By Caitlin Hoyland, GLOBUS correspondant
In June of this year, the UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, proposed the Nationality and Borders Bill.
This bill aims in part to implement new legislature as part of Patel’s ambition to create a ‘fair, humane, compassionate, and outward-looking Home Office’. Yet the UK Government isn’t planning on investigating the root causes of all humanitarian crises, taking responsibility for its contribution to said crises, and channelling money and support directly to those in need to mitigate the displacement of people. Instead, the legislature in the Nationality and Barders bill will, amongst other things, criminalise refugees if they arrive on British shores using clandestine routes. The caveat being that there are no official routes for refugees to follow to Britain.
First things first, what is a refugee?
By the UNHCR definition, refugee status is declaratory. However, until they are eligible for refugee status by the Home Office, a refugee in the UK is formally recognised by the government as a person seeking asylum. And the migration system has been purposefully designed by the Home Office to create a hostile environment for asylum seekers until they are granted refugee status.
Hostile Environment policies were introduced in 2012 by the then-Home Secretary Theresa May to make the migration process as antagonistic and antipathetic as possible. Hostile Environment policies encroach massively on an individual’s confidence in asserting their rights as a person seeking asylum.
Simply put, there is nothing welcoming about the UK’s migration system, regardless of what the government would have you believe.
International refugee law is set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, a United Nations treaty established in the wake of the atrocities committed in the first half of the twentieth century. On signing the convention, a country pledges to provide salvation and security to any person fleeing life-threatening situations in their own country, regardless of how they arrive in their host country. In judging a refugee by their ways of arriving onto British land, the Home Office will be violating international refugee law and neglecting its duty as a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The convention is not without faults. It hasn’t been updated since it was first written, meaning that it does not anticipate modern day oppressive forces that cause people to flee their homes. Thus, the convention prohibits some refugees from accessing proper protection in host countries. For example, it does not formally recognise people fleeing climate crises as refugees. As a result, people who leave their home country to escape climatic disasters are politically labelled as ‘climate migrants’ and are thus not entitled to the same protection as a person with refugee status. However, it is a hugely important piece of legislation because it promises safety for people facing persecution and acute violence in their home countries. For the UK Government to even consider breaching its contract with the UN is immensely worrying.
Not only will the Nationality and Borders bill punish people for how they arrive in Britain, but it also means that whilst their application for asylum is pending, people seeking a safe refuge could be ghettoised in offshore camps (although Patel is yet to announce specifically where the Home Office intends these camps to be). This reminds us of similar atrocity and inhumanity associated with Australia’s offshore detention camps in Nauru. In 2016, the Nauru files were leaked, shaming Australia for the despicable conditions endured by asylum seekers detained in the Pacific Island. The dysfunctional camp was rife with child abuse, assaults and self-harm attempts. A woeful prediction of what to expect in UK offshore camps. No wonder the UN has described the bill as an “almost neo-colonial approach” to reforming the asylum system.
The asylum system is already flawed:
Upon arrival, a refugee (recognised politically as a person seeking asylum) is detained in a detention centre to await their screening interview for the Home Office.
Usually, the wait can be anything from a few hours to a few days, but the interview itself lasts only half-an-hour. This is half-an-hour to prove your right to protection as a refugee in the UK; half-an-hour to explain the situation that drove you out of your home to a foreign country. Just imagine how painful this must be: to describe events you would rather not think about, or perhaps not yet come to terms with.
While the Home Office analyses their claim for refugee status, asylum seekers are housed in accommodation centres. However, there are too few accommodation centres to house all asylum seekers, so many end up being sent to hotels or even converted army barracks (clearly an inappropriate place for anyone to live in, let alone someone who has fled horrific conditions in their home country). These army barracks are increasingly being used as accommodation for Afghan refugees. During this period, the Home Office is not in contact with the asylum seeker.
From the moment of arrival, a person seeking asylum is entitled to some NHS healthcare services free of charge. However, this information is not passed on by the Home Office to the person seeking asylum. Most people arrive in Britain completely unaware of their rights. Isolated in an alien environment, many refugees endure severe mental health illnesses in silence. Yet the already overstretched mental health services in the UK are unable to provide adequate support for people seeking asylum.
The government has invested £100 million in Migrant Help, a service designed to provide over-the-phone support to people undergoing the migration process. This helpline guarantees an answer to any call within five minutes, providing translation, information and guidance services for asylum seekers. At least, that is what it is supposed to do. In reality, this helpline is frustratingly unresponsive, arduous, and slow. Not only that, it is a service that not many people know about.
Having lived in an initial accommodation centre/hotel/ex-army barrack for weeks, or in some cases over nine months, the asylum seekers are suddenly moved to what is known as Dispersal Housing. This means that, without prior notice, a person is moved from their current location – that they have become familiar with, in which they have made connections, friendships, and established a support bubble- to a house or flat anywhere in the UK. This happens on a “no choice basis” and is designed specifically to isolate the person. It is all part of the hostility package custom designed by the UK government.
