The condition of migrants and refugees in Britain was debated critically at an evening seminar at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) last week. The British university invited prominent migration and refugee experts to take part, including Migrants’ Rights Network’s Director Don Flynn. He expressed his concerns about the current British policy towards refugees and migrants and the new initiative to outsource government responsibilities to civil society from next month. He emphasised the laissez-faire attitude which the government has had historically towards migrants and refugees.
During the 1970s and 80s, Britain’s legislation covering repatriation was built upon “overt racism”, explained Flynn. At the end of the 1980s and the emergence of new refugee issues, Britain’s civil society was forced to reflect on its external relations and humanitarian responsibilities in order to face the government’s approach to the thousands of asylum applications it was receiving. Due to the collapse of the USSR, the Yugoslav war, the conflicts between Turkey and the Kurds and across the Balkans the number of applications reached almost 70,000 in the mid-80s. It was largely social groups who took the initiative to advocate for immigrants’ dignity and rights to proper housing, food and family reunification. Activism had been the core of migrant and refugee advocacy as the issue had largely had no political bearing between 1971 and 1995. In the mid-1990s immigration law was enacted but, again, activists were responsible for advocating for it to comply with human rights. Migrant workers were “invited” to Britain to work in the growing service economy but such economic migration did not mean a better lifestyle for the migrant, or one which might be anywhere near comparable with those of the British.
Social groups and trades’ unions are at the core of advocacy for proper living and working conditions. Sadly, the government is moving immigration control away from the borders into local communities and their organisations, which are forced to have legal responsibility for migrants and refugees.
Despite having a role in many of the conflicts and socio-economic deterioration behind migration, said Flynn, Britain has had little political engagement with the issue. It seems that the “borders” defining the state have been shifted to be under the responsibility of civil society. From next month, under the Immigration Act 2014, for example, the government will outsource the responsibility for checking the right of people to be in Britain to all private landlords before renting out their property. Under the new law, landlords who fail to check a potential tenant’s “Right to Rent” will be faced with penalties of up to £3,000. By outsourcing legal responsibility to banks and landlords, the government can continue with its non-engagement of the refugee and migrant issue.
A major problem surrounds Britain’s detention centres. Michael is an ex-detainee who spoke at the SOAS event. He explained how his experience in detention centres over two and a half years had traumatised him. The controversial detention system in Britain was brought to the media’s attention last year when the NGO Detention Action took the Home Office to court for its highly critiqued “Fast Track System” and won. The system of locking people up with the intention of finding ways to expatriate every single asylum-seeker is not found anywhere else in Europe. In fact, most European countries have open asylum centres in which support and integration into local communities is very common.
Michael told of the trauma of living in one of Britain’s high security, prison-like detention centres without even knowing what his “sentence” was. “I saw people setting themselves on fire,” he said, “people self-harming and trying to commit suicide.” He faced being locked up and threatened consistently with deportation despite the fact that he had lived in Britain since the age of 12. Although he was born in Ghana, the embassy rejected his deportation as he had only ever lived there as a toddler. Michael faced the hardship of being left by his father in Britain with his younger siblings and, as a child, having to make a living to look after his family. Petty crimes led him to prison and, after serving his sentence, into detention.
The non-engagement of detainees with wider society, high security detention and the human rights violations of being left in the dark about their status is a system that simply does not work. It doesn’t work for the government, as people are less likely to comply to their settlement after having their cases dealt with (only 51 per cent are released after detention, with trauma); it doesn’t work for the taxpayer, as it costs around £23,000 per year to keep an asylum seeker locked up; and it doesn’t work for the detainees due to the serious psychological damage that they endure during and after their detention. Michael was only released after 15 bail applications and after he found his own lawyer to represent him.
SOAS Professor in Anthropology Dr John Campbell was asked recently by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration to review Home Office policy for Eritrea. Most of the legislation cites Norwegian and Danish law and sees 90 per cent of Eritrean asylum-seekers refused leave to stay in Britain. After finding several flaws in Home Office policy covering Eritrean refugees (the policy claimed that it is safe for people to return to Eritrea), Campbell’s review was used selectively; efforts have been made to remove other parts. Professor Campbell regards the Home Office position as fraudulent and has received no response from his review, which remains unpublished after a month. His advocacy on behalf of young Eritreans seeking asylum in Britain has been successful. Lawyers back him up, as he advocates against sending them back to their country of origin; all appeals against repatriation have been successful. There appears to be a default position in Britain that refugees and migrants have to be refused entry.
The public discourse on displaced people neglects the human aspects and overlooks the fact that Britain has benefited culturally and in many other ways from migrants and refugees. Taking up this issue is often viewed as a “risk” for political careers. In the current climate of the government’s hard-line policies, displaced people are either seen as victims — by the political opposition — or as criminals. The reality lies somewhere in the middle, as the policy-makers remain unengaged and are still involved with systemic discrimination.