LONDON (Reuters) - Illegal immigrants who survived a fire that killed about 80 people in a social housing block in London will be given a clear path to obtaining permanent residency in Britain, the government said on Wednesday.
But critics including the local member of parliament said people whose lives were devastated by the disaster should be given indefinite leave to remain now and the government’s announcement would merely add to their confusion and despair.
The 24-storey Grenfell Tower, which was home to many immigrants and people from ethnic minorities, was gutted on June 14 in an inferno that started in the middle of the night and engulfed the whole building with devastating speed.
The tower is located in a deprived estate within one of London’s richest boroughs, and the disaster prompted a wave of soul-searching about inequality and neglect of poor communities.
Some of the approximately 250 people who made it out of the building alive did not have the legal right to live in Britain and have been reluctant to make themselves known to the authorities.
The government had previously said that if they came forward, those people would be given leave to remain legally in Britain for 12 months -- a stance criticised as ungenerous to people whose lives had been devastated by the tragedy.
“The government believes it is right to provide this specific group of survivors greater certainty over their long-term future in the UK, subject to ... the necessary security and criminality checks being met,” Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis said in a statement.
Under the new policy, after the initial period of 12 months, Grenfell survivors would be able to apply for further periods of limited leave to remain, building up to five years. They could then apply for permanent residency.
Emma Dent Coad, a member of parliament from the opposition Labour Party who represents the area where Grenfell stands, dismissed the Conservative government’s announcement as an inadequate fudge.
“This is very far from the amnesty requested by volunteer groups and legal representatives,” she said.
“Once again survivors of the worst ever peacetime atrocity are being short-changed by this confusing and half-hearted response.”
Asked why permanent residency rights were not being offered now, a spokesman for the Home Office, or interior ministry, said the government had to act within immigration laws as they stood.
Martin Moore-Bick, chairman of a public inquiry into the fire, was among those who had asked the government to reconsider the previous policy, saying some survivors did not want to take part in his investigation because of fears over their long-term immigration status.
Sue Caro, a campaigner for Grenfell survivors, said Wednesday’s announcement was unlikely to make any difference because people were deeply suspicious of the authorities after years of anti-immigration government rhetoric.
“It won’t have the desired effect,” she said. “This is an attempt to pacify all sides and it achieves nothing.”
The Grenfell Tower fire prompted an outpouring of emotion from many Britons, who donated money and clothes to try and help survivors. But some people have also expressed negative views, saying that undocumented migrants should not be allowed to stay.
Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Toby Chopra