CW: mentions of suicide, sexual assault
The war crime-laden conflict in Syria has not ended; Saudi Arabia (at the time of writing) continues to drop British-made bombs on Yemen; Israel is once again escalating its policy of state-sanctioned slaughter of Palestinians; the Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan, reducing armed violence, but increasing the risk of persecution and repression; Bosnia is teetering on the edge of a relapse into conflict; violence in the Central African Republic is ongoing; human rights abuses in Eritrea and Ethiopia continue. These are merely a few examples of the conflicts and instabilities which blight the lives of civilians who otherwise simply wish to live a life of safety, health and happiness.
Safe routes of asylum to the UK should be available to all who need them, not least because Britain is complicit in an untold number of conflicts and repressive governments around the globe. Yet of all those who require support and protection, only Ukrainian refugees are deserving of such assistance, according to the Conservative government; one clear demonstration is the introduction of the government’s ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme. Of course, Ukrainians should be welcomed to the UK – or any other country they’d prefer to claim asylum in – but so should refugees from any other context of conflict or persecution. Just as Russia has obliterated parts of Ukraine leaving a trail of war crimes in its wake, so too has it devastated swathes of Syria. Why then, as a nation, are we willing to be so selective as to who we will welcome as refugees?
Large numbers of ordinary citizens with hopes, dreams, families, friendships, and foibles continue to have their lives irreparably wounded by conflict or persecution on a daily basis. Of all these victims of conflict, violence, state-sanctioned terror, torture, targeted assassinations or other repressions, only the refugee flow from Ukraine has wrenched at the shrivelled hearts of the Conservative UK government. On the 14th April, shortly after the UK government opened the British border to Ukrainian refugee men and women, regardless of their means of arrival, Boris Johnson announced that all other male refugees crossing the English Channel by boat will be transferred to Rwanda (at a cost of £120 million of tax payers money for the pilot scheme alone) while their asylum claim is processed.
Boris Johnson justified the new “offshoring policy” on the basis that “our compassion may be infinite, but our capacity to help people is not”. This superficial statement reeks of dishonesty in so many ways. First of all, we have plenty of capacity to help, we are merely extremely selective in our compassion. The UK has quite rightly opened its borders to Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian aggression, but Syrian men fleeing Russian aggression are going to be intercepted at sea and packed off to Rwanda (while Syrian women will likely spend months locked up in a detention centre). What exactly is the difference other than skin colour, language and in some cases, religion? The racist underbelly of British institutional life has been fully exposed, again, as this policy seemingly selects “legitimate” refugees solely according to country of origin, with the accompanying social markers such categorisation denotes.
There are no safe legal routes of entry for asylum seekers from many countries, rendering the English Channel a perilous last option. The “vile people smugglers” whom Johnson claims to want to put out of business are kept in business by the inhumane asylum policies of the UK alone – nobody else. People fleeing unfathomable horror will not risk their lives further by crossing a treacherous stretch of water in a flimsy dingy unless the alternative is so horrific as to make the gamble worthwhile. Provision of safe routes of passage for asylum seekers would put people smugglers out of business instantly. Boris Johnson and his sidekick Priti Patel are not only hypocrites, they are the walking embodiment of structural and state-sanctioned violence; adorned in an expensive suit and presenting an air of respectability, they have been riding roughshod over vulnerable people for years.
The newly announced offshoring policy bears no semblance of concern for the safety of refugees. Rather, it is a move to placate those Tory supporters who envisioned a post-Brexit Utopia, in which all immigrants are forced to assimilate, and in which the UK accepts only white Christian refugees. Not only does such policy respond to fallacies concerning asylum in the UK, but it directly reinforces them, reifying them as fact, thus risking a slippery slope towards a dystopian political landscape whereby evidence-based policy is completely non-existent. In this post-Brexit right wing utopia, policy is in effect guided by that bloke down the pub with an EDL tattoo and a massive chip on his shoulder. What Johnson’s empty rhetoric on compassion versus capacity fails to reflect is that the UK takes in only 1% of the world’s refugee population, with developing countries absorbing far more than developed western nations. The UK is hardly overloaded or overcrowded. If the government sincerely believed that we are “full”, or lack capacity to help refugees, it would do better to increase public access to privately owned land (0.6% of the population owns more than half of the rural land in England and Wales) or to mandate the sale or long-term rental of England’s 238,306 long-term empty homes. It is telling that for the Conservative party, the monopolisation of land and housing by the wealthy few are not salient social justice issues, but a few dinghies containing desperate humans are.
