Thursday, 2 June 2011

Without proper legal representation then asylum seekers would be mad not to 'disappear'

Justice 4 All - June 3rd Day of Action

Much of today’s news [June 2nd 2011] has been dominated by attacks on people’s rights to seek asylum in Britain. It’s even claimed that a number who arrived from ‘holiday hotspots’ and ‘paradise places’ such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Zimbabwe have disappeared.  

Considering what damage the government did last year to deny many of them adequate legal representation they’d have been crazy not to. This previously unpublished piece [first written in January this year] examines how the government last year closed down the UK’s largest provider of legal advice to asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants.

Unite members working with asylum seekers fear the loss of more than 300 jobs at their workplace will make it difficult for former clients to obtain the legal support they need. Without which the danger is vulnerable people could be forced to return to unsafe locations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo and Somalia.

Established in 1992, Refugee and Migrant Justice [RMJ] was until June last year the UK’s largest specialist provider of legal advice to asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants.

Working at the Charities offices in locations across the country were 340 dedicated staff with a strong commitment to human rights. All of which makes it even more disturbing to report that they were given less than a week’s notice to vacate the premises, sign on the dole and look for alternative employment.

Management it seemed, despite a recognition agreement with Unite, didn’t think it worthwhile telling them, until the very last minute, that they’d called in the administrators a few weeks earlier. The cause? A callous government who refused to advance an estimated £2 million in payments for cases that RMJ had been working on, sometimes for many years.

If however either their bosses or the Con-Dem’s felt they were going to quietly then Unite members at RMJ must have disappointed them. Within days the union was able to organise a noisy, well-attended demonstration in London outside the Ministry of Justice, funders of the Legal Services Commission [LSC] that commissioned RMJ’s work.

No one present really believed they could change the rules back to April 2009 when legal aid bills didn’t wait to get paid until cases had been resolved. RMJ had unsuccessfully sought a bridging loan as it waited for its payments but with 10,000 vulnerable people depending on its services there was according to Leeds employee and Unite representative Phil Sanderson “a feeling that the government would be prepared to work with RMJ to save it.”  That was certainly the hope of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who wrote to the Home Secretary Theresa May and Justice Secretary Ken Clarke about his concerns.

If they Tories did get the letter they and the Ministry of Justice weren’t listening. In fact it even took further appeal’s to ensure that asylum seekers cases files, which had subsequently been dumped in a warehouse, were returned to company’s offices for a skeleton staff to work on transferring them to new providers.

All of which meant a very sad end to Phil Sanderson’s four years at RMJ providing what he describes as an “essential service for people who needed representation during complex and often protracted cases that are difficult for them to follow and understand, especially as English isn’t their first language.”

But with so many newspapers casting doubt on asylum seekers claims then wasn’t he worried he might have been, in a period of rising unemployment, simply assisting people who should have had no reason to leave their own countries and come to settle in Britain?

It’s something he rejects saying: “You only have to look where people have risked everything to travel from - Somalia, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and the Congo. These are all locations of serious tension. In the latter over 5 million have been killed during the civil war.

My general overriding impression was that the vast majority of people I saw were fleeing persecution. Many had faced both physical and mental torture with serious bodily torture. The result was that post-traumatic stress disorder is common amongst asylum seekers and it would often be difficult to conduct an interview, as people would break down when asked to recall unpleasant incidents. As a caseworker I was there to help people accurately compile their story for the Home Office visits they were expected to make.”

It was a role that Andy Jones in London also undertook during his three years with RMJ. He found it a fulfilling but often highly frustrating one saying how he “couldn’t at times believe the Home Office had refused the claims of someone I felt had been persecuted in their own country. Challenging such routinely bad decisions requires good legal representation. Its something everyone deserves and without which an asylum seeker faces the terrifying prospect of being returned to places where they face possible persecution and in some cases certain death.”

It’s clearly something both Phil and Andy, rightly, want to prevent with the former saying: “Britain has a duty to maintain its honourable tradition of assisting people fleeing persecution. We live in a wealthy country that can afford to take what is a tiny % of the world’s refugees - for example there are three million refugees from Iraq in Syria and Jordan. People are coming from obvious danger areas including many trade unionists escaping because they are being persecuted for recruiting members. “

With the closure of RMJ many who needed its support are going to find it difficult to obtain even adequate legal representation. It’s believed the organisation had difficulty finding solicitors firms to take on all its cases when it closed and according to Andy “immigration is an area where many solicitors do bad jobs for their clients. Now that there is to be a fixed fee scheme for each case it will encourage some firms to take on lots of cases on which they will do very little work before closing them down in order to get paid. Many cases are complex and they won’t receive proper attention. “

Of course once they’d got started with their attacks on legal aid funding, by closing down RMJ and hitting the vulnerable people they worked so hard on behalf of, there has been no holding back by the Coalition Government. In the summer came the announcement that the LSC were to cut the number of firms able to offer legal aid from 2,400 to 1,300. Women experiencing domestic violence are amongst many groups that will suffer as a consequence.

Then in November Clarke told Parliament that legal aid in civil cases would be decimated with even some divorce cases and clinical negligence to be refused funding.

Clearly a system that recognises most ordinary people can’t afford to get them legal representation, and which was established as part of the search for a fairer society after the Second World War is something this government has no wish to defend. Which is why Unite is backing the Justice for All campaign established across the legal and advice sectors to ensure that everyone can access justice, no matter their personal circumstances.

Stop press - Unite is currently supporting close to 200 former RMJ members in their application to the Redundancy Payments Office for a protective award claim. This follows the charities failure to provide them with advance notice of their intention to make them redundant.

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