Let’s ditch the hostile environment: refugees need safe routes

Illegal immigrants? Photo credit: Cold War Steve

Until the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was helping to teach English to a group of (mainly) refugees from countries such as Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. Several were in the process of claiming asylum and sometimes understandably showed signs of distress before asylum interviews at the Home Office.

Marjan (not her real name), a former teacher from Iran, wept as she showed me the sheaf of papers that she had to produce for her interview the next day. She was fearful that her claim would be rejected and she would be forced to return to a dangerous situation in Iran. When face-to-face classes stopped because of Covid, she had still not heard the outcome.

Too much bureaucracy

The current asylum-seeking process is highly bureaucratic and difficult to navigate. This lengthy and complicated process is affecting not only refugees such as Marjan, but also thousands of Ukrainian refugees seeking entry to the UK under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims that the UK is being “as generous” as possible towards Ukrainian refugees, but by the end of March only 2,700 visas through this scheme had been approved. This amounts to about one in ten of offers made. Applicants have complained that the paperwork is badly designed and over-cumbersome; refugees are unlikely to have all the necessary documents with them after fleeing war zones.

Leading refugee charities, including the Refugee Council and Oxfam, have called on the government to waive the visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees and bring them in line with other European countries. They wrote: “It is causing great distress to already traumatised Ukrainians and increasing frustration to tens of thousands of Britons who want to welcome them into their homes.”

Although Home Secretary Priti Patel issued a (half-hearted) apology, she claimed to be “streamlining processes” and that comparing the UK’s scheme with the EU’s approach was “not like for like” – rather an under-statement.

However, latest government figures (5 May) show that there are still considerable delays between issuing visas and refugees arriving in the UK (51,300 issued; 11,100 arrivals) and Priti Patel is being threatened with legal action. Lack of adequate vetting has led to relations with hosts breaking down and potential danger to refugees.

The UK’s hostile environment

A recent hard-hitting Observer editorial argues that the government’s response to the Ukrainian crisis is “a reflection of 20 years of hardening policy” towards refugees and asylum seekers from successive governments. Starting with Labour’s clampdown on so-called illegal immigrants in 2007, the Conservatives took this further in 2012 with Theresa May’s proud aim to “create a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.”

This policy has led to the detaining of asylum seekers in often inhumane conditions, mistreatment of trafficked victims, deportation of people to countries where they will be at risk of torture or death and, most notoriously, hundreds of Caribbean immigrants being illegally detained or even deported in what is known as the Windrush scandal.

Caribbean immigrants were illegally detained. Photo credit: mitchel-lensink-Ismnr6WSHCU-unsplash.jpg

An independent review, ‘Windrush lessons learned’, published in 2020, found that warning signs were not heeded by the Home Office; and though the report fell short of finding institutional racism, its author argued that the Home Office “must change its culture” and adopt policy “rooted in humanity”.

So far, those lessons appear not to have been learned. Wendy Williams, who conducted the original review, has just published a progress update, in which she expresses disappointment at “the lack of tangible progress” to change the culture of the Home Office. She writes: “I have seen limited evidence that a compassionate approach is being embedded consistently across the department.”

The latest plan to send some asylum seekers who arrive in small boats on a one-way route to Rwanda is an appalling example of the current inhumane approach. There has been an outpouring of criticism of the scheme, including the Refugee Council which is “appalled by the government’s cruel and nasty decision”. More than 160 charities and campaign groups have urged the government to scrap the policy; the Archbishop of Canterbury has called it “unethical” and the “opposite of the nature of God.” The plan is now facing its first legal challenge from the charity Freedom from Torture.

The Nationality and Borders Act

Ironically, at the same time as the government was claiming generosity towards Ukrainian refugees, the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill (now Act) was moving towards its final stages. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) expressed serious concerns about the Bill, arguing that it undermines the 1951 Refugee Convention. In particular, they urged the government to remove clause 11, which would relegate most asylum seekers to a “lesser status with fewer rights and benefits.”

Leading immigration lawyers also challenged the Bill, arguing that it creates a two-tier system and breaches international law in at least 10 ways by penalising anyone who arrives in the UK by “irregular means.” This means that anyone desperate enough to cross the Channel by small boat to get to the UK (including Ukrainian refugees) could have their claim ruled inadmissible and receive a jail term. The Bill also allows overseas processing of asylum-seekers, such as the Rwanda scheme.

The Tory government closed UK borders. Photo credit: metin-ozer-spFYbCSF-Ec-unsplash.jpg

The House of Lords introduced a series of amendments to the Bill in March, designed to prevent the government from criminalising refugees. Disappointingly, these were voted down when the Bill returned to the Commons, despite a potential rebellion by Conservative MPs. Only a handful of Conservative rebels, including Sussex MP Tim Loughton, voted against overseas processing and in favour of all refugees’ right to work (already available to Afghan and Ukrainian refugees under the settlement schemes).

All opposition parties condemned the Bill, but it was passed at the end of April after a final consideration by the Lords, with only very minor changes. However, Priti Patel had to abandon her plan to use refugee pushbacks in the Channel, days before the policy faced a legal challenge. 

By the same author:

Refugees need safe routes

Opponents of the Borders Act and Rwanda scheme, such as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), argue that it will not deter desperate people from fleeing war-torn countries by whatever means possible. Indeed, latest figures show that the numbers of asylum seekers crossing the Channel have increased, despite the Rwanda scheme’s introduction.

At a recent event organised by the Convention in support of Ukrainian refugees, the actor Sinéad Cusack read movingly from ‘Home’, a powerful poem by Warsan Shire who writes that no one leaves home unless they are in extreme danger. Care4Calais founder Clare Moseley asserts that “deterrence won’t work” when refugees are fleeing “the worst places in the world.”

The UK now has settlement schemes for Afghan and Ukrainian refugees which, however inadequate, do provide both groups the legal means to enter the UK. We now desperately need safe routes for all refugees, and an end to the hostile environment which turns other refugees into criminals and threatens to send them thousands of miles away.

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