Across Europe, the rights of refugees are under threat. From Hungary to France, the UK to Greece, right-wing anti-immigrant attitudes have led governments to attempt to criminalise asylum seekers and those who dare to show them compassion.
Since the 2015 refugee crisis, right wing groups such as UKIP in the UK and AfD in Germany have had growing success in national and European politics, and have used their influence to stoke up fears about migrants and spread myths about those seeking solace from violence and conflict. An early response to the influx of refugees to Eastern Europe in the mid-2010s was in Hungary, where barbed wire fences that later became walls were put up to keep out those seen as a threat to national identity.
A high-profile example of the criminalisation of those supporting refugees is the case of Sarah Mardini, a Syrian refugee, and Seán Binder, a German national. These volunteers at a search and rescue organisation helped refugees who were in trouble at sea as they attempted to reach Lesbos. An estimated 20,000 people were living in the refugee camp in Lesbos as of summer 2020, despite the camp being built to hold just 3,000. Sarah and Seán were arrested in 2018, under false charges of smuggling, espionage and fraud, and are facing up to 25 years in prison, and a report from Amnesty International shows that they aren’t the only ones.
In Malta, three teenagers are being prosecuted on terrorism charges for standing up to a shipmaster who illegally tried to take them and over 100 other people at risk of violence and abuse back to Libya. In Switzerland, a pastor was arrested for supporting a Togolese man whose asylum claim had been rejected. A few years on from the demolition of the Jungle refugee camp, refugees in Northern France hoping to make it to the UK are regularly harassed by police and have what little they own confiscated by the authorities. Recently, there have also been cases of refugees being charged for manslaughter or other offences after being forced by people smugglers to take on the responsibility of steering the boat while making the dangerous crossing to Europe. In one of the most distressing cases, a man is being charged for endangering the life of his son, who tragically drowned after the authorities took hours to send help to their boat when it fell into difficulties.
The UK is by no means exempt from this trend. Years of media scaremongering about ‘immigrants taking our jobs’, and dehumanisation of refugees (who could forget the infamous Katie Hopkins’ comparison of vulnerable people to ‘cockroaches’) has stoked up anti-immigrant sentiment. The likes of Nigel Farage don’t help by spending all their time whipping up a frenzy about ‘invasions’ of people crossing the Channel in small boats. Following the tragic death last month of 27 people who were making the crossing from France to the UK, there have been reports of people trying to stop lifeboats from going out rescue migrants, and a white supremacist banner was put up in East London. This growing hostility towards asylum seekers has resulted in a government that feels confident that they can make our asylum processes and immigration system even more inhumane than they are already.
Last week, 298 MPs voted for a new Nationality and Borders Bill, dubbed the ‘Anti-Refugee Bill’ by the charity Refugee Action, and sponsored by Priti Patel and the Home Office, which will, among other things:
1. Criminalise asylum seekers who enter the country without permission For many asylum seekers, the only way they can enter the country is through informal routes, often facilitated by people smugglers. The backers of the Bill claim that this measure will be a deterrent to people crossing the Channel by boat, however, in many cases there is no alternative. Despite having promised a resettlement scheme for vulnerable people in Afghanistan, 4 months since the Taliban took over the details of the scheme have still not been announced, leaving Afghans under threat with no ‘legal’ route to the UK. Last year, many people who were due to come to the UK through formal resettlement schemes were not able to, as the scheme was temporarily closed due to the pandemic. This measure aims to be a deterrent, but until the government provides safe alternatives for refugees in Northern Europe who wish to come to the UK, all it will do is penalise people who are desperate and feel they have no other choice.
2. Make asylum claims for those who have passed through a third country ‘inadmissible’
The government would try to remove anyone who had passed through another ‘safe’ country within a ‘reasonable time frame’, currently 6 months. However, at the moment this wouldn’t be possible as there are no agreements in place between the UK and other countries to allow this. All this will mean is that asylum seekers will have to wait longer for their claims to be processed, leaving them unable to start rebuilding their lives. The UK already takes fewer refugees than many other countries, and those that seek to come here often do so because they speak the language, or have a family or other connection to the UK.
3. Pave the way for the ‘offshoring’ of those who are waiting for their asylum claim to be processed
This is already a common practice in Australia, where those who have travelled to Australia by boat are placed in inhumane conditions at detention centres in the Pacific Island nation of Nauru. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned this practice, and there are fears that if the UK follows this model, refugees will be placed at risk of harm and trapped in detention centres indefinitely.
4. Attempt to grant immigration officials immunity if refugees are killed during their operations
Hidden away in the Bill is a clause which states “A relevant officer is not liable in any criminal or civil proceedings for anything done in the purported performance of functions under this part of this schedule if the court is satisfied that (a) the act was done in good faith, and (b) there were reasonable grounds for doing it.” Border Force guards are already being trained to turn back small boats of refugees, and human rights organisations are concerned that this will be used to give them immunity should their actions lead to refugees being killed at sea.
As well as criminalising refugees, the Nationality and Borders Bill will enhance Home Office powers to strip UK citizens of their citizenship. Article 9 of the Bill would allow the government to remove a person’s citizenship without notice if it is ‘in the interests of national security’, or if ‘otherwise in the public interest’. Although the stripping of citizenship has historically occurred only in extreme circumstances, there are concerns that this vague wording could be a loophole for this and future governments to remove citizenship from any dual nationals or anyone who may be eligible for citizenship elsewhere, which could result in them becoming stateless. This could affect up to 6 million UK citizens, a figure which includes 40% of people from a non-white minority background.
It is clear that the UK government, like other governments across Europe, is clamping down on the rights of refugees to seek asylum, and isn’t stopping there. As well as this Bill attacking the rights of many UK citizens, the Policing Bill that we wrote about earlier this year poses a threat to the right to peaceful protest of all UK citizens. We must resist these authoritarian laws, and stand up for not only our own rights, but the rights of the most vulnerable in our society.
There are many ways we can resist this crackdown on refugee rights. Consider supporting organisations that stand up for refugee rights, either by donating, volunteering, or following them on social media so you can stay up to date with what’s going on. Some organisations you can support are: Amnesty International, Safe Passage, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and Refugee Action.
The next important thing we can do is spread the word. Talk to people in your life about this and let them know how vulnerable people will be criminalised by this new law. Write to your MP to let them know you oppose this Bill and encourage others to do so too. As the Bill has now been through the House of Commons, another thing you can do is write to members of the House of Lords, who still have an opportunity to make amendments. If direct action is your scene, get out on the streets and raise your voice against this and other assaults on the rights of UK citizens and vulnerable people.
Another vital way to resist anti-refugee sentiment is by supporting refugees in your local community and beyond. Join a local refugee solidarity group. Donate your spare clothes to collections, volunteer or give money to groups like Choose Love and Care for Calais who are working to provide refugees in Europe with food, clothes and shelter. Acts of kindness and generosity are radical in a world that teaches us not to care for the ‘other’.
Whether we are born into safe, comfortable lives, or are faced with the decision of whether to flee violence and seek asylum is an accident of birth. Refugees, however they got to the UK, are just people trying to rebuild their lives after facing trauma and violence. As the climate crisis worsens, the number of people migrating as their homes are destroyed by natural disasters, or food and water scarcity leads to conflict and violence, will only increase. Climate change knows no borders, but as walls go up and laws are written in the Global North, we have a choice as a society: do we push vulnerable people away, or do we treat them with dignity and compassion? I know what sort of world I’d rather live in.