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The UK’s stance on refugee rights ahead of the general election (and how our voting choices will impact them)

By Sarah El Hadj



Sarah El Hadj is the UK Focal Point for Europe Must Act. Sarah is Syrian-American, based in London, and has volunteered with EMA since 2020. Sarah recently completed her master’s at Goldsmiths University in social anthropology, specialising in migration and resettlement schemes in the UK. Though originally a dancer, Sarah has a passion and background in community arts. Through EMA, Sarah has facilitated creative workshops including poster-making for Now You See Me Moria’s campaigns, Dance Against Detention fundraising for legal fees against the UK’s Rwanda offshoring, and most recently, Other Homes for 2024’s Refugee Week.


Ahead of the UK’s snap general election on July 4th, Sarah El Hadj examines the current scope of refugee rights in the UK: how the misuse of language permeates the “hostile environment” and has allowed schemes such as the Rwanda Scheme to be attempted, though with the hope that our continued collective mobilisation will challenge the narrative.


 

As laws continue to pass which suppress the rights and safety of people seeking sanctuary, our voting choices are crucial. We must show our candidates through our voting choices that the British public RALLY WITH REFUGEES:


If you live and vote in the UK, we encourage you to USE SAFE PASSAGE’S TEMPLATE to write to your candidates to pledge their support for safe routes to the UK.

 

And to CONTACT YOUR CANDIDATES further about various refugee rights via JCWI’s collected links (at the bottom of their article): Migrants’ Rights and the General Election 2024.

 


“ILLEGAL” & “LEGAL” IN THE HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT


There is no greater example of the classification of individuals than from the UK, where “class” is embedded in British history and society. The weaponised narrative of the “refugee crisis” coupled with ever-growing nationalism post-Brexit, was the backdrop for the succession of internationally condemned laws threatening the rights of people seeking sanctuary. In the UK, the categories previously existing in the immigration sector are now joined by “illegal” and “legal”. These terms are not new, but the new laws weaponising them are, and are illegal under the UN Refugee Convention (1951), of which the UK is an original signatory.

 

The Aliens Act of 1905 was the UK’s first immigration law and set a precedent for future legislation in the immigration sector. It was inspired by immigration legislation which had controlled the movement of racialised “aliens” in the colonies. Fast-forward a century, and the new immigration laws emulate the racism and exclusion of the Aliens Act. Despite national and international human rights lawyers, NGOs, faith groups, and public protesting and condemnation of the succession of the “anti-refugee” (as they’re abbreviated in the sector) laws, under Boris Johnson and then Rishi Sunak’s conservative government, they’ve ascended. The House of Lords also condemned many of the articles in the laws, with them “ping-ponging” between themselves and the Commons various times.

 

"The new immigration laws emulate the racism and exclusion of the Aliens Act."

The first, The Nationality and Borders Bill (NBB), which ascended in April 2022, introduced the two-tier asylum system, which categorises asylum seekers into “illegal” and “legal,” based on their way of entry to the UK. This automatically criminalises people seeking asylum, despite UN Refugee Convention Article 31 which states: “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”

 

Directly after the NBB, The Illegal Migration Bill (IMB) was passed on July 20, 2023, further accentuating the conservative government’s illegalisation of people seeking sanctuary. The NBB made claiming asylum difficult, and the IMB makes claiming asylum effectively impossible. “People arriving illegally are deemed inadmissible for asylum altogether,” reads the government policy paper on the IMB.

 

Currently, the only “safe and legal” routes to the UK are through resettlement schemes partnered with the UNHCR, who choose people seeking sanctuary based on various criteria and vulnerabilities. The prioritisation of people seeking sanctuary with vulnerabilities is decent, though this leaves a void for others whose claims may be overlooked due to lost or destroyed (in wars) documentation, or people who are unable to escape to a second country initially (one can only claim asylum outside of their country of origin).

 

Resettlement schemes are a positive representation of what seeking sanctuary could be in the UK, though they are only available to around 1000 people, with exception to previous additional pledges from the past decade: The Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme and Dubs’ Amendment (2016), and schemes dedicated to nationals from specific countries: Syria (2015), Hong Kong (2021), Afghanistan (2021), and Ukraine (2022). These schemes had varied makeups and outcomes, though are a bright spot in the otherwise, “hostile environment” of the UK asylum system.

 

Blatant examples of racial illegalisation are evident in the Windrush Scandal of 2018, and the contrast of near-immediate acceptance of Ukrainians in 2022. The Windrush generation refers to the 500,000 people from Caribbean Commonwealth countries who were invited to the UK after World War II labour shortages. After May’s speech in 2010, there were multiple reports of people who had arrived as children with their parents during Windrush, now elderly and having lived in the UK their whole lives, being treated as “aliens”. These people began losing their jobs, were being denied public services, and faced threats of deportation. They were all “legal” after the 1971 Immigration Act for Commonwealth citizens. After the scandal was exposed, the government, including May who was Prime Minister at the time, issued a formal apology.

