origin due to fear of persecution and applied for protection in the UK. Many have suffered imprisonment, torture, violence and threats to themselves and their families. This can make returning to their home country extremely dangerous. The 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees defines a Refugee as a person who:

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.

This convention was agreed by the United Nations in 1951 as a result of the treatment of asylum seekers in the 1930s and 1940s, when many Jewish people were refused access to safe countries and forced back into Hitler’s Europe, very often to their deaths. There are still many people around the world who suffer persecution, for whom the UN Refugee Convention offers vital protection.

Current Situation

As conflicts, crises and human rights abuses escalate around the world, a record 79.5 million people are currently forcibly displaced from their homes globally, of whom 26 million are refugees (the remainder are internally displaced). Over the last decade an astonishing 100 million people have been newly displaced, and currently 1% of the world’s population are forced from their homes. Syria is by far the world’s leading producer of both internally displaced people and refugees, with more than half the population displaced by conflict. 85% of all refugees are hosted by developing regions – Turkey currently hosts the largest number of refugees, with 3.6 million – and 50% of all refugees are children, up from 41% in 2009.

Along with record levels of displacement, living conditions are poor for refugees in many host countries, and there are few legal routes to the West. Refugee resettlement, mostly to Western countries, has declined significantly of late, largely because of the US slashing its quotas. Western countries have also taken steps to prevent irregular arrivals of refugees and to limit rescue operations at sea. As of the end of 2019, at least 19,164 people had died trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2014.

A tiny fraction of the world’s refugees make it to Britain. In 2019 there were 2 million new asylum claims globally and the UK received 35,566 (or 1.7% of the total). For comparison, Germany received 142, 500 and France 123,900 new asylum claims that year. It is worth bearing in mind, as relatively small numbers of people attempt to cross the Channel to the UK for specific reasons, that France dealt with 3.5 times as many asylum claims as the UK in 2019.

The UK Border Agency processes claims for asylum and decides whether or not applicants can remain in Britain. Whilst they wait for a decision asylum seekers are not allowed to work or claim mainstream benefits. They can, however, apply for housing from the UK Border Agency and receive £39.60 per week to live on.

Some asylum decision are made very quickly, while others can take many years. The asylum seeker will be granted either “leave to remain” (this can be short-term, indefinite or Refugee Status) or they will be refused asylum in the UK. At this point they can either appeal or be expected to return to their country of origin. In 2019, 52% of initial decisions resulted in grants of asylum or other forms of leave to remain, and a further 44% of appeal decisions were successful, meaning that a majority of people claiming asylum in this country last year were able to prove they had a well-founded fear of persecution and a genuine need for protection.

Once an individual has received the right to remain in the UK, they are no longer an asylum seeker and are generally referred to as a refugee. At this point they have the same rights as other British residents, i.e. they can seek work, apply for benefits, reside where they choose, and apply for British citizenship after a qualification period – they do not receive any kind of preferential treatment.

Local Situation

We estimate there are approximately 2500 refugees in Suffolk, the majority of them living in Ipswich. For historical reasons, the largest community comprises Iraqi Kurds, with established communities of Iranians and Afghans as well. Many of these have refugee status or leave to remain in the UK, with some also having achieved British citizenship. Others, however, find themselves still in legal limbo after more than a decade in the country.

There are also currently 80-90 asylum seekers, many of them families, housed in Ipswich under the government’s ‘dispersal’ system. These people come from a range of countries and all are awaiting a decision on their asylum claim. In addition, over recent years Suffolk has hosted an increased number of Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASCs).

Suffolk is also taking part in the UK government’s refugee resettlement schemes, with political leaders across Suffolk’s public sector unanimously agreeing to take up to 230 vulnerable refugees from Syria, the Middle East and North Africa by 2020. Suffolk Refugee Support was commissioned to provide specialist casework for these families. The first refugees arrived in Ipswich in March 2016 and when new arrivals were suspended in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic we had welcomed around 135 people to Ipswich under the schemes. The great majority are settling in well, with many working, volunteering, studying, setting up businesses and beginning to rebuild their lives with our support.