The home secretary, Priti Patel, wants us to believe there are two types of refugee.
First, there is the refugee who waits for many years in a camp without access to education for their children or the opportunity to work and make a better life, often enduring violence and danger day in day out. According to Patel, this is the model refugee who is deserving of our compassion.
The second, the undeserving refugee in her narrative, is the mother, father or child who takes a traumatic and dangerous journey in search of a place where they can feel safe, where they can be with family, where they can rebuild their lives.
Which one would you be if you were forced to leave your home, you might wonder. But whether someone ends up in a refugee camp or in the back of a lorry is as much a product of circumstance as it is of choice. There is no good option if you’ve lost everything.
Under the home secretary’s new plans, refugees will be welcomed to the UK if they are one of the 0.08% of refugees across the world who are selected for resettlement. The rest, if they manage to reach the UK, will be exiled to purpose-built refugee camps, rebranded as “reception centres”. They will see their right to asylum removed and face a lifetime of destitution and insecurity under the constant threat of deportation.
We’ve seen first-hand how policies to deter refugees push people to take ever greater risks.
Priti Patel’s distinction isn’t based on whether a person has a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country – the definition of a refugee – but rather, what she thinks of them based on the journey they were forced to take.
At Safe Passage International, we know how dangerous this narrative is. We’ve seen it played out before. In Greece, one of the countries in which we work, refugees who arrive in flimsy dinghies are already held in “reception centres”. These are refugee camps in all but name, where children and adults live in ever more overcrowded and squalid conditions. Cut off from the rest of the world, they are often stuck in limbo for years without a decision on their case.
The government claims this approach will deter refugees from taking dangerous journeys in the first place, but there is scant evidence to support this. People do not risk their lives for a room in a Best Western hotel. In Calais, we’ve seen first-hand how policies to deter refugees push people to take ever greater risks. Increased security at the ports and no option to ask for asylum at the British border have led to more small boats across the Channel, not fewer.
What prevents people from taking these dangerous journeys – boarding the boat or climbing into the back of a lorry – are safe alternatives. There is good evidence that safe routes prevent dangerous journeys, reunite families, and offer protection and safety to refugees. Yet the safe routes refugees need just don’t exist at the moment.
This week’s announcements are shockingly thin on proposals to expand safe routes to sanctuary. The government claims it recognises the importance of safe routes – but refugees need actions, not words.
In fact, for some, the government is proposing to further limit safe routes. The right to reunify with family in the UK has been a lifeline to refugee children stranded in Europe, but the government has said it will restrict refugee families’ ability to reunite depending on how they originally came to the UK.
The government’s failure to expand safe routes in their latest proposals comes after a year of devastating blows, with existing pathways to the UK being closed. Vital EU rules on family reunion rights were lost, when the government refused to provide a replacement after Brexit. Despite its successes, the government closed down the Dubs scheme designed to relocate unaccompanied refugee children from Europe. There were also delays in launching the new resettlement scheme promised in 2019, and the current programme was halted for most of the year with only 823 refugees resettled in the whole of 2020.
The government claims it recognises the importance of safe routes – but refugees need actions, not words.
At Safe Passage we see on a daily basis the consequences of the government’s failure to provide safe routes. We recently were contacted by the family of an unaccompanied child in northern France who is desperate to join his family in Britain. Three months ago, we would have been able to reunite this child safely with their family via European family reunion rules, but with this route now closed, the family is desperately worried that the child will risk their life instead.
This year we will mark the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, and no-doubt we will hear government ministers celebrating Britain’s proud history of providing protection to those in need. But what about our future? This is not the New Plan for Immigration we need.
We should be drawing on the inspiration of the Kindertransport, where the UK took in thousands of children ahead of World War Two and Britain’s Refugee Welcome movement powered by churches, mosques, synagogues and countless other faith and community groups.
We have a history of welcoming the stranger, expanding safe routes, and providing protection for those who need it regardless of their background, faith, creed or journey. And this must be our future.
Beth Gardiner-Smith is CEO of Safe Passage International