The Conservative government (and Labour under Tony Blair was little better) has increasingly conflated asylum seekers with migrants in the public narrative, thus creating the imagined boogieman of the “illegal immigrant” in the public psyche. Migrants, who benefit the UK economy by contributing far more fiscally than they receive, are unfairly demonised by British tabloids as benefits scroungers. Unsurprisingly where the tabloid press is concerned, the tone that underwrites such demonisation is one of colonialism and racism; humans have migrated throughout history – long before national borders were arbitrarily drawn across the world by wealthy white men.. Thus, the “illegal immigrant” is frequently painted as being a predatory creature; neither our benefits, women, nor way of life are safe. The illegal immigrant looms large under the banner of Sharia law, halal meat in one hand and a handful of fraudulently claimed twenty-pound notes in the other. Thus, in the British public imagination, all “illegal immigrants” are people of colour, Muslim, criminal and lazy. This nonsensical paradigm portrays asylum seekers as “bogus”: according to this narrative they are seeking to reap the rewards of the British way of life, whilst simultaneously shaping it so that it reflects the undefined, homogenising culture of their poorly imagined homeland. The fact that refugees and asylum seekers are, by their very definition, fleeing conflict or persecution is overlooked. The UK’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which it is party, include the right to a fair and impartial refugee status determination hearing – but in the rush to misrepresent asylum seekers as “bogus” or “illegal immigrants”, this duty is deliberately erased from the public narrative.
The Refugee Convention states that an asylum seeker should not be penalised for entering a country irregularly, provided that they claim asylum at the earliest reasonable opportunity upon arrival. It also provides inalienable protection from refoulement – the process of being returned or sent to a country where that asylum seeker is in danger of persecution or harm. In light of international law therefore, those dinghies crossing the Channel are not carrying criminals, but asylum seekers who must be provided with safety while their claim is being heard. In failing to provide sufficient protection (aside from any of the other obvious implications, contemporary Rwanda has a worrying human rights record) the criminals under international law are, in fact, Priti Patel and Boris Johnson.
Offshore processing of asylum claims is not an original scheme. Australia famously transformed the lives of asylum seekers into a living hell by sending them to the island of Nauru and leaving them there for years without access to legal recourse, resources or support. Sexual and physical abuse of detainees was not uncommon, and many asylum seekers on Nauru attempted suicide. Offshoring asylum seekers creates Guantanamo-like circumstances whereby transparency and accountability evaporate, and traumatised, vulnerable people are forced to suffer years of damage and despair. It is unlikely that the Conservative government is going to suddenly develop a moral compass. It is unlikely that the UK will embark upon a sufficient process of self reflection to effectively address the racism, xenophobia and greed that underpin public policy. The most effective means of reducing asylum claims would be to embark upon a trajectory towards a feminist foreign policy which seeks to dismantle the military industrial complex and contribute towards community-oriented sustainable development. This is the antithesis of the Conservative government, with its tendency towards child poverty, foodbanks, “accidental” legally ambiguous arms sales, pandemic parties, mass corruption, tax evasion and a fleet of vans that drove around London ominously telling immigrants to “go home.” Domestically, improved socio-economic policies and public education would ensure a far more humane reception for those who require protection and support, regardless of skin colour or country of origin. What remains to be seen is whether the compassion that is currently being reserved exclusively for Ukrainian refugees will somehow bloom into a better understanding of, and compassion for, all displaced people. So far, it is certain that Britain’s current disregard for its obligations under human rights and refugee law is setting public policy upon a course which it cannot absolve itself from in the future.
Featured image “La Trobe RAC banner – Refugee Children in Immigration Detention Protest Broadmeadows” by John Englart (Takver) is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.
The Norwich Radical is non-profit and run by volunteers. You can help us continue our work by becoming a supporter. All funds raised help cover the maintenance costs of our website, as well as contributing towards future projects and events.