Refugee status must mean permanent residence.

The Home Office has recently introduced a Safe Returns Review that allows them to refuse refugee applications for indefinite leave to remain if it is judged that it is now safe for them to return. This post argues that the policy needs to be challenged. If you agree please sign this petition.

My step-mum, Anna, is a Chilean refugee who lives in South London. She was under threat of persecution from the Pinochet dictatorship installed by the US-orchestrated coup in 1971. Being recognised as a refugee in 1973 meant she could settle in the UK permanently and could plan her life for the long term. She trained to be a psychotherapist and worked in the NHS, she played active roles in the political communities in the Latin American diaspora and later in the struggle against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and she played a huge role in my upbringing.

For a long time now, the link between refugee status and permanent residence has been under threat. In 2005, the New Labour government, having previously lauded settlement as vital to refugee integration made the first crack in the connection. They made a formal change that meant that procedurally speaking refugee status was granted for 5 years, after which one would have to apply for indefinite leave to remain. This would routinely be granted automatically unless the applicant had a criminal record.

The Tory government have rhetorically tried to prise open the crack further. In 2015 Theresa May stated:

“We’ll introduce strengthened ‘safe return reviews’ so when a refugee’s temporary stay of protection in the UK comes to an end, or if there is a clear improvement in the conditions of their own country, we will review their need for protection. If their reason for asylum no longer stands and it is now safe for them to return, we will seek to return them to their home country rather than offer settlement here in Britain.”

This safe return review was quietly published in a new Home Office policy that states:

“All those who apply for settlement protection after completing the appropriate probationary period of limited leave will be subject to a safe return review with reference to the country situation at the date the application is considered. Those who still need protection at that point will normally qualify for settlement. Caseworkers must refer to the Settlement Protection instruction for more detailed guidance on considering such applications.”

This change applies immediately and means that the 59,000 people who have received status in the last 5 years now will undergo a full safe returns review. If the circumstances either personal or political that led one to receive refugee status have in the Home Office’s eyes ‘ceased to exist’ they are now able to block refugees from accessing leave to remain.

We don’t know the precise effects of the policy change. The Home Office may continue, for the time being, to routinely grant indefinite leave to remain to refugees. But whether it is immediately noticeable or occurs at an imperceptible speed, this move severs the connection between refugee status and permanent residence.

The increased uncertainty will have significant effects on the lives of those have already succeeded against the odds at persuading the Home Office or an asylum judge that they have a right to refugee status. Being a refugee no longer means one is in control of one’s own future: deciding what educational, professional choices to take, how one is to build relationships and participate in communities have to be taken in the knowledge that one’s right to remain is not secure. It means refuge is increasingly being re-characterised as a precarious, liminal status where residence is always dependent on the continued threat to one’s life. If biological life ceases to be threatened by persecution, one’s social and political life in the UK is immediately placed under threat.

Given the experience of poor Home Office decision making and the likelihood they may need to be overturned on appeal, refugees may now need to seek legal advice again when applying for leave to remain. This is likely to affect people who gained refugee status on the basis of gender based persecution because the personal circumstances involved are likely to be more subject to change.

There will be those who tell us the refugee status is only about protection and that’s all it is meant to do. They are wrong. Refugee status is about granting the security and control that enables people fleeing persecution to build a full human life that includes full participation, in whatever ways they so wish, in the life of communities in the UK. Long term residence is essential to this security and control and this is why it is so important that we need to repair, secure and celebrate the connection between refugee status and permanent residence in the UK.