How can we heal as a community? It is a difficult but necessary question for our times. Never has there been a more divisive period in the realm of immigration and asylum policy, and never a more poignant moment to ponder collective healing. Last year during Refugee Week I wrote about the future for refugee and migrant communities post-Covid, and highlighted the inequality, injustice, and degradation they faced on account of the pandemic. Since then, these communities have endured many more injustices. In the UK, systemic suspicion and discrimination is the dynamic that influences those who administer the policies, procedures and laws regulating who can enter or stay as immigrant or refugee. To enact meaningful change, we need to look to the values of respect, tolerance and understanding. The essence of human values is their universalism; their applicability to all humanity, whatever ethnicity, religion or nationality. That is how we can begin to move forward as a society and heal. But before we can see where we ought to be going, it becomes necessary to examine the reality of where we are.
Over the last year our news reels have been inundated with numerous inflictions on the refugee community. The year has seen some of the highest numbers of people crossing the English Channel. These small, bedraggled boats make their way across the Channel in search of succour and refuge from the ills of the world. However, those who cower cold, hungry and desperate within these vessels are seen as an imminent threat and present danger to the national integrity of Britain.
The Government’s criminalisation of immigrants and asylum-seekers continues unabated. Its rhetoric towards those claiming asylum in the UK and those representing them is becoming increasingly hostile. Major changes to immigration laws with the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 included the introduction of offshore processing of asylum claims; making the asylum claims of those travelling through “safe countries” inadmissible; increasing the maximum sentence for the offence of illegal entry; a reduction in time trafficking victims have to come forward and report exploitation; and a denial of protection to potential trafficking and slavery victims who have committed a crime or acted in “bad faith”. The Government’s recent trial of imposing electronic monitoring on those claiming asylum was an inevitable continuation of a trend that seeks to reframe asylum seekers as criminals rather than victims.
The Government is looking to reform the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights”. Garden Court Chambers provided a collective response outlining that the proposed reforms focus largely on restricting Convention rights in a new Bill of Rights, making Convention rights harder to enforce and limiting recovery for breach of those rights.
In February 2022 the world looked on in horror as the war in Ukraine unfolded. Millions of Ukrainians left the unimaginable terror which proliferated in their homeland. Europe sprang into action like never before. The UK showed enormous generosity and flexibility in welcoming refugees. Immigration routes were created to facilitate their reception and residence; the Government opened their borders and citizens opened their homes. This was in stark contrast to the embedded policy of exclusion, expulsion, and open hostility in operation for other asylum seekers. Even the reporting in some media outlets exposed the inherent bias. Those fleeing Ukraine were not akin to the foreign ‘barbaric’ other we had become accustomed to seeing on our screens.
The high-water mark of prejudice was the UK’s deal with Rwanda under which those claiming asylum in the UK can be relocated to have their asylum claims processed. Serious questions have been raised by the UNHCR that asylum-seekers transferred from the UK to Rwanda will not have access to fair and efficient procedures for the determination of their refugee status. There is a real risk of refoulement, which is the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution. The UK Government’s “outsourcing” of their international responsibility for determining asylum claims by paying Rwanda fails to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of those who look to the UK for international protection. Those who were given notices for their removal came from Iran, Afghanistan and Syria, amongst other countries. The recent successful challenges to the first charter flight only marks the beginning of what will most likely be a long-embroiled battle on the lawfulness of the Rwanda policy. Nevertheless, there are clear concerns around the plan’s compatibility with human rights law and the Refugee Convention.
All this is a recognition of the complex mix and constant rearrangement of elements of fear, insecurity, economic pragmatism, and ignorance that generate ever new iterations of policy determining immigration rules. But in an increasingly interconnected world how can there be cut off points, no-go areas and persons who ‘need not apply’ to be treated as we ourselves would wish to be treated? The UK government’s policies are lacking in basic values, humanity and dignity. The entire point of values is not their fixity but that they are active agents of adaptation. Finding the conviction to set a course for human betterment has always required the humility and willingness to learn from the ideas and lived experience of others, to be inclusive and expansive in a constant search for answers.
In and amongst the anger and frustration we share, there is a modicum of hope. There is much to be learned from refugee communities, whatever their nationality, who have left all that is familiar behind. In a world of twenty-four-hour news cycles and instantaneous and shrinking attention spans of social media, we need to look beyond the headlines to the detail and the lived reality of refugee communities so that we may alleviate this systemic ignorance. Only then will a truth often left hidden by the state of our contemporary world be lifted. Values such as justice, equity, compassion, respect and tolerance, the entire gamut of what is best in humanity are active agents in making, regularising, and operating relationships with fellow humans. This is what we must strive for in society, and this is how we can begin to heal.