The UK needs to change its cruel attitude towards refugees

Ben Ramanauskas

April 1, 2019

Imagine fleeing persecution only to be interrogated about intimate details of your sex life by a government official. What’s more, imagine that the answers you give will have huge ramifications for the rest of your life.

This is the situation faced by LGBTQ asylum seekers in the UK.

Not only are they asked extremely personal questions about their sex lives in order to prove their sexuality, but they are also subject to naive stereotyping.

For example, one asylum seeker was told that she looked too feminine to be a lesbian, and one gay man was quizzed over his knowledge of gay magazines and clubs in London.

Take the example of Yew Fook Sam, who is facing deportation to Malaysia where he will face persecution for being gay. Home Office officials decided that it was “suspicious” that he didn’t have a boyfriend and concluded that, as such, he must have just been pretending to be gay.

There is also evidence that officials are failing in their duty of care towards asylum seekers in detention centres. For example, a 2016 report by Stonewall found that many LGBTQ people face unnecessary isolation or persecution from other detainees.

It’s not just sexual minorities who face a hard time while seeking asylum. For example, an Iranian man who had converted to Christianity from Islam had his asylum claim rejected because officials thought he was lying. Since when did civil servants get to play at being theologians or experts on sexuality at the taxpayers’ expense?

The method that the Home Office uses to determine who is a genuine asylum seeker – especially when that claim is based on sexuality or religion – needs to change. Given the fact that sexual and religious minorities can face torture, rape, imprisonment, and even death in their home countries, the stakes are simply too high to get this wrong.

These examples are part of a wider problem. Simply put, the way that the Home Office treats asylum seekers is truly shocking. Not only are they subjected to humiliating questions and a lack of protection while in detention centres, but they are also not allowed to work.

Banning refugees from working in the UK is breathtakingly cruel. It denies them the chance to provide for themselves and their families, as the campaign by Ben and Jerry’s makes clear. And it also robs them of their dignity and means that they are unable to afford the basic necessities of life, such as food and housing, and so are forced to rely on handouts from the state.

There is not just a moral case for welcoming refugees, there is also an economic one. For example, you might be tempted to believe that refugees are a drain on public finances, but that is incorrect. Research by economists in the United States found that in the 20-year period after refugees arrive, there is a positive net fiscal impact of $21,000.

What’s more, refugees can drive economic growth. For example, the Cuban refugees who travelled to Miami set up their own businesses, but social conservatives would have you believe that they lowered the wages of the native population.

Welcoming refugees produces what Philippe Legrain calls “refugee dividends“. They help to create jobs, raise the productivity and wages of local workers, lift capital returns, stimulate international trade and investment, and boost innovation, enterprise, and growth.

We need to stop treating people who are fleeing for their lives like criminals. Instead of inflicting a Kafkaesque nightmare on asylum seekers, they need to be listened to by experts, not bureaucrats. And we need to scrap the cruel and senseless rules which prevent them from working and having the chance to rebuild their lives and contribute to the economy.


Written by Ben Ramanauskas

Ben Ramanauskas is a research economist at Oxford University and a former adviser to the International Trade Secretary.


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