Many of those landing on British shores are escaping from our wars – wars which we have supported, funded or been actively involved in

Terina Hine

The nasty party, if it ever went away is back with a vengeance. Not content with the hostile environment, or the refusal to fund overseas aid, the Home Office’s Nationality and Borders Bill is set to criminalise those fleeing war and persecution. While crying freedom for the rest of us they are criminalising refugees and asylum seekers.

Many of those landing on our shores are escaping from our wars – wars which we have supported, funded or been actively involved in. So perhaps it is no coincidence that while these victims of war seek our help those who were most vocal in supporting the wars from which they flee are also the most active in raising the drawbridge.

In a civilised society, people fleeing danger would be given protection not threatened with imprisonment. When we share responsibility for creating the dangers from which so many refugees are fleeing, our duty to provide help should be even stronger.

Yet the British government want to imprison anyone who “knowingly arrives in the United Kingdom without valid entry clearance” or arrives by what is called “irregular means” or who enters from a country designated as ‘safe”. And anyone who knowingly assists an asylum seeker can also be prosecuted.

Roughly 62% of asylum seekers enter the UK by “irregular” means, the majority are eventually granted asylum. They are not criminals. They are fleeing wars, often of our making, or civil wars left in the wake of our attempts at regime change. They are often traumatised and many are minors. They travel by “irregular means” because that is the only option available. No-one wants to risk their life inside a lorry or dinghy.

Priti Patel, Home Secretary, talks up the asylum crisis, failing to inform us it is a crisis of her government’s making, caused staff and legal cuts and aided by lengthy appeals. The backlog of cases – over 66,000, in March – is the highest in a decade, while asylum seekers are at their lowest level since 2012.

Patel promised the UK would fulfill its moral responsibility to support refugees, yet she is championing a bill which does the exact opposite. A bill which is in potential breach of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, a bill that human rights groups intend to challenge in court once it passes through parliament.

The Home Office insists refugees must remain in the first safe place they come to – and although most do, the UN convention does not require refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach anymore than it requires them to travel only through approved channels.

In reality most refugees do not travel far, but stay close to the war zones they flee, hence vast camps exist in Pakistan and Jordan, and thousands are trapped in squalid, unsafe camps in Libya. Only a minority come to Europe and an even smaller number to the UK. Those that come this far are desperate to be where they have family, or where they are able to speak the language.

The new bill allows immigration officials to arrest people once they reach British waters, making it impossible for them to claim asylum on land. It also enables the authorities to sentence anyone who assists asylum seekers to life imprisonment – even if they are family members or an NGO worker. This provision fails to distinguish people smugglers from rescue workers, and may even criminalise HM Coastguards and RNLI for saving lives at sea.

But the UK is not alone in imposing such barbaric measures. The past few years have seen similar policies introduced by the EU, with borders closed and search and rescue operations in the Med cancelled leaving distress calls unanswered and volunteer rescuers harassed by the EU governments. And the barbarity has not prevented deaths in the Mediterranean as supporters claim, at least 1,146 have drowned attempting to reach Europe this year already.

Politicians and the media for years have demonised refugees, now they are equating refugees and asylum seekers with the people smugglers to whom they turn, tarring them with the same “criminal” brush. They rarely question why people resort to such desperate measures, why they turn to the criminal gangs that overload leaky boats.

All but a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees have no option but to take unofficial routes, there is nothing else available in the failed states which they leave behind. Most refugees are escaping war or its aftermath, many come from the war zones we helped create and supported: in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. They are victims of wars in which Britain has played a major role, not criminals to be prosecuted.

20 Jul 2021

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