On 14th June the first deportation flight due to take asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda was cancelled minutes before take-off after legal rulings on that very evening. But the flight was halted after a last-minute intervention from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that led to late challenges in the UK courts. The court had recognised no one of the seven people should be forced on to a plane until the policy was fully scrutinised in a High Court hearing next month.
Voice4Change England (V4CE) is deeply concerned around the integrity and quality of the public discourse that surrounds refugees and people seeking asylum. There are myths and misinformation that distort the debate that enable this legal process, carried out in desperation, to be used as a political football.
V4CE would like to challenge and counter some of the false narratives that only serve to obfuscate this deeply technical procedure.
It’s integral to understand what an asylum seeker or a refugee is because of all the misconceptions and misunderstandings around those terms.
According to the 1951 United Nations Convention the definition of a refugee:
“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
Whereas a person seeking asylum is:
“A person who has left their country of origin and formally applied for asylum in another country but whose application has not yet been concluded so cannot yet be classed as a refugee.”
There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker.
Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim. The right to seek asylum is a legal right we all share.
Their situation is so perilous that they risk crossing national borders to seek safety in nearby countries and become recognised as refugees with access to assistance from states and aid organisations. However, there is nothing in international law to say that refugees must claim asylum in the first country they arrive at. People trying to cross the Channel, after travelling to other countries prior, can legitimately claim asylum in the UK if they reach it.
Furthermore, it is accepted in the 1951 Convention that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means in order to escape and claim asylum in another country – there is no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum. The 1951 Refugee Convention ensures everybody the right to apply for asylum and no country has ever withdrawn from it.
The annual summer media blitz around channel crossings which only serve to dehumanise and trivialise what is a frightening and dangerous journey. It would have you believe that the UK in regard to the amount of refugees and asylum seekers takes in the lion’s share of refugees.
However, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of 2018 there were 126,720 refugees, 45,244 pending asylum cases and 125 stateless persons in the UK - that’s around one quarter of a percent (0.26%) of the UK’s total population. So much so, that Germany and France each receive more than twice the number of asylum applications per year than the UK.
So, the deliberate attempt by sections of the print media and politicians to stoke fear and division with language with words such as ‘invasion’ is not only racist but plainly untrue.
These orchestrated moral panics then descend into a litany of falsehoods about the lived experience of those people seeking asylum. For example, those seeking asylum are lambasted for ‘not working’ and receiving benefits they are not entitled to when in fact it is UK policy to live on state support whilst their applications are processing. The instead receive asylum support which is set at around £5.66 per day.
To fully appreciate the role that the UK is playing in aiding the plight of refugees, it is important to recognise the role of other nation sates who are hosting refugees. At the end of 2018, the country hosting the most refugees was Turkey – home to almost 3.7 million refugees. Other significant host countries for refugees were Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.2 million), Sudan (1.1 million), Iran (979,435) and Lebanon (949,666).
We should in light of the government’s decision to greenlight the Rwanda Asylum Plan be challenging the very discourse that this 5-year trial is predicated on. It is clear that the UK is not leading the way in this humanitarian endeavour.
We should be instead not banning those seeking asylum from working whist their applications are processing. We should be challenging the racist narratives and hate crimes endured by them and we should be striving to bring down waiting times for those waiting anxiously for a decision. It is paramount that to abide by our international obligations, we should not be shirking and trying to circumvent by outsourcing our refugee policy to Rwanda. We in its place should be determined to make routes safer, provide an efficient and humane application process and offer financial and pastoral support to help those fleeing persecution, torture, and conflict.
 (Article 1, 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees)