Nottingham – At the end of 2021 around 89.3 million people were forcibly displaced across the world. Of these, 27.1 million were refugees, whilst 53.2 million were internally displaced within their country of origin. 72 percent of the world’s refugees are living in countries neighbouring their country of origin.
Over 6.8 million people have fled conflict in Syria, and many more are displaced inside the country. Turkey is the biggest refugee hosting country in the world. At the end of 2022 Turkey was providing safety to 3.7 million Syrian refugees. In comparison, by the end of February 2021 the UK had resettled just 20,319 refugees from Syria.
UK Resettlement Schemes
The only safe route for refugees to enter the UK is through a limited government sponsored resettlement scheme. In September 2015, UK Prime Minister Cameron committed the government to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. This was achieved by February 2021 under the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). In addition 1,838 children had been resettled under the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement (VCRS) scheme for children in conflict zones, who were unaccompanied or at risk of forced marriage.
In July 2019, the Government introduced a new UK Resettlement scheme (UKRS) to replace all the previous schemes. Latest records show that, until now, only 1,882 people have been resettled under the UKRS. In August 2021 the government announced a new resettlement scheme for Afghans with the stated intention of resettling 5,000 people in the first year. There were just four people resettled under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) up to the end of September 2022.
The United Nations convention does not make it mandatory for a refugee to seek asylum in the first safe country that they reach. However, refugees not eligible for the UK resettlement schemes above have no safe way to claim asylum in Britain. For this reason they are forced to put themselves in the hands of people smugglers in France who pack them into overloaded rubber dinghies to send them across one of the busiest and most dangerous shipping lanes in the world with high seas and freezing temperatures at certain times of the year. This has resulted in at least 48 deaths since 2019. In 2018 just 289 asylum seekers crossed in boats but by 2022 this number had swelled to an annual 45,755.
The hope of deflecting attention away
A deeply unpopular right wing Conservative government, trying to restore their fortunes with voters, is turning to dog whistle politics in the hope of deflecting attention away from a disastrous Brexit, failing economy and health services in crisis. As with the Brexit campaign, where playing the xenophobic race card delivered much of the Brexit vote, the Home Secretary (UK equivalent of Minister of the Interior) Suella Braverman has been using inflammatory language about asylum seekers saying there are “waves of illegal migrants breaching our border” and adding that “there are 100 million people around the world who could qualify for protection under our current laws. Let’s be clear. They are coming here”.
Gary Lineker, a former England football player and the BBC’s highest paid and most popular sports commentator, described Braverman’s language as “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”. In response, the government pressurised the BBC to suspend him which resulted in a strike by all the other Saturday sports commentators and a humiliating U-turn by the BBC who were forced to reinstate him.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is a British charity whose philosophy is to “value every life and look to prevent loss of life, whoever it may be and wherever they may be in trouble”. Newspapers supporting the government vilified the RNLI for rescuing refugees in the Channel from drowning, leading on one occasion, to people actually trying to block the RNLI from launching a rescue launch. The Home Secretary in 2021, contrary to the international law of the seas, suggested that the British Navy should be used to push boats back into French waters. This received a cold response from the Navy who, after 27 boat people from Iraq drowned in November 2021 when attempting to come to the UK, suggested it was more important to make British waters safer.
The government has negotiated a scheme to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, a country responsible for the Rwandan genocide of Tutsi in 1994 and whose post-genocide government is also responsible for grave violations of human rights. The first flight under this plan was scheduled for June 2022 but was halted by the European Court of Human Rights to allow consideration of individual cases by the UK High Court. Rwandan flights are still on hold.
Nationality and Borders Bill
In 2021 they passed the “Nationality and Borders Bill” penalising asylum seekers who entered the UK without authorisation from a country considered by the government to be safe. Migrants meeting this criterion are prohibited from claiming asylum and where possible deported. If the government cannot deport them, it will permit them to claim asylum but with a lesser “temporary protection status”, which will last up to 30 months and they will still be liable to be deported.
Unlike full refugee status, temporary protection status will not include a right to permanent residence, will not allow refugees to be reunited with their family in the UK, and will give no entitlement to the very limited financial support given to other refugees. This legislation has had little effect and 45,755 asylum seekers crossed the sea in 2022.
Illegal Immigration Bill
In an attempt to further tighten restrictions on asylum seekers the Conservative government has introduced an “Illegal Immigration Bill”. If enacted the government will remove all asylum seekers who arrive by irregular routes. The bill will apply retrospectively, meaning that asylum seekers who arrived before its enactment will be subject to detention and arbitrary removal without a legal remedy.
Ironically, human rights lawyers have pointed out that this bill is actually illegal not only in its name, but in contravening both UK and international laws. The majority of the refugees arriving by irregular routes come from countries with wars or human rights violations and should be given full protection under the Refugee Convention – including the right to work, education and non-discrimination. Most of these people, including children, do not have a safe route to reach the UK. The government’s proposals would turn them away before their cases could be considered. The UN refugee agency has criticised the bill saying that branding refugees as undeserving based on their mode of arrival is a fundamental distortion of the convention.
At particular risk are women trafficked into sexual slavery who, should they attempt to escape and claim asylum, will be subject to immediate deportation. More than 60 human rights organisations, MPs and academics have written to the Prime Minister urging him to withdraw the bill, warning that it will drive modern slavery underground and “cost lives”.
The only support outside the UK for this bill is from European far right figures such as Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini who described it as “harsh but fair”, while French former right wing presidential candidate Eric Zemmour congratulated the British Prime Minister.
Detention of Asylum seekers
In a further attempt to reduce the number of people arriving in boats the Conservative government is operating a hostile environment by ceasing to process asylum applications. More than 160,000 asylum seekers are now awaiting a decision. They are held in detention centres and hotels unable to work, in conditions that in some cases are worse than prisons.
In contrast in 2022 in Germany the “Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge”, BAMF, issued decisions on a total of 228,673 asylum applications and overall in the EU 142,845 people were granted refugee status.
In 2022 the government opened a holding centre on a disused airfield close to the coast at Manston in Kent. The centre was designed to hold a maximum of 1,600 boat people for at most 24 hours but the numbers rapidly increased to more than 4,000, with some people being held for more than 30 days, many sleeping on the ground on cardboard in up to 18 large tents holding between 100 and 200 people. There was insufficient food and water and detainees were forced to wear the same damp clothes for days on end. Unsanitary conditions led to an outbreak of 50 cases of diptheria along with norovirus and scabies. Guards were often abusive and one Afghan detainee who acted as a translator described how guards refused to allow a detainee in severe pain to access medical care until finally he collapsed, vomiting blood.
Finally a public outcry at these conditions led to the closure of the Manston facility in November 2022 and removal of the detainees to hotels throughout the UK costing the government in excess of five million pounds per day.
This situation is all the making of a heartless government using the lives of desperate people in a failing attempt to drum up racist support from an electorate that no longer trusts them. The French government has actually offered to allow the UK to process asylum seekers in Northern France, thus eliminating the necessity for boat crossings. This offer has been rejected by the UK government.
THE AUTHOR is an Emeritus Professor of Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Sheffield.