Asylum Welcome, a local Oxford charity supporting refugees and asylum-seekers, has launched a mini-exhibition at the Old Fire Station called “Have Heart, Take Heart” to display messages of solidarity for refugees and asylum seekers in Oxfordshire. The exhibition will be open until 21st August, and these messages are also viewable on Asylum Welcome’s website.
Featuring more than 150 postcards with orange hearts comprising of words of kindness, solidarity, and welcome, the exhibition was launched on 28th July in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention of 1951. The Convention is a piece of international law, to which the UK was a key drafter and signatory, that sets out the rights and responsibilities of refugees as well as countries who ratified the legislation.
“Asylum seekers and refugees are a really important part of our society and have made a fantastic contribution,” one resident wrote.
“Some of us are deeply ashamed of the UK government’s inhumane attitude towards refugees,” another contributor expressed. “We do not share it and wish to make you welcome!”
Introduced in 1951 following the forced displacement of millions in the aftermath of World War II, the Convention today is a foundational piece of international law that underpins asylum systems in the UK and around the world. It sets out the definition of a “refugee”, the rights of refugees, as well as the principle of non-refoulement, the principle that refugees are not to be forcefully returned where their lives or freedoms would be threatened.
Asylum Welcome started its campaign to collect messages of solidarity after Home Secretary Priti Patel announced in March 2021 a plan to overhaul Britain’s immigration system, potentially bringing about major negative ramifications for refugees and asylum seekers in the country. The organisation’s stance is that the plan is “is deeply flawed, inhumane and is unlikely to achieve many of its desired aims.” On 20th July, the plan came to further fruition after the House of Commons passed the second reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill by 366 votes to 265.
While the Home Secretary created the Bill with the aim to “better protect and support those in need of asylum” and “break the business model of people smuggle networks”, refugee rights campaigners have raised concerns over the Bill’s stricter requirements for refugee status, restricting of rights of refugees, prospective use of offshore asylum centres, and ineffectiveness in stopping modern slavery.
Stricter Requirements: Illegalising Refugee Modes of Arrival
One major reform arising from the Bill is that it will be illegal for newcomers to make an asylum claim if they came through a “safe third country” or United Kingdom waters without permission.
A safe third country is defined under the new legislation as a country where one can apply to be recognised as a refugee and where one’s life and liberty is not threatened on the grounds such as race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. By these definitions, routes taken without permission through Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, or Bosnia and Herzegovina could therefore be deemed as “illegal routes”.
Under the proposed reforms, anyone who enters through these “illegal routes” could be subjected to up to four years of imprisonment and removal, and anyone who facilitates their entry could be punished with a life sentence.
It is likely that these reforms would limit refugee protection to only people who enter the country through state resettlement or migration schemes. But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international agency dedicated to protecting refugees, says that state resettlement is “only open to a tiny minority of eligible refugees”. According to the Migration Observatory, between 2016 and 2019, the government has resettled 5000 – 6000 refugees every year, with this number falling to 823 in 2020.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has recently announced plans to create a “displaced talent scheme” that would allow highly skilled refugees living in Jordan and Lebanon to work in the UK for a maximum of five years, which is to be piloted for 100 refugees and their families in the next two years. But the government has yet to provide a numerical commitment to resettlement in the future.
Restricting the Rights of Asylum Seekers and Prospective Use of Offshore Asylum Centres
Another set of concerns relates to the restricting of rights of asylum seekers and the prospective use of offshore asylum centres.
Under the proposed Bill, anyone who has taken “illegal routes” would be subjected to deportation back to a safe third country, but the UK government currently does not have any practical agreements to deport refugees to other countries.
In the absence of agreements, the government has proposed that those who cannot be deported will have their asylum claims processed. If successful, asylum seekers would be granted a “temporary status”, but that will leave them in a legal limbo, as their status would need to be periodically accessed and their family reunification rights as well as access to public services restricted.
The Bill also paves the way for the creation of offshore asylum centres, termed as “designated places”, to process such asylum claims following the footsteps of Australia and Denmark. Speculations are that these centres would be in Ascension Island, oil rigs, or disused ferries.
Nuha Abdo, an Oxford newcomer from Syria and spokesperson of the Have Heart, Take Heart project, expressed wariness over these reforms and said that she would not be living in Oxford today if the Bill were in place five years ago.
Abdo arrived in 2016 with her two children as part of the UK government’s family reunification program for refugees. Her husband, a Syrian professor who arrived a year before, took multiple routes that would be deemed illegal under the proposed Bill before he successfully sought sanctuary in the UK. Part of his journey to safety, which spanned the countries of Greece, Turkey, and Qatar, included travel by land on lorries and by sea on boats, multiple arrests at airports, and a serious injury that led to his hospitalisation.
“If this bill existed, it would mean that both my children and I would be separated from my husband. How can you accept people as refugees [give them temporary status] but not accept their families?” Abdo asked.
Will the Bill Effectively Tackle Modern Slavery?
At the heart of the debates around the Bill is also the question of modern slavery. During her speech, Home Secretary Priti Patel spoke of the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people found in a trailer in Essex at the hands of human traffickers and the “moral duty” to “stop this vile trade” as the drivers of the Bill.
Asylum Welcome Policy and Advocacy Coordinator Hari Reed said that the organisation agrees that modern slavery is a crucial issue that needs to be tackled but does not believe that the bill is going to “tackle it in any way”.
“The government is treating smuggling as the cause of the problems with the asylum system when in fact it is the consequence. Smugglers are filling in the gap in international legislations,” Reed emphasised. “If there are safe and legal ways for refugees to get to where they need, there would be no need for smugglers.”
Abdo said that the Bill will discourage refugees from coming to the UK, but it will simply compel them to go elsewhere without deterring the activities of smugglers and traffickers. “Refugees will not stop. They will go to Europe – France or Germany. But the Bill is not going to stop smugglers. Whatever the sum is, I will pay to be safe.”
Former Prime Minister Theresa May has also voiced opposition against the creation of offshore asylum centres, saying that it “wouldn’t automatically remove the business model of the criminal gangs”, as smugglers would be “waiting for those who are rejected by the centre, and they’d still move those people across the Mediterranean.” May also believes that the Bill could potentially even increase “people being picked up and being taken into slavery”.
The UNHCR has argued that the Bill “unfairly punish[es] many refugees” in violation of the terms and spirit of the Refugee Convention. The Refugee Council, a UK national charity providing services for refugees and asylum seekers, has also called the Bill an “anti-refugee bill”.
“Since we arrived in this country, every day new bills are being passed. We do not feel safe,” Abdo expressed her sense of insecurity. “It affects me emotionally. Every time [the government] applies something new, it is stressful to us.”
“What are we gaining from this Bill? We will only lose valuable people in our community,” Reed questioned and adding, “We don’t see this as progressing our asylum law at all.”
Each of the clauses of the Bill will next be scrutinised by the House of Commons Public Bill Committee, scheduled to meet on 21st September. Members of the public with expertise, experience, or a special interest in the Bill would be able to submit their views for the committee’s consideration in oral form or in written form to [email protected]. Further information can be found here.
Image: Asylum Welcome