Rohingya fleeing genocide, Syrians and Afghans driven from their homes by war, Venezuelans escaping an authoritarian regime – as political instability, climate change, and conflict rage across the globe, there are now more refugees than at any time since World War Two.*
Yet the UK’s commitment to resettling refugees appears uncertain at best, making a mockery of ministers’ boasts of a ‘Global Britain’.
Refugees: the ever-more hostile environment
Home Secretary Priti Patel described her New Plan for Immigration, unveiled in March, as a “comprehensive, fair but firm, long-term plan”. But the plan and its ‘cornerstone’, The Nationality and Borders Bill, have met with widespread condemnation from charities and campaigners, who criticise the Home Office for removing legal routes to the UK, failing to set a resettlement target, and taking ‘a wrecking ball to the right of asylum in the UK.’ The bill would make it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK without legal permission, and anyone who helps an asylum seeker to reach the UK could potentially face a life sentence.
The announcement of these disproportionate measures has further inflamed anti-immigration rhetoric, with even the RNLI dragged into the debate. A Daily Mail article criticised the charity for “bring[ing] migrants to the UK”, and a sadly predictable torrent of social media abuse followed. In a statement, the charity reaffirmed its commitment to protecting vulnerable people of any nationality or ethnicity, saying, “[w]here we believe there is a risk to life at sea, we will always launch.”
From sending out the navy to tackle migrant dinghies to drawing up plans to dump asylum seekers on a remote South Atlantic island, the Government’s attitude to people seeking shelter in the UK in recent years has been anything but welcoming. Successive governments have painted immigrants as a threatening ‘other’, in a cynical attempt to win votes in exchange for the lives and freedoms of people with no voice in UK media or politics.
The ‘hostile environment’ introduced by Theresa May during her time as Home Secretary (since rebranded as the sinister-sounding ‘compliant environment’) has made it extremely difficult for undocumented migrants to remain in the country. Advertising campaigns warn them to “go home or face arrest”, targets have been introduced for number and speed of removals, and a wide range of individuals, including doctors, landlords and employers, are tasked with carrying out immigration checks before offering their services.
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a significant increase in the number of UK asylum seekers being held in prison, reaching 53 percent of immigration detainees in June 2020, up from 22 percent nine months earlier. Like other prisoners during the pandemic, these detainees have been locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. Even for detainees not held in prison, conditions are shocking – the Home Secretary has faced calls to resign over her decision to house asylum seekers in the “squalid” Napier Barracks, where rooms are shared by over 20 people. Twenty-nine asylum seekers died in Home Office accommodation in 2020.**
The unlawful environment
Not only are such policies brutally inhumane, but several of them have also been ruled unlawful. In June, the High Court found Napier Barracks to be unsafe, a ruling which could see a damages claim against Priti Patel. Another recent case found that a 2015 policy which gave failed visa applicants just 72 hours to make their final appeals, and which had been used to deport 40,000 people, violated “the right to access the court”.
In a separate decision in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that thousands of asylum seekers had been unlawfully detained between January 2014 and March 2017, and that they were entitled to sue for compensation. And in November 2020, the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported that the Home Office’s hostile environment broke equalities law, with equality “generally dismissed or overlooked”.
The Government’s approach to refugees is being exposed as ever more narrow-minded, particularly when compared with some of our European neighbours.
Wir schaffen das
I was in Munich at the time of the ‘migrant crisis’, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s famous pronouncement, Wir schaffen das (‘we can do it’), led to a huge influx of 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015 alone. Already by the end of the year, 148,000 of those had been accepted as refugees, compared with just 20,000 accepted by the UK in 2015.
The response in Munich and across the rest of Germany that winter, on the part of both government and civic society, was extraordinary – a fantastic example of human decency and large-scale community organising. Huge crowds gathered at the Hauptbahnhof to welcome new arrivals, clapping and cheering, plying them with clothes and food. They were then directed to buses which would take them to holding centres in converted conference halls, warehouses and other large spaces around the city, where volunteer armies sorted clothes, made beds, and served food, as well as providing services such as translation and child care.
The moral and economic cases for welcoming refugees
As anyone who has met a refugee will know, the dehumanising suggestions by the right-wing press that they are criminals and free-loaders could not be further from the truth. These are desperate people, often fleeing wars fomented by the very countries in which they seek sanctuary, and all the refugees I met in those Munich reception centres were incredibly grateful for the help they received.
One man from Syria, an engineer, had fled his country after regular beatings and the threat of torture from government forces had become intolerable. In flawless English, he told me that his parents had stayed in Syria, as they had been too weak to make the arduous two month journey. Some young Nigerians told me they were forced to run as militia groups approached their village. Tragically, they too had no choice but to leave their families behind, and had had no contact with them since.
Germany offered them safety, the chance of a job, and the opportunity to send money that could support their families. According to UN statistics, about 800 million people around the world are supported by funds sent home by migrant workers.
Welcoming refugees is an act of human decency, but it can also provide a boost to economic activity. The majority of asylum seekers arriving in Europe in recent years have been under 35, and Western Europe, with its ageing population, is crying out for young workers. Germany’s kindness is now paying off, with one 2020 study finding that 68 percent of refugees who arrived between 2013 and 2018 were now in a job, paid training or an internship, and 49 percent had found steady employment. As NHS doctor Waheed Arian points out in a poignant message for World Refugee Day, he and many other essential workers in the UK would not have been able to come here under the New Plan for Immigration.
The UK’s refugee policy lacks basic humanity, sacrificing the welfare and lives of some of the world’s most desperate people in an effort to score political points. A truly ‘Global Britain’ should be based on a recognition of our shared responsibility to help those in need, aiming to build a fairer society based not on cruel isolationism, but on cooperation and kindness.
We could do worse than to follow Germany’s example.
*See the UNHCR website for definitions of terms such as ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ and for more detailed statistics
**For further information, see this excellent summary by Dr Stella Perrott