"...we are losing sight of what it really means to be forced to flee one’s home."
In recent years, violating international law and human rights treaties has become normalised through legislative reform, fear-generative media, and the complacency or lack of awareness on the part of citizens who have been led (by their governments) to believe that human rights are a privilege only afforded to them by a systemic denial of the rights of others. In turn, this is generating a culture where peace, safety, and protection from persecution are once again negotiable.
At the end of March, the UK government presented a New Plan for Immigration which treats asylum seekers in a way which is no longer determined solely by why they are seeking asylum, but how they entered the country. Deciding whether to offer someone protection from danger based on the way they arrived, rather than the conditions from which they are fleeing, violates international law and contradicts the UN definition of a refugee. Indeed, when we speak of the legal definition of a refugee, a person’s status is determined by ‘a well-founded fear being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’ (Article 1, UNHCR Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees).
The New Plan for Immigration is part of an emerging pattern which views asylum seeker and refugee rights as not only negotiable, but contingent on having the means to seek asylum by ‘regular’ routes. Most recently, the government released the proposed Border and Nationalities Bill which, mirroring somewhat the prejudiced, harmful, and hostile New Plan, seeks to offer a lower level of protection to anyone who has entered the UK without ‘prior approval’.
We often fault politicians for being inconsistent, but when it comes to making refugee rights negotiable, successive governments have been nothing but consistent in pursuing an anti-refugee immigration policy.
Almost a decade ago, Theresa May, the then UK Home Secretary, stood up in parliament to declare that ‘the aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for irregular migrants’. The expression ‘hostile environment’ has become a catch-all phrase for the set of policies introduced by Theresa May in 2012 which have sought to deliberately make life difficult for ‘irregular migrants’ by restricting their access to services, work, accommodation and legal aid in the hope of deterring people from arriving in the UK or indeed making life so unbearable that they are, once more, forced to leave.
May 2019 UK Home Secretary Priti Patel speaking to police officers
As a consequence of the seeming ‘negotiability’ of basic rights, activist groups have been forced to walk several steps back in terms of their advocacy for refugee rights, as they spend their time responding to policies which should not really exist in the first place.
Those advocating for refugee rights have therefore been forced into a corner in which they are merely advocating for the 1951 Refugee Convention to be upheld. They are not able to fill the gaps in national legislation, gaps which hinder the safe and fair reception, processing and shelter of asylum seekers and refugees (who are often also victims of trafficking, torture, and gender-based violence). Indeed, as those with lived experience and refugee rights groups are forced to ask for the bare minimum, the window for progress and rights advocacy is narrowing. Our policies, discourse and activism should be pushing the debate on refugee rights and experiences of displacement forward, not fighting to keep it afloat.
Recent legislation has shown that who exactly the government is willing to consider an ‘irregular’ or ‘illegal’ migrant is not only constantly expanding but stands in direct contradiction to the UN Refugee Convention. The fact is that Article 31 of the Refugee Convention allows for asylum seekers to arrive via irregular routes, stating that ‘states shall not impose penalties on account of their illegal entry or presence’. This has been wholly ignored by the government in its New Plan for Immigration and treatment of asylum seekers who arrive on British shores seeking safety.
The real impact of the hostile environment and the criminalisation of irregular migration routes has not been, as Priti Patel stated when she introduced the Nationalities and Borders Bill, to make the asylum system ‘fairer and more effective’ but rather to increase risk to life and violate people’s basic right to asylum.
In 1943, in the context of the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt painted a picture of the unquantifiable loss a refugee endures. Arendt expresses the idea that while a refugee escapes persecution, they often experience a loss which cannot be measured or reflected in any law or policy:
"We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings."
(Hannah Arendt, 'We refugees'; edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman, in The Jewish Writings, page 264.)
In debating whether or not to uphold that international law which protects those fleeing persecution based on their identity or beliefs, we are losing sight of what it really means to be forced to flee one’s home. We are losing sight of what it means to have to start all over again, and above all, what it means to extend dignity and compassion to those in need.
While raising awareness and advocating for amendments to the proposed legislation is absolutely crucial, the value of people’s lives and humanity need to be the starting point for any advocacy, and the priority of any policy. The normalisation of the violation of international law is not just a crisis for those it affects, but for us all.
The Refugee Olympic Team
The Olympics serve as a source of national pride for many, but for those without a nation, the Refugee team serves as a chance to not only chase that dream of athletic glory, but to bring awareness to the plight of millions of refugees around the world.
by Sam Basel