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Time for a progressive refugee policy in Britain

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Ten days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 1.6 million refugees have already fled across the border. These are staggering numbers not seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War, and the outpouring of solidarity across Europe has also been remarkable, with 76% of Britons in support of taking in Ukrainian refugees.

Yet, in the days after Putin’s invasion, whilst Government Twitter banners were changed to yellow and blue, no rules were changed for refugees wanting to seek safe haven in the UK. One Minister even suggested Ukrainians could apply for a visa to come and pick fruit in Britain.

Under pressure, the Home Secretary has now relaxed family reunion rules for some. However that same week the Government continued to push through its Nationality and Borders Bill that will criminalise refugees including Ukrainians arriving in Dover, denying them permanent protection, and paving the way for offshore detention facilities for asylum ‘processing’ to permanently offload our international responsibilities. The United Nations have warned the legislation will fundamentally undermine the 1951 Refugee Convention – in the UK and globally; the international treaty that Britain signed as Europe reeled in the wake of the Holocaust to ensure that never again would Europe’s refugees be left without protection.

How have we got here? And how could Labour chart a different course in Government? To answer this, to quote former Labour Home Secretary Lord Blunkett at Second Reading: “it is really important to understand what has happened previously and to learn from it”. Offshoring and criminalisation is not a radical departure from, but rather the terrible end-game of a dangerous framing of asylum by successive Governments.

If Labour win the next General Election, it is likely to inherit an asylum system riddled with dysfunction. Currently over 100,000 people await an initial decision on their asylum claim, thousands of Afghan refugees are stuck in hotels seven months on from Operation Pitting and relations with France over our shared border are at an all-time low. On entering Government in 1997 the backlog in asylum decisions was similarly vast, with many refugees waiting years for a resolution on their claim. In response Labour published a White Paper titled ‘Fairer, Faster and Firmer’ that promised a new covenant with refugees, and Labour’s period in office was marked by some important progressive social reforms that impacted asylum, most notably the 1998 Human Rights Act.

Yet, by the end of Labour’s time in office people seeking asylum had seen their rights and liberties curtailed and a new harsher climate of enforcement with the ultimate goal of a closely ‘managed’ system of asylum entry to the UK, an approach typified by the failed bid to establish ‘transit processing centres’ outside the EU for refugees – a precursor to the offshore processing centres legislated for in the Nationality and Borders Bill today.

Whilst plans for processing centres were ultimately ruled unworkable, the arguments that inspired them remained – that refugees who arrived in the UK through clandestine routes were symptomatic of widespread abuse of the system – ‘pulled’ to the UK by overly generous benefits and easy access to the labour market. By implication, if the UK became less generous, people would stop coming.

Such a narrative is dangerous, for people seeking asylum and because when these policies of deterrence fail, which they do time and time again, trust in the system is further undermined leaving Governments to double-down with ever harsher punishments or admit they were wrong.

In fact today over two thirds of those arriving by small boat are expected to have their asylum claim upheld, arriving from countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq. 90% of the world’s refugees already reside in poorer nations close to their country of origin and prior to the Ukraine invasion, the UK ranked 15th in Europe for its generosity in taking in refugees.

The minority who journey to the UK are invariably ‘pulled’ by the same factors that would do any of us – family, community, common language and historic ties. Those that resort to dangerous journeys do so because they have no safe options. Britain chose to site its border in France without providing a safe route for those who present themselves in Calais seeking asylum in Britain, and the Government has systematically eroded the few safe routes that were available for limited numbers of refugees to access and have reneged from systems of international cooperation that did exist.

The international criminals that exploit and profit from people’s desperation to reach a safe place do so precisely because of the absence of these safe routes and effective Governmental cooperation.

A progressive Labour approach must have as a central component the expansion of safe routes for refugees that are easily accessible, efficient and respond to the real reasons people seek sanctuary in Britain. This should be underpinned by strong international cooperation to ensure responsibilities to refugees globally are fairly shared and a determination to root out and prosecute those profiting in vast sums from the sale of passage on an unseaworthy dinghy or the back of an airless lorry.

However Labour must also level with people – safe routes are not always enough. As we are witnessing in Ukraine, war is devastatingly chaotic and at times fundamentally incompatible with a ‘managed’ system of asylum. People travel where they can and know people, they aren’t driven by complex assessments of countries’ relative benefits systems, and they certainly don’t always allow for a detour of hundreds of miles to a visa application centre in order to submit biometric details and then wait in precarious circumstances for a decision on their application – as the Home Secretary is currently demanding of Ukrainian refugees.

Safe routes and international cooperation, are a vital tool to improve the safety of refugees but some will continue to arrive at our borders asking for sanctuary having taken a dangerous journey, and when they do so, they should be met not with suspicion but compassion, support and a swift resolution to their claim so they may get on with the task of rebuilding their lives, no more than any of us would ask for.

For another the progressive policy solution to a different challenge facing Britain, see Cllr Sharon Thompson’s piece, Designing out Homelessness.