The government assault on refugee rights must not go unchallenged

Diane Abbott
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

It used to be said that Britain had a proud history in upholding the rights of refugees, particularly with regard to the Kindertransport refugee children from Nazi Germany. While some historians point out that this is a rather rose-tinted reading of modern history, even so, there was previously a cross-party consensus that upholding the rights of refugees was part of the traditions and common values of this country.

No more. This government is intent on ripping up that consensus. The Home Secretary has announced that her intention is to establish an offshore centre for processing asylum claims in Africa. Rwanda has been suggested because that is where the Danish government intends to establish a centre, and it seems that some type of reactionary joint venture will be written into the forthcoming nationality and borders bill. This is a Home Secretary who kept asylum seekers in the unfit Napier barracks so that many predictably contracted Covid.

We in the Labour Party, working with NGOs, campaigners and others, should be absolutely clear. Just because this government is on a course to implement the politics that Enoch Powell would have been proud of, we will not follow them. We will uphold international law, the rights of asylum seekers and common humanity.

We should also be clear that the new proposals are in breach of all those, and are largely a ‘culture wars’ solution in search of a problem. Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that individuals have the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. Of course, this does not mean in all cases asylum will be granted. But Priti Patel’s plan effectively denies the right to seek asylum in this country.

Some of us have long argued that the alternative to the scenes of desperate people making extremely hazardous journeys at the mercy of people-traffickers and others is the establishment of safe and legal routes to facilitate the right to seek asylum. These can and should be done in co-operation with other countries, so that those seeking refuge from persecution can access legal representation and be settled in the most appropriate country.

The government plan is aimed at achieving the opposite, the denial of the right to seek asylum. One of the key causes of forced migration is war. So, it is completely unrealistic to expect asylum-seekers from the war-torn Middle East or Afghanistan to journey through other fraught countries to Rwanda to seek asylum. It is not as if Rwanda itself can be reliably regarded as a safe haven over the long term. As a result, the government proposals are likely to be the worst type of policy: brutal, inhumane and ineffective.

One aspect of the policy that requires particular scrutiny is the right to legal representation. This government and its predecessors have been persistent offenders in denying legal advice and representation to asylum seekers in this country. This includes the notorious policy of ‘deport now, appeal later’ adopted by Theresa May as Home Secretary. There can be little confidence that the right to legal representation will be upheld far away from the campaigners and lawyers in this country.

All of this is completely disproportionate. According to the government’s own data, fewer than 5,700 asylum seekers have arrived on small boats coming across the Channel this year. These numbers are tiny. By the end of May this year, it is reported that the government had received a thousand times as many applications for settled status from EU citizens, 5.6 million.

It is also estimated that the outflow of EU citizens in particular since Brexit has led to labour shortages in many sectors. At the same time, many Hong Kong citizens have been offered leave to remain. It is highly uncertain how many people will come but official estimates range into the hundreds of thousands, or even higher. The numbers of asylum seekers are a drop in the ocean by comparison.

The government takes no account of quite how desperate people must be to make these crossings. Ministers are also flagrantly breaching international law. They are denying a fundamental right and must be opposed.

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