If you have been following the debate on the UK’s immigration policy and the Rwanda plan, Zoe Gardner’s name is likely to be very familiar to you. Her appearances on the media and her articles in the national press have built her reputation as an expert on migration policies and the global refugee crisis – cemented by her glorious put-down of Conservative right-wing MP Jonathan Gullis when giving evidence to the Bill Committee for the Nationality & Borders Act 2022 in September 2021. A video clip of the exchange recently re-surfaced and went viral on Twitter/X and is well worth watching for Gardner’s calm and informed dissection of Gullis’ dog-whistle arguments.
Humanity and justice in her DNA
With a father who is a lawyer, Gardner describes human rights as being deep in her DNA, and she spent her early years at university searching for a cause that she could totally commit to. The breakthrough came during a seminar she attended when studying for a Masters in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. “My professor, Eiko Thielemann, an expert on forced migration, described one of the worst things that we do in this country – how we treat refugees.” She went straight from the lecture to sign up as a volunteer with Student Action for Refugees. “And that was it – it became the focus of my entire life.”
Her experience of working with organisations like Asylum Aid, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles in Brussels, and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has given her a profound insight into the best – and worst – aspects of humanity. Her Twitter/X account carries the motto : “Dehumanisation is not a line, it is a circle” and Gardner explains “the more that you dehumanise some people and see them as ‘other’, the less human you become yourself. It comes back around.”
She mentions the incident of the Greek coastguards who returned men, women and children to their flimsy life rafts and set them adrift in the middle of the Aegean Sea – “They could not have seen these people as humans if they were capable of doing that – but they were also dehumanising themselves.”
Gardner has an interesting analysis of the contrasting attitudes in the UK towards Ukrainian refugees and those from the Middle East. “There’s an element of racism, of suspicion of people with brown skins and of Muslims.” But she also thinks that we are somehow more able to empathise with Ukrainians as people who have full futures and real needs and the right to choose where they end up in Europe.
“We understand that they may not choose to stop in Poland or in Germany or France and we allow them that choice. Whereas we don’t differentiate between people from Middle Eastern or African countries – we see them as basically all the same, not needing the full spectrum of a human life.” She describes the attitude as “of course escape from bombs or famine and get to immediate safety. But you don’t need anything else, and I don’t recognise your legitimate desire for a full life of opportunity and safety as you understand it.”
The Rwanda issue
Inevitably we discuss the government’s latest Rwanda plan. Gardner thinks that the current Conservative administration has taken a scheme that was originally announced by Boris Johnson when he was Prime Minister, but typically with little or no follow-through – and made it a ‘do or die’ issue.
“Sunak has based his legitimacy on it, which I think is incredibly stupid. He could have abandoned it. I think it is now more likely that a small number of people will be performatively sent there because the government believes that one or two planes taking off might be enough for them to win the election. It won’t stop the boats.”
She is cautious about what might change should Labour win the next General Election. She does credit Stephen Kinnock, Shadow Minister for Immigration, as being genuinely interested in discussing the protection of human rights and she’s pleased that Labour have committed to scrapping the Rwanda Plan. “If we just go back to the status quo pre-Covid but maybe are a little bit nicer in how we treat people, the compassionate approach will be seen as a failure, so Labour have to go further.”
A fair and mutually beneficial system
Going further for Gardner means investing in an asylum processing system that is fit for purpose, enabling quick decisions to be made.
“At any given time there are a few thousand people trying to get across the Channel from France who are destitute, and we know that the main nationalities are Iranian, Iraqi, Sudanese and Afghan – people who are most likely to be recognised as refugees. They should be given a travel document to allow them to enter the UK for the purposes of seeking asylum. They then enter a well-functioning system that we have control over and at a stroke it would destroy the smuggling gangs. I know that there’s a lot of anxiety about the country being overwhelmed by numbers of refugees, but the numbers are manageable, and they are not going to stop coming. The key to everything is a system that acknowledges that people will always move and makes the best of that movement to share the many benefits.”
Facing down attacks with expertise and calm debate
It’s not surprising that given her high profile and her championing of human rights, Gardner attracts a lot of attacks from right-wing trolls on social media. How does she deal with it? She does sometimes get depressed by the sheer level of nastiness, “but then I reach out to other people who are in this fight with me and I do get a lot of support”.
She also faces the harder-to-combat casual put-down in the media by presenters and other guests. Some have a sexist attitude of “Oh well, she’s here because she’s a pretty young woman, but what she has to say is of no real value”, which Gardner finds incredibly frustrating. But then she smiles mischievously – “It does make it all the more fun when they underestimate you. I’ve had Tory MPs who thought that I was the floor assistant and then been very shocked to find that I was the person sitting opposite them on the panel.”
Hope and resilience amidst the gloom
In these rather gloomy times, what gives her hope for the future? “Really understanding my own field of migration and knowing the challenges and that it’s perfectly possible to fix them – even though it might not be happening right now.” She adds, “I believe that it’s my duty to remain hopeful. I don’t have the right to despair – when I’m tempted to, I come back and think – well, what then? What if we gave up? What if we weren’t doing what we are doing? It would be so much worse.”