Here’s my speech from today’s debate on the UK asylum system and asylum seekers’ mental health:
I would like to start by thanking all those who work with and help asylum seekers and refugees in Newport. They include The Sanctuary project, the Welsh Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, iNEED, Feed Newport and all the other organisations and individuals doing so much good work.
The Government have been keen to cultivate an image of being hard-line on asylum. The Home Office’s decision to house asylum seekers in the cramped, unsafe Penally barracks in west Wales during a global pandemic ignored both the welfare of asylum seekers and the concerns locally about the conditions and the unsuitability of the accommodation. The Home Office then abruptly emptied the camp, resulting in a flurry of people needing accommodation and support with inadequate measures in place. That just highlights the lack of dispersal accommodation and the need for the Government to properly help public bodies deliver services. I have to say, it stands in contrast to the approach of the Welsh Government.
That is important because, as has been said already, we know that asylum seekers and refugees are especially at risk of developing mental health issues. Research from the Welsh Refugee Council shows that refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the UK population as a whole. The factors that contribute to this are not hard to identify. Before arriving in the UK, refugees may have lost loved ones, experienced violence or persecution or seen their livelihoods fall Toggle showing location ofColumn 63WHaway, and in many cases will have made a perilous journey overseas. These traumas are often compounded on arrival in the UK by financial insecurity, the inability—as has been spoken about—to gain stability through work, issues with accommodation, the constant fear of deportation, the sense of isolation that comes with family separation and the all-encompassing stress of wrangling with a complex asylum system.
I have seen the last point at first hand through my casework in Newport. I pay a special tribute to my long-standing and excellent caseworker Sarah Banwell, who has much expertise in this area and many friends in the communities in Newport. Lengthy Home Office delays add to the stress by allowing the uncertainty to linger. Over the last few months, my office has dealt with constituents who have been waiting up to two years for their asylum interview after claiming asylum in the UK, while others are still waiting for their biometric residency permits to be issued six months after a positive outcome of their UK Visas and Immigration application. There is a real human cost to this.
On the delays, I know Home Office staff work really hard, and I appreciate that, in a pandemic period, adjustment will be needed. However, there should have been more decision making, and that is down to leadership and oversight at the top. The additional pressure caused by the delays is being heaped on individuals, inevitably resulting in greater strain on already hard-pressed mental health services. Liz Andrew, head of adult psychology for the Aneurin Bevan health board, which covers my constituency, has pointed out: “It is hard to offer help when someone does not know if they are going to be granted leave to remain. They will remain in a state of threat and worry and this will make it harder to process trauma memories.”
Nor does it help that support services have struggled to provide home visits and face-to-face services in the pandemic, which leads to more isolation, or that accessing remote services is difficult for those who do not speak English as a first language and also because of digital exclusion. That has an impact on the ability to communicate about someone’s case, but also limits their ability to access things such as English as a second language classes. I hope Ministers listen to the concerns today. It is time for them to look again at their approach.