The UK government has delegated the responsibility of finding suitable asylum accommodation to three companies. These three subcontracted companies are: Mears (operating in the North of England); Serco (operating in the Midlands); Clearsprings (operating in the South of England). What do these three companies all have in common? Not one has prior experience in providing asylum accommodation. The contracts drawn by the government with these companies are satisfactory, obliging the companies to provide adequate facilities, culturally appropriate and nourishing food, and cater for any needs or support their residents may need. Unfortunately, their management falls rather short. These companies operate simply to maximise their profit by spending the bare minimum of the fees they receive from the Home Office on asylum accommodation, thus making profit on the backs of people who have fled persecution, violence, and/or torture. As a result, housing is disgracefully inadequate. Reports describe over-crowded, poor quality, rat-infested houses. One person described their living conditions as so poor they make “normal life impossible.”
Cheaper accommodation is usually situated far from the city centre, so travel costs in Dispersal Housing are inevitable. In spite of this, a person seeking asylum is entitled to only £36.95 per week to cover all living costs including: food, travel and mobile phone bills to contact their family. This is roughly half of job seekers allowance, yet they are not permitted to be in employment. Matt Handcock admitted that he could not survive on such a pitiful amount. Could you?
Whilst trying to rebuild their life and integrate within their community, asylum seekers must still negotiate the continual uncertainty and instability of their right to live in the UK. The Home Office holds the power to decide whether a person is ‘deserving’ of UK protection and can deport anyone at any time. And they exercise this power frequently and fervently.
If the Home Office supports a person’s claim for refugee status, that person is granted five years of leave to remain in the UK, with the option to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR), and then British Citizenship. This grants far more stability for this person to start re-building their life. However, the Home Office retains the power to strip this person of their British citizenship and deport them if they deem their home country as safe to return. And they do not hesitate in brutally exercising this power. In 2019, the courts overturned over fifty percent of the Home Office rejections to asylum claims. That is, over half of people the Home Office intended to deport in 2019 would have faced life-threatening danger if returned to their home countries. If on the other hand, the Home Office rejects a person’s claim for refugee status, a person can try to appeal but ultimately, they face being returned to their home country.
Priti Patel described the UK’s asylum process as one which is fair. Is a system in which refugees arrive to a purposefully hostile environment fair? Is a system that purposefully leaves people in limbo with no contact from the Home Office between their initial screening interview and their dispersal to shamefully substandard accommodation fair?
The asylum system in the UK is a broken system in dire need of reform. At the heart of these reforms there must be compassion, dignity, and fairness. The reforms proposed by Patel in the Nationality and Boarders bill come from a place prejudice, hostility, and cruelty.
So why are the policies in the Nationality and Boarders bill even being suggested?
Pressure. Without a doubt, the government is under immense pressure to make radical changes to the asylum system to appease its loyal voters.
Patel said: ‘people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach’ and ‘mainland Europe should be doing more to accommodate refugees.’ Yet there is nothing in the Refugee Convention that states a refugee must claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. Furthermore, of all refugees travelling to Europe, only five percent travel to the UK. Usually, people who make the dangerous, sometimes perilous, journey from mainland Europe to the UK do so because of their connections to the UK: whether through familial ties; linguistics; connections to the British Embassy; or Britain’s former imperial rule in their home country.
The UK, not mainland Europe, waged the War on Terror, which has thus far caused 37 million people to become forcefully displaced. Yet the UK’s current commitment to hosting Afghan refugees fall short of mainland Europe. According to UNHCR records, in 2020 the UK accepted just 9,351 Afghan refugees, compared with the 147,994 people and 31,546 people resettled by Germany and France respectively.
Still, the profit-driven media does not miss an opportunity to mislead their readers into believing that the UK is inundated with illegal immigrants falsely claiming refugee status and draining tax funds. ‘We must send illegal migrants home – it’s what the British public wants SIR JOHN HAYES’ is just one of the many crude headlines released to spark hatred and xenophobia. The so-called refugee crisis is not caused by refugees. Refugees are escaping crises, not causing them. The crisis is the incompetence, mismanagement, and utter injustice of the migrant system.
Tory MP Shaun Bailey kindly pointed out that the money spent on refugees could be better invested in the poor and forgotten white working-class people, rejuvenating places like the ‘“lost city” in Tipton’. Whilst it is refreshing that Conservative MPs have finally turned their attention to redressing the ever-widening class inequalities, blaming class inequalities on people who have travelled many hundreds of miles to escape persecution…the word “scapegoat” springs to mind.
For perspective, consider this: In 2020, Britain’s asylum system was estimated to cost £1 billion of taxpayers’ money a year. In 2018/19, the UK lost £1.7 billion from tax avoidance. Yet the inflammatory propaganda printed by racist tabloids all regurgitate the same lies: Britain is inundated with illegal immigrants costing the taxpayers millions. Buzzwords like “migrant crisis” and “refugee crisis” are used to simply instil panic and fuel prejudice.
The reality is that when a refugee reaches British shores, they have been failed multiple times by the international community. And when a refugee reaches British shores, they will be about to embark on a cruel, unjust, hostile system that puts their best interests last.
This isn’t a refugee crisis. This is a crisis of compassion.
Header image by geralt, via Pixabay