LAST year more than 1,500 people sought refuge in Wales claiming they faced persecution. David James examines the politically difficult question of asylum
IT is just one part of the controversial story of migration into Wales, yet one of the most politically difficult.
Every year, between 1,500 and 2,000 people ask for asylum in the UK and are housed in one of Wales’ four largest cities and towns.
As figures obtained by the Western Mail show, they come from more than 50 different countries across the world.
Their stories are often emotive tales of persecution, fleeing religious or sectarian violence in some of the world’s most troubled countries, yet more than half are turned down because they cannot prove the dangers they claim they face.
People who work closely with asylum seekers told the Western Mail that, in a political climate where successive governments have been under pressure to cut the number of people migrating into the UK, working with asylum seekers was fraught with difficulties.
Raad a Halabia, 49, an Iraqi Christian who has lived in Cardiff for nearly 30 years, works with asylum seekers through the organisation Asylum Justice.
He said one of the greatest difficulties was to help those in need while feeling frustrated that others had no legitimate claim. One of his fears is that granting too many applications will alienate the public against everyone who seeks refuge in this country.
“You hear stories that people face death and persecution, yet not everyone has a legitimate claim to stay,” he said.
Mr a Halabia is concerned about refugees from Iraq’s minority Christian community as they are often sent back to the north of Iraq because it is deemed safe, when they are not welcomed by the largely Muslim Kurdish community there.
Yet he criticises the Borders Agency for being too soft in other cases, arguing that it would only encourage applications from people who have no case to remain.
The agency’s difficulties are highlighted by controversial cases like that of Egyptian teenager Shrouk El-Attar, who has spent three formative years in Cardiff with her mother and is now fighting deportation after her mother’s claim was rejected.
The 18-year-old, who has cropped, dyed hair, argues she will face persecution as a lesbian in her staunchly Muslim homeland and says she has made a life here – yet the Home Office has fought her case in the courts as it does not recognise persecution over sexuality in Egypt as a cause for asylum.
Over recent years, as immigration has become a key political issue due to the rise of groups such as the British Nationalist Party, the Home Office has taken a tougher line.
It is likely to be one of the key reasons why the number of people seeking refuge in the UK has fallen from around 100,000 a year between 2000 and 2003 to 30,700 last year. Of those, 11,635 were last year deported, either voluntarily or by force.
Successful refugees now make up just more than 3% of the 560,000 migrants who come to the UK every year.
The Rev Aled Edwards is the chairman of the Displaced People In Action project which seeks to help to integrate refugees into society and educate the public about the value they can contribute.
He said Wales had been a world leader in treating asylum seekers and refugees, and had shown that offering medical treatment would not attract health tourists.
He said: “We have our prejudice and our difficulties but there was a report that showed quite significantly that Cardiff of all the major cities in the UK had the best attitude towards asylum seekers.”
One of the organisation’s projects is a scheme to retrain foreign doctors to work in the NHS and it has so far worked with 130 medics.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work during the seven- and-a-half months that it takes, on average, to process an application for asylum and are often dependent on the state and charities.
Elizabeth Perret-Atkins, who works with a charity in Cardiff which hands out food parcels once a week to struggling asylum seekers, said that being unable to work was often their greatest frustration.
She said: “Many are highly skilled and they are frustrated that they are just wasting their time and cannot contribute.”
A spokesman for the Home Office said the 30,000 people who seek asylum in the UK every year were spread around the country, with 8% being placed in Wales and the south west of England.
The UK receives one of the largest numbers of asylum applications in Europe every year, behind only France, which last year received 42,000 applications.
A UK Border Agency spokesman said: “The UK has a proud tradition of providing a place of safety for genuine refugees. However, we are determined to remove those who do not need our protection.”
by David James, Western Mail