 

Contrastingly, within two weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the UK launched the “Homes For Ukraine” resettlement scheme where members of the public would receive £350 monthly, if they hosted Ukrainians. Human rights organisations were quick to point out the hypocrisy of implementing an immediate resettlement scheme for white Europeans, while other ethnicities are risking their lives through the lethal Channel crossing.


 

Examples of the UK’s “hostile environment” in practice include unsafe conditions in detention centres and accommodation, destitution through minimal allowance and the inability to work (“legally”) before asylum claims have been processed (apart from a very limited Immigration Salary List, FKA Shortage Occupation List), and the unwelcome narrative perpetuated in conservative media. Far right attacks have occurred outside various asylum accommodations in the years following May’s speech. In February 2023, several hundred far-right demonstrators interrupted a solidarity event with asylum seekers and locals from Knowsley, Liverpool. They arrived armed with hammers and fireworks outside of the hotel accommodation, injured people at the event and set police cars on fire. Though stoked by conservative media, even in liberal media with less of an overt political motivation, there’s still migration language often incorrect or interchangeable (the stigma behind “migrant” vs “refugee”).


The terms “refugee”, “asylum seeker”, “migrant” and/or “economic migrant”, all have technical definitions, though often, the unspoken underlying context is race, religion, gender or age. In reality, under the UN Refugee Convention, all of these people have the right to claim asylum as people seeking sanctuary. These categories allow a legal framework to prioritise certain people into states, usually in the global north, in addition to pre-existing stigma that often awaits them. More derogatory categories are then associated through media narratives perpetrated by governments, in order to paint people seeking sanctuary as “the other” in the form of “criminal,” “terrorist,” or “sexual predator,” for example.


"The terms “refugee”, “asylum seeker”, “migrant” and/or “economic migrant”, all have technical definitions, though often, the unspoken underlying context is race, religion, gender or age."

 

Instead of the classification system that governments and mainstream media have assigned to people seeking sanctuary, using words that universalise people and provide context is critical. Migrants Rights Network have launched a campaign directly related to language, titled the “Words Matter Campaign,” replacing, for example, “refugee crisis” with “policy crisis”.

 




THE RWANDA SCHEME


The Rwanda Scheme was introduced within the Nationality and Borders Bill, aiming to offshore all other asylum seekers not a part of UNHCR schemes in the African nation 4,000 miles away. This scheme insinuates a narrative of massive numbers of people flooding the UK, when in reality, the refugee population in the UK makes up 0.54% of the total population (2022). “Offshoring” is not a new strategy. In the vein of “hot spots", it’s a strategy designed to limit human rights organisations’ involvement.

 

The scheme was introduced under the guise of deterring smuggling gangs. It is well known amongst NGOs in the sector that offshoring does not deter smuggling gangs. Modelled after Australia’s partnerships with Papua New Guinea and Nauru, other states have also adapted this strategy despite human rights violations. Italy has recently partnered with Albania to offshore their asylum seekers. Italy’s partnership has been done to circumvent the European Commission of Human Rights (ECHR), which the UK is also attempting. Partnerships with Albania and Rwanda, respectively, not in the EU, will be able to refoul people seeking sanctuary to their countries of origin, potentially to their deaths.

 

The UK withdrew from the Dublin Regulation post-Brexit, which details the criteria and responsibilities of EU member states according to asylum law, and now is aiming to withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights, after its Rule 39 injunction (grounding the first flight on June 14, 2022). The UK Supreme Court echoed this injunction in November 2023 by ruling the scheme unlawful. In response, an emergency legislation and new proposed law (separate from the NBB and IMB), The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill recently passed in 2024, as well as the reinstating of the treaty between the two nations, in order to circumvent the courts and illegalities.

 

Despite the illegal and ineffective scheme, in order to proceed with their plans, the treaty put in place between the UK and Rwanda is titled the UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership (FKA the Migration and Economic Development Partnership). It was reinstated in Kigali in December 2023 after the UK Supreme Court ruling, and since then, despite its revival, the UNHCR and parliamentary cross-party International Agreements Committee have confirmed it violates international law. Since Rwanda’s genocide of the Tutsi which ended in 1994, the state has been steadily rebuilding its economy through agriculture and international partnerships – one might say, reparations for the negligence by the international community that claimed the lives of an estimated 1 million. Rwanda’s leading daily newspaper, The New Times reported in 2024 that the African Development Bank said that Rwanda is not far from being within the 20 fastest growing economies in the world in 2024 and 2025. It’s hard to ignore the recent influx of prominent Rwandan partnerships, especially post-2009 when Rwanda joined the Commonwealth. For example, in the UK, Visit Rwanda tourism has partnered with premier football team Arsenal since 2018, with heavy advertising in London’s Emirates Stadium which seats 60,000. The Rwanda treaty is another economic reparation, though this time illegally exchanging people for financial reward.

