A report into the government's handling of those leaving their home country and entering the UK has been published, and it makes for some damning reading of a system that has failed, writes Rachel Youngman.

The Home Affairs Committee has sought to understand why Britain has seen a sharp rise in the number of people fleeing to its shores in small boats across the channel over the past five years. The hope is that by understanding what drives the continued rise, the relevant authorities may be able to prevent people smuggling and the trafficking of vulnerable victims by criminal gangs.

The report did not yield many surprises for Hibiscus. We have 35 years' experience of working to support Black and minority ethnic migrant women in the community and in immigration removal centres. Throughout this time we have championed the voices of women caught in the immigration system and the first hand experiences of a system that is broken and most importantly people who are broken by that system.

The "problem" will not go away

It's important to understand that whether it is the invasion of Ukraine, the seize of power by the Taliban, the persecution of groups in Syria, the displacement of people due to extreme weather conditions or one of myriad other reasons in other countries, there will always be an ebb and flow in the numbers of people seeking asylum in countries when they cannot live safely in their own.

Conflict, persecution and the search for a better life may shift from region to region but it remains a global problem, as it has done for centuries. In the UK and our neighbouring countries, the percentage of people entering is small compared to the total numbers. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) shows that 82 million people took flight from their homes in 2020, yet only three per cent came to Europe. However, 2021 data shows that 114,000 people tried to reach Europe by sea. Over 3,200 of them are dead or missing. We are a small island and our border is the sea. The Home Office Committee is right that solutions must be found. So what can be done?

Survivors not criminals

One of the problems is the lack of informed public debate on immigration policy. Parts of the media are capable of misleading. Stories that scare and cause alarm, neglect to explain the high commercial value of a human life to trafficking. Instead tabloid headlines shift the narrative to the fault of individuals and an assumption they are economic migrants despite evidence to the contrary. There is also a misconception that people should stay in the first 'safe' country they reach, but this is not always possible due to religious or cultural persecution.

As El Sadiq Manees – himself forced to flee genocide in his native Sudan by means of an inflatable dingy across the sea – has said do politicians really understand the life-or-death decisions made by people who come to this country? Yet media stories move the narrative away from a focus on the profiteering by criminal gangs and a system that can't cope. We see politicians react with rapid and ill-informed policies that not only put people at risk but place more pressure on the broken system.

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What our Home Secretary has failed to do is look at the ways to cut off exploitation and risk to lives by opening up safe and legal routes that respect and protect the rights of all women, men and children seeking asylum to do so. Rather than understanding the benefits of such routes, there are cries of "woke" and that the migrants are (mainly) males who want to benefit from the UK's welfare system. The humanitarian, economic and national security benefits of safe and legal routes are not heard or understood.

Recently Sir Mo Farah revealed that he was illegally trafficked to the UK as a young boy. This extraordinarily brave admission shone a spotlight on the plight of the victims. It took Sir Mo 30 years to find the courage to speak out, yet the new Nationality and Borders Bill expects survivors of trafficking to disclose their trafficked situation immediately after entering the UK. Whilst Sir Mo found support from a teacher, others lack support. It takes time to enable people talk about their experiences gently supported by professionals who understand the indicators and signs of trafficking.

Education is key to increasing the identification of victims and getting them to safety.

The majority of women in detention are survivors of gender-based violence and many of them will have been trafficked to the UK. The charity Women for Refugee Women has reported that a survivor of trafficking was recently issued with a notice of intent that she was being considered for removal to Rwanda.

The problem becomes more complex when looked at through the lens of protected characteristics. Many of the women we support are survivors of gender-based violence, including trafficking, domestic abuse, forced marriage and sexual violence. A recent review of our database in the community has shown 85 per cent of women we work with have experienced gender-based violence.

And our evidence shows that the current system breeds inequality. We see this through the system's impact on two protected characteristics – sex and race. 65 per cent of our current clients who have received asylum or humanitarian protection are of a white ethnic origin. Black, Asian, Hispanic and mixed-race women make up more than half of the women who are still waiting to receive a decision on their asylum cases. Although it is difficult to consider that this distinction is solely based on race, this is credible data that warrants looking at patterns.

Together with Hibiscus' team, I am committed to making sure that the Government understands the problem they are trying to tackle. What we are currently seeing is a government that is willing to take decisions that respond to the national headlines but unwilling to address the root causes of a failed system. I hope that our recently submitted evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee inquiry will allow politicians to hear the words of women who are waiting four years for a decision on their immigration status despite being survivors of trafficking, only then to face further delays through the appeals process. Theirs is a world in limbo.

A public debate to inform policy

I urge the Home Office to address these issues, in consultation with those who are in and have been through the system. Asylum seekers and expert organisations need to be part of designing solutions. It is futile to think the answer lies in a policy soundbite of 'send them back' or the utterly inhumane policy to "put them on a plane to Rwanda". We need to push political rhetoric to one side and have an evidence-informed public debate that recognises public concerns and addresses problems bases on evidence.

The government has two months to respond to the report. Changes need to be made, they cannot pay lip service and continue as they are.

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