Stepping in where the government won’t

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Wednesday was a bittersweet day for asylum campaigners, allies and refugees, as the positive precedent achieved in a groundbreaking case on reuniting refugee families was marred by reports of a ‘red door policy’ in the north-east of England, used to demarcate the homes of migrants.

First, the good news: asylum campaigners were victorious in a landmark ruling that affirmed the right of refugees to be reunited with family members in the UK. The case involved three unaccompanied children and a dependent adult, who fled Syria in September and have been living in the ‘Jungle’ at Calais since October. It was based around the principles of the Dublin III Regulations, an EU-wide set of criteria that determine member state responsibility for refugees. Hitherto, the regulations had meant that asylum seekers could only join their family in Britain if they had applied for asylum in France, and the French government had subsequently asked the British to take on the case. The lawyers on this case, championed and supported by Citizens UK – the country’s ‘hub’ of community organization,  were successful in showing that the Dublin system is not working. As such, the four individuals will be allowed to join their relatives in Britain while the Home Office considers their application. The ruling represents a new precedent in British law, and will hopefully result in the reunification of vulnerable people with their loved ones through safe and legal channels, rather than through the perilous journey they must undertake today 

Second, the bad: news broke that homes provided to asylum seekers in the north-east of England are identifiable by their red doors, which in turn render the homes (and families within) easy targets for racial hatred. Reports have been made of dog excrement being smeared on doors, bricks and eggs being thrown through windows, and National Front graffiti being sprayed on walls. An urgent audit has been launched by the Home Office to investigate the claims, and the director of G4S, the subcontractor in question, has said that there is ‘absolutely no such policy’ to mark the homes of migrants in this manner. Whether such a policy exists or not, it is demonstrative of a lack of empathy and foresight on the part of the contractors, while the abuse that the families have suffered provides another damning indication of a dangerous retreat to racism and inter-communal animus.                                           

So what does this mean for the British response to asylum seekers and refugees? The legal shift indicated by this ruling should be celebrated for its fundamental characteristics of humanity and empathy, two elements which are clearly lacking in the latter case. However, the intersection of international regulatory architecture and domestic governance is one that is being constantly reshaped: while this judgment is a step in the right direction, British policy and commitment to alleviating the refugee crisis remains sorely lacking.

The refugee crisis we face requires a multifaceted response: it is clear that international guidelines alone are insufficient without domestic commitment and interpretation, and national situations too require clear and direct policy to promote a welcoming environment for those fleeing war-torn countries. Much of the slack is being picked up by civil society organisations, whether that is in providing assistance on the ground to inhabitants of the ‘Jungle’, or in reshaping legal norms as with Citizens UK’s role in this case. By taking initiatives and stepping in where states are failing, these organisations are proving that they have become vital in solving what is arguably one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our lifetime.  The work of non-state actors is changing the fabric of international society; however, whether it can precipitate enduring shifts in foreign policy and interstate relations remains open to debate. For it to do so requires all of our support. 

The Hilary Term edition of Sir, Oxford’s principal student journal of international affairs, will examine the role of such new actors in the international sphere. It is currently calling for submissions under the theme of ‘Changing Players, Changing Game?’: please visit our Facebook page or email sir-editor@irsoc.org for more information.  The deadline for pitches is this Sunday, 24th January.

To become more involved in advocacy and campaigning with regard to the migrant crisis, please see Oxford Migrant Solidarity, Oxford for Syria, Oxford Students Refugee Campaign and Oxpand. 

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