Vulnerable claimants and asylum seekers at serious risk

Vulnerable claimants and asylum seekers at serious risk

Changes in the UK welfare benefit system are having devastating effects on the mental health of thousands of people, charities and a senior psychiatrist have warned. In a letter to the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/may/31/consequences-benefit-chang...), they pointed out that flawed tests for work capability were causing great distress and hardship, and some people had even taken their own lives.

In recent months other disabled people too – especially those with hidden or fluctuating disabilities – and their families and supporters have been protesting against harsh and unjust government policies.

A report in the same newspaper also indicates that a Ugandan lesbian seeking asylum in the UK is facing deportation, despite the risk of further injury and even death. While in Uganda, 22-year-old Betty Tibikawa – now detained in Yarl's Wood centre in Bedford – had been pinned down by three men and branded between the thighs with a hot iron.

"I can't sleep and I'm having terrible nightmares about what will happen to me if I'm sent back to Uganda. My family have disowned me because I'm a lesbian and I'm convinced I'd be killed if I'm sent home.

"I was 'outed' in a Ugandan magazine called Red Pepper in February of this year saying that I'm wanted for being a lesbian," she said. "This has put my life at increased risk." Unless campaigners can persuade the government to reverse the decision to deport her, her very survival is at risk.

The problems facing both welfare claimants and asylum-seekers include not only government failures to protect the most needy but also the hostility of large sections of the public. In part this may be based on many people’s lack of awareness.

Some are in denial about the sizeable number of people with long-term illnesses for whom even rising in the morning and getting through the day can be a struggle, and that overseas governments may permit or even encourage horrific persecution of minorities. A number of people perhaps find it too disturbing to empathise with the vulnerable and to recognise that, in this world, sometimes horrific things happen to ordinary people like themselves.

Faith, community and campaigning groups face the challenge of not only taking immediate action to defend the needy whose rights are being trampled, but also raising public awareness and strengthening solidarity with all who are at risk.

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© Savitri Hensman works in community care and equalities. She is a long-standing and respected writer and commentator on Christian social action and theology, as well as an Ekklesia associate.

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