There was a predictable outcry when the Welsh Assembly Government decided recently to allow asylum seekers, who have been refused permission to stay in the UK, access to hospital treatment.
It was the usual knee-jerk reaction. One has to wonder what these people would do if they came across someone in pain, or suffering a life-threatening illness, but who they suspected to be from abroad.
Would they check first whether they should be ‘here’, whether they pay their taxes?The Tories, as Betsan Powys of the BBC, pointed out, got very confused over the new policy.
Obviously, they didn’t want to appear soft on foreigners – heaven forbid – but the true blues are a little wet over this side of Offa’s Dyke, a little too caring.
Today, in an excellent letter to the Western Mail, Cathy Owens, programme director for Amnesty International in Wales, describes the “outrage from the usual quarters about queue-jumping and fairness for British taxpayers”.
Some of this is based on valid argument, she says, but some is based on “misinformation and xenophobia”.
Asking readers to put themselves into the shoes of some of the 3,000 asylum seekers in Wales – many of whom have fled repression and war – she says: “A few hundred may not win the right to stay, but may find it very difficult to return – they may not be able to travel back to Afghanistan, Darfur or Zimbabwe.”
If they fall ill, they can go to a GP but cannot be treated as inpatients at hospital.
Last year, only 11 people in this situation needed treatment in Welsh hospitals – a small number when you consider that more than 300,000 operations take place in Wales every year.
“For each of those 11 people behind the headlines, it could have been the difference between life and death,” writes Owens.
WAG’s decision was a point of principle – that we don’t refuse help to anyone who is ill or dying. And it was one that makes our nation a little more humane.