Saturday, December 01, 2007

Nick Clegg on Darfur

An impressive and politically sophisticated speech on Darfur from Nick Clegg this week which I commend to you.

The story we have heard today – and the stories we hear thanks to the work of the Aegis Trust and other campaigners, show how badly the government has got its asylum system wrong.

The situation for Darfuri asylum seekers

Almost all displaced Darfuris remain in camps inside Sudan. Less than 1 in 1000 have made it to the UK. You would think, therefore, that the government would have shown some compassion in dealing with this small number of people.
But now, between 300-600 have failed to be granted asylum and could be in danger of removal thanks to the decision by the House of Lords to lift the deportation ban.
The Home Office is flying in the face of recommendations from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees which states that ‘no non-Arab Sudanese originating from Darfur should be forcibly returned until there is a significant improvement in the security situation in Darfur’.
They seem determined to exploit every last legal loophole to deport people from Britain.

The government’s incompetence

The government’s attitude towards Darfuri asylum seekers is representative of the way they have got the whole asylum system wrong.
Their moral compass is broken.
While nine out of ten asylum applications are initially refused, 20 per cent of cases that go to appeal are successful. For some countries, the rate of successful appeals is over 40%. This indicates a very high error rate in initial decisions and poor levels of training of caseworkers and interview staff. It also implies political pressure on caseworkers to refuse applications which amounts to what refugee support organisations have called a ‘culture of rejection’.

The government’s lack of moral compass
The issue is not, as Tony Blair shamelessly sought to suggest for the past 10 years, whether a government is "tough" enough on asylum-seekers. They’ve made it about being tough simply because they’re incompetent.
They recently added a host of new countries to the so-called "white list", where asylum applications are assumed to be, in the technical jargon, "clearly unfounded", and rejected applicants must return to the country they fled before they can appeal. That list of "safe" countries now includes Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mauritius, Montenegro, Peru and Serbia, plus Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali and Sierra Leone for men applicants.
They make repeated efforts to deport people to Iraq, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Congo and more.

Many of those who cannot be removed because of these court decisions, but have been refused asylum, are left in a legal limbo and condemned to a life on the streets. Government policy is literally to starve them out of the country.
The UK has refused to admit any of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees living in Jordan and Syria, and has turned down thousands of applications from those few Kurds who have made it to Britain.
And we must adopt a wholly different attitude to those fleeing Darfur. It's not enough for Gordon Brown to claim to care about Darfuris on our TV screens, thousands of miles away, when there are Darfuris in this country now, in need of our help.

What must change
We need a fair, effective and compassionate approach to asylum. Every case should be decided on its individual merits. We should find ways to accommodate some of the refugees we have helped to displace in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we should be flexible about halting temporarily deportations to countries that are manifestly dangerous, instead of exploiting every last legal loophole to remove people. We should reintroduce a “blacklist” of countries to which we do not deport people.

We would take responsibility for asylum away from the Home Office and give it to an independent agency, guaranteeing decision making which is free from political considerations. The UNHCR would be heavily involved. The independent Canadian asylum agency has only 1% of decisions overturned at appeal. As well as fast-tracking manifestly unfounded claims, we would also adopt the Canadian model and fast-track claims which are clearly well-founded (e.g. known human rights activists fleeing oppressive regimes).
We must work with the EU to develop safe routes. Even the United States accepts refugees from around the world, in numbers decided by Congress every year, for resettlement. Applications can be made in US embassies anywhere, and the government works with NGOs to identify groups who are in particular need of assistance. Targeted programmes to identify and assist refugees in this way could reduce the numbers in the hands of people-traffickers, reduce the burden on developing countries in caring for refugees, and mobilise the British public in support of refugees as was the case of those evacuated from Kosovo.

How students are vital to take the battle on
And we must campaign, together, to highlight the serious problems in Darfur. The stories of people like we have heard today will help us to win the argument.

Students have been front and centre of the campaign for Darfur – the campaign for action in Sudan, and for compassion here at home.
In the US, organisations like STAND (Students Taking Action Now: Darfur) and Save Darfur forced the issue into the forefront of the last year's US midterms.
Here in the UK, groups like Aegis Students and students from Amnesty International have mobilised to bring the issue onto our political agenda – and the Liberal Democrat Youth and Student movement has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with you.
It’s no surprise to me that students have played such a role. Every major liberal and progressive movement around the world for the past half century has been led by young people and students.
From campaigns to end segregation in the American South, to the struggle for gay rights and women's rights, from the heroism of the students who demonstrated in Tiananmen Square to those who marched against the Iraq War in 2003.

There is something in the nature of young people that rejects prejudice and unfairness, and has the sheer audacity to challenge the status quo – an innate humanitarianism, a commitment to liberal values by instinct.
I want to make sure my party lives up to young people's expectations of us – to be the driving force for humanitarianism in politics.
By organising further amongst students and young people, articulating our values of humanitarianism, optimism and hope in everything we do, we can convert the liberal and progressive values of Britain's young people into support for the Liberal Democrats – and give your generation the political leadership you deserve.

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