Analysis: Red tape is throttling talent

November 16, 2001

It is an uphill struggle for academic refugees in the UK, Claire Sanders reports

Home secretary David Blunkett's announcement of a new system for dealing with asylum-seekers was awaited with some trepidation by a small team of people in London's Covent Garden.

In cramped offices on the second floor of the Africa Centre, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics works to help academics fleeing persecution.

John Akker, executive secretary of Cara, while welcoming some of Mr Blunkett's proposals, has concerns. "It will still be extraordinarily difficult for highly skilled academic refugees to use their skills in this country," he said.

At the heart of the proposals is a four-tier system of asylum centres covering an asylum-seeker's journey through induction, reporting, accommodation and, if they are unsuccessful, removal. The centres will replace the use of council estates and private accommodation to house asylum-seekers.

Mr Blunkett has done away with the voucher system, replacing it with "smart" identity cards. To speed up the appeals process, £111 million is being spent to tackle the 60,000 backlog.

A white paper early next year will spell out a new approach to citizenship, which will include measures to better integrate refugees - including language and education requirements for citizenship.

The home secretary hopes that the reform of the work-permit system will also reduce the number of economic migrants using the asylum system. It will be easier for overseas students to apply for work permits after finishing their studies.

Cara, along with the Refugee Council and other organisations, has long campaigned for the abolition of the voucher system, where refugees receive vouchers worth 70 per cent of income support.

But Mr Akker said: "We fear there will be the same stigma attached to the smart cards as there is to the vouchers. We want to know how much cash will be available to refugees through the scheme - whether their access to basic services will be improved.

"Mr Blunkett has acknowledged that the current asylum system is not working. Our concern is that the introduction of the smart cards is going to be another administrative burden."

He is also concerned with the idea of asylum centres. "Forcing academic refugees into these centres could limit their chances of study and contact with other academics - which in turn will damage their chances of building successful careers here," he said.

Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "We are pleased that the reception/accommodation centres being proposed will be piloted first as we still have concerns about how they will operate. What degree of independence will people have while in these centres? What criteria will be used to determine who is placed in these centres?" Cara is particularly worried that Mr Blunkett's proposals will do nothing to reduce the minefield faced by academic refugees seeking to study and work.

Once an asylum-seeker is granted refugee status, they can work or study in the same way as any UK citizen.

For those on appeal or granted exceptional leave to remain (this is where refugee status has been refused, but the Home Office believes that it is unsafe for the asylum-seeker to return home), the situation is complicated.

Those wishing to study face fees. Such students rarely pay fees on English as a second language courses in further education but for other courses, students can be charged overseas or home fees - depending on the date of their asylum application. If it was within the past three years, they face overseas fees.

Universities have discretion over whether they charge them home or overseas fees. "But it is our experience that universities are increasingly charging overseas fees, and these are clearly beyond the means of most refugees," Mr Akker said.

Students paying overseas fees are not entitled to loans or bursaries. Asylum-seekers studying full time are not allowed to claim benefits, which forces most of them to study part time under the 16-hour rule.

"This way it can take years for people to finish their PhDs or to do the conversion courses that would allow their qualifications to be recognised in this country," Mr Akker said.

Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work at first - not even voluntarily. If they are still awaiting a decision on their application after six months, then asylum-seekers can apply to the Home Office for permission to work. This is usually granted but it is not an automatic entitlement.

"Asylum-seekers face far too many obstacles in their attempts to carry on their work - and yet much of their work is of huge value," Mr Akker said.

The small number of refugees with medical qualifications who carry on with their medical career is an indication of how difficult it is to carry on work and study.

The British Medical Association has been liaising with organisations, including the Refugee Council and the Royal College of Physicians, to help refugee doctors re-establish their careers, particularly through a better system of clinical attachments.

In a recent briefing paper, the BMA says: "The NHS undoubtedly needs more doctors, and these doctors are desperate to work. But the obstacles they face are overwhelming, and the majority of refugee doctors end up living on benefits or working in menial jobs."

Mr Akker is clear: "Mr Blunkett must acknowledge that many asylum-seekers have much-needed skills. We will be campaigning to ensure that the new system allows these people to flourish."

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