From Belsen to Zimbabwe

I have worked in human rights for 60 years. I was a member of one of the first rehabilitation teams to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 and have since continued to help survivors of extreme brutality and human rights violations. At the Helen Bamber Foundation I see on a daily basis victims of torture, human trafficking for sexual exploitation, genocide and ethnic cleansing.

I find myself compelled to speak out publicly in response to comments by the immigration minister, Phil Woolas. Calling for a review of the Geneva conventions - which he described as outdated - Woolas argued that "a significant number of people who claim asylum are doing so for broadly economic reasons".

I agree with Woolas to an extent - the asylum system is in dire need of an overhaul. However, I contest the implication that only a minority of migrants are fleeing death and persecution. It is a documented fact that patterns of migration mirror patterns of global conflict.

We only have to watch the news or open a newspaper to be confronted by images of horror from the Middle East, the Democractic Republic of Congo, Darfur or Zimbabwe. I find it difficult to comprehend how Woolas can reconcile his commitment to protect those in fear of their lives with his proposal to undermine the cornerstone of humanitarian protection that is embodied in the conventions.

The asylum and immigration system has seen countless incarnations under various ministers and parties. We are now faced with a system under which repeated policies of deterrence have resulted in 84% of initial applications being refused. According to the most recent figures, 23% of these initial decisions are overturned on appeal. This represents the lives of 3,385 individuals who have suffered at the hands of poor initial decision-making.

Every day, numerous so-called failed asylum-seekers cross the threshold of our consulting rooms at the Helen Bamber Foundation. Our clinicians document their injuries, advise them on appropriate healthcare and treat the enduring psychological scars that result from inhumane treatment and extreme cruelty. Unfortunately we are also faced with a system that adds to these injuries.

The Geneva conventions set the standard in international law for the humanitarian protection and treatment of noncombatants and prisoners of war. Woolas correctly states that this was set up as a means of protecting individual people from persecution. However, we have seen where dismissing the relevance of other aspects of the conventions can lead as the world struggles to find a solution to the discredited policies that led to the creation of Guantánamo Bay. The potential for abuse is too great.

I have witnessed first hand the impact of the Geneva conventions and their attempt to extend protection to the many thousands of displaced people who existed in the most appalling circumstances after the second world war. It is to my great disappointment that we do not seem to have learned the lessons of the past, and I am once again witnessing the creation of policies that seek to protect borders at the cost of those whom we have an international obligation to protect.

We cannot solve complex problems through reductionist solutions such as the introduction of a quota system. And the assumption that the vast majority of asylum-seekers are here for economic reasons is simply not the case, as I know only too well. A compassionate society is defined by how it responds to its most vulnerable members. If we deny their need for protection the failure is ours, not theirs.

Helen Bamber, the co-founding director of the Helen Bamber Foundation.