 

Since the scheme was announced, the Home Office has already paid over 200 million pounds to Rwanda as a “development fund”. Each transferred individual will cost an additional £150,874. Once 300 people have been resettled, an extra £120 million will be given, and an extra £150 million over the following three years. 

 

This is not the first time that Rwanda has partnered with a state to offshore people seeking sanctuary. Between 2014 – 2017, Israel struck illegal and informal deals with Rwanda and Uganda, where primarily Eritrean and Sudanese people seeking sanctuary in Israel were offered one of three options. Option one was to receive £2460 and a ticket of refoulement. Option two was a ticket to an unnamed “third country” (Rwanda or Uganda) including “promised” work permits that were not there on arrival. Option three was the risk of being put in indefinite detention in Israel. Amnesty International reported that upon finding no residency and work permits awaiting them in the third countries but instead, threats of refoulement, this led to most people attempting dangerous journeys to seek sanctuary all over again (back through Libya or the Mediterranean).

 

Within the UK scheme, it has been promised that Rwanda has assimilation initiatives in place, though they are not detailed. However, Rwanda hosts an estimated 127,000 refugees, primarily from Congo and Burundi, and ninety percent are excluded from society and live across five refugee camps. The largest, Mahama camp, hosts more than 55,000. Significant human rights abuses are reported in Rwanda also, including the torture and murder of political prisoners and, refugees. In 2018, Rwandan police fatally shot at least 11 refugees, which previous Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, denied knowledge of. Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, current Rwandan opposition leader, was previously sentenced to 15 years in prison for publicly criticising the Rwandan government. He has condemned the UK-Rwanda treaty. The Observer exposed in 2022 that after the Rwanda scheme was passed through the NBB, 10 Rwandans claimed asylum and were granted refugee status in the UK. This means that the UK partnered with a government where their own citizens had fled and been granted safety in the UK.


"After the Rwanda scheme was passed through the NBB, 10 Rwandans claimed asylum and were granted refugee status in the UK. This means that the UK partnered with a government where their own citizens had fled and been granted safety in the UK."

 


REFRAMING THE “CRISIS”


People power is essential in any social justice movement and reframing the narrative around migration or the refugee “crisis” is no exception. The Rwanda Scheme is a recent example of public mobilisation contributing to the courts’ unlawful ruling, in addition to grounding the first flight that was due to take off on June 14th, 2022.

 

"People power is essential in any social justice movement and reframing the narrative around migration or the refugee “crisis” is no exception."

The Home Office had sent formal notices to 47 asylum seekers, giving them two weeks to find legal representation before the first deportation flight to Rwanda. The public rallied around NGO’s including Freedom From Torture and Detention Action, who were spearheading “Stop the Flights!” campaigns. The government on the other hand was using the phrase, “Stop the Boats!”, which especially conservative media picked up on.



The people selected for the first Rwanda flight were not people who had arrived by boat recently, as the government insisted. They were people who had been waiting for their asylum claims to be processed for years. They had already made the UK their home, including Hakim Kahn, 32, who had been in the UK since he was a child. With the help of NGO’s, human rights lawyers and the public, most of the selected people did not have to board the plane. It wasn’t until the 11th hour that the ECHR stepped in and removed the remaining 7 people (from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Albania) from the flight, so that the first flight was grounded.

 

The airline was Privilege Style airlines, a private Spanish airline outsourced as no commercial airlines were willing to conduct the flights. Privilege Style cancelled their contract in October 2022, before more flights were announced, due to continued public pressure. Air Tanker is in talks to replace them, a private British airline, who delivered emergency aid to Ukraine. Public protest has resumed to pressure them to cancel their contract. There was even an official petition on the government website in 2022 created by a member of the British public titled “Seek to relocate the UK Parliament to Rwanda.”


"Reframing the narrative also relies on people within the system"

 

Reframing the narrative also relies on people within the system. Even Home Office staff protested the Rwanda Scheme. Civil Service World reported that its biggest union would seek industrial action if the scheme was proved lawful, which so far it has not been. Most importantly, however, the voices of people with lived experience of asylum systems must be centered when lobbying for change in language and policy. However, this should only be the case if people with lived experience speaking publicly would not put themselves at risk in their host country or for their relatives in their country of origin.

 

Through collective mobilisation and a grounds-up application, holding local government accountable, another migration narrative is possible, and pivotal.


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