Asylum seekers want to be allowed to work and a compassionate system would allow them to do so – Phil Arnold, Red Cross

Like taxes or NHS waiting times, how we treat refugees and people seeking asylum remains one of the hottest political issues of our age, attracting considerable attention and debate – in newspaper pages, on TV discussion shows, across social media, and in workplaces and homes across the country.

Migrants packed into a small inflatable boat bail water out as they attempt to cross the English Channel off the coast of Dover, England (Picture: Luke Dray/Getty Images)
Migrants packed into a small inflatable boat bail water out as they attempt to cross the English Channel off the coast of Dover, England (Picture: Luke Dray/Getty Images)

As we all know, opinions can vary considerably, as does the level of discourse, and they shift in response to events, as has been shown recently with the surge of public sympathy towards people caught up in the Afghanistan crisis. When things feel like they’re getting tougher here, sympathies can move the other way.

Many of us find ourselves tied up in knots, feeling a genuine sense of anguish at the suffering of so many people so far away, affected by conflict or persecution, but also concerned by the challenges facing our own communities: the homelessness, hardship, and health problems we see on our own doorsteps.

We want to weigh those concerns and considerations properly, to come to fair conclusions – and that means the views of our local MSP, councillor, neighbour, or family member are so important to us.

But how often do we hear from the people coming to Scotland in search of asylum themselves?

Sometimes, perhaps, we get a scrap of insight – the desperate pleas of a man on the news trying to get his family through the crowds at Kabul airport; the sad testimony of a woman trafficked in the back of an HGV from Albania or Vietnam; the exasperation and relief of someone newly arrived on a dinghy in Kent.

But after that? After that, those voices seem to fall silent, despite journeys to the UK in search of safety being the very start of someone’s experience of our asylum system. That void is filled with other opinions.

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The Voices Network, which is independent of but supported by the British Red Cross, is a collective of refugees and people seeking asylum who speak up for change. Having fled for their lives and now living through the UK’s asylum system, this group of people are the experts.

At the British Red Cross, we consult the Voices Network to understand what it is like to actually live through these processes and what we can do to support people through challenges they face.

We believe that every refugee matters and that the views and experiences of those who have come to seek asylum in Scotland should help to shape our asylum policy.

When it came to looking into ways in which we can help prevent destitution among people seeking asylum, it made perfect sense to put those who understood the situation best at the centre of our research.

Working with the Refugee Survival Trust, we supported researchers to conduct 26 in-depth interviews with people going through the asylum system. They shared their insights and made recommendations that will hopefully help prevent people seeking sanctuary from falling into destitution in Scotland, and lead to a kinder and more compassionate asylum system across the UK.

The result of this work is a new report, called How will we survive?, and I think it really hits home, in part because of its common-sense recommendations.

People across Scotland will understand that those who have sought asylum here themselves are best placed to advise, encourage and guide others going through the same process. That’s why we’re calling for the Scottish government to build on welcome engagement with those with lived experience to create a formal peer-support network that would allow people to share their learning and help others.

There are so many people who have been through this and want to help others.

If one thing jumps out from the report, though, it is that those who have been through, or are going through, the asylum system almost universally plead for a quicker, more efficient, and less complicated process. They want to know their future, not live in a perpetual limbo that leaves them feeling dislocated, forgotten, and on minimal support, at risk of destitution.

The report also calls for people who are seeking asylum in Scotland to be given the right to work here, while they wait to find out if they’ll be allowed to stay and asks that new arrivals be given a small cash grant that might help them to start off on a more stable footing.

They’re small concessions. But people in the asylum system have told us they’ll have a massive impact on a person’s dignity, motivation and mental health, especially if they’ve experienced considerable hardship getting to the UK and have been living in temporary accommodation since arriving.

Unsurprisingly for a report led by people with direct experience of the real challenges faced, How will we survive? does not contain any outlandish calls or demands, just practical suggestions, little tweaks that could, at modest cost, make such a difference to peoples’ lives.

Arguably, there has never been a more important time to listen to the women, men and children who are seeking asylum in Scotland. With the UK government overhauling the asylum system through the Nationality and Borders Bill and with a new Scottish government that has demonstrated its willingness to listen to the voices and experiences of refugees, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a world-leading asylum system in line with our values of kindness and compassion.

Whatever the clamour, these are the voices we need to hear.

Phil Arnold is head of refugee services for Scotland at the British Red Cross

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