As 2020 charges on, a refugee crisis rages on the English Channel, with border crossings and indefinite detentions shedding light on the UK government’s approach to this humanitarian issue. For the majority of the 2010s, Conservative politics and press defamed refugees, characterising them as a ‘cultural threat’, linking them to violent crime and misconstruing their status by labelling them migrants; a thorough 2015 Press Report from the UN High Commission for Refugees breaks down this process in detail. It is vital that as we engage in discussions about refugees we remember they are defined as people who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
As it stands there are approximately 1,200 refugees currently living around the port of Calais, France. These people are coming from countries included but not limited to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Syria, looking for a way to cross the English Channel and seek asylum in the UK. The number of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats hit record numbers according to PA Media, with over 4,000 crossings this year alone. A large percentage of refugees in Calais do not seek asylum in France because their objective is to claim this status in the UK.
Bridget Chapman, spokeswoman for the Kent Refugee Action Network, spoke critically of the government handling of the border crossings saying “Nothing [the government has] done so far has worked. They have spent millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money fortifying the port at Calais, have increased patrols in the Channel, and are now escalating a failing strategy by calling in the military to deal with a humanitarian situation.” The latter point relating to a recent plan by the Home Office to use the British Navy to seize illegal border crossings; a plan that has been condemned by lawyers. The way forward according to Chapman would be (for both the UK and France) to offer people a safe and legal route to residence in their countries which would put a stop to the boats, accurately record who has gained entry and most importantly save lives.
A worrying aspect of these crossings is the aftermath of the refugees that do make it to shore. At the moment the UK is the only European country that has no time limitations on immigration detention, meaning refugees and immigrants can be detained for days or years without any legal justification. Detention Action estimates that 24,000 people are detained into Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) and according to them the net is cast widely. Immigration detention can be for asylum seekers and refugees, but it can include people who have lived in the UK since childhood, torture survivors and victims of human trafficking.
Considering Indefinite Detention as a deep violation of human rights would be a first step towards ending its routine use as a tool of migration management. Detention Action namely discusses alternatives to Indefinite Detention, including being placed in community care, where refugees and migrants can receive emotional and practical support while sorting through the process. According to The Oak Foundation similar projects are taking place throughout Europe and 95% of project participants do not re-offend in terms of criminal acts. Further steps to correct Indefinite Detention as a practice would be to introduce policies that set out strict time limitations to detention and put in motion vigorous judicial oversight. Whilst NGOs and social advocates campaign for these policies, the definitive call rests at the hands of the government, specifically, Home Secretary Priti Patel.
In a recent speech for the Conservative Conference Patel promised to bring forth a new system for asylum seekers that would be “firm but fair”, encouraging and prioritising refugees that came in through legal routes. Leaked documents in late September suggested quite a volatile picture, however, with the Foreign Office allegedly exploring the possibility of sending asylum seekers to detention facilities overseas. As well as analysts pointing out that the system Patel seeks to ‘correct’ is cutting important corners and making undemocratic, moral sacrifices, that should not be at the heart of policy. For instance, not providing asylum seekers with free legal advice, outsourcing asylum interviews to corporations, or cutting down on the appeal system.
Harrowing stories make the news every week about the mental toll the process takes on refugees and asylum seekers. The Independent recently related an account of two individuals on the same flight recurring to self-harm in the process of deportation, with The Telegraph and the Daily Mail reporting on ‘activist lawyers’ trying to disrupt the asylum system while seeking due process for refugees. If the system is broken, we can see that it is not working for refugees wanting to go through due process, for lawyers wanting to assist that process, and for immigration officers performing their duties in a rush mannered prioritising flawed results.
Our role in the upcoming policy changes will be to stand firm and be the conscience of government, putting humanity at the heart of policy, demanding that refugees and asylum seekers are not left in more vulnerable positions than the ones they arrived with. Always staying alert to these inhumane practices, constantly raising awareness of these issues in whatever industry or social circles we inhabit. The legacy of these policies has the power to define generations, and it’s our duty for that influence to be humane, fair, and just.