A keynote address to the annual conference of the Churches’ Refugee Network by Frances Webber.
The political and media campaign against immigration and asylum seekers shows no signs of abating. It is seen by the Home Affairs Committee as a matter of shame that so many asylum seekers, stuck in the system without a decision for (in some cases) up to twenty years, are allowed to stay. Cameron speaks out against multiculturalism and the Labour Party is involved in a process of breast-beating, saying it was perhaps wrong to have allowed mass migration during its time in power. (You may be forgiven for thinking that this is rewriting history – my recollection is that Labour was doing all it could to stop mass migration, of asylum seekers at least.) Once again, it’s time to rehearse the arguments.
Who are the asylum seekers?
The leaders of the ‘Free World’ encourage and treat as heroes those people fighting for democracy and human rights, in Burma, in Libya, in Egypt, and Syria; those who fight women’s oppression and religious persecution in Iran, Pakistan and Nigeria. But as soon as these heroes seek sanctuary in the same ‘Free World’ – in the rich countries of Europe and north America and Australia – they are transformed into a hostile alien threat to our culture and our values, to be kept out by Frontex patrols and bilateral accords and e-borders and carrier sanctions and all the paraphernalia of modern immigration controls.
Then we discover that our government has been selling arms to repressive regimes including Libya, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Syria and Tunisia which have been used to suppress pro-democracy activists and minorities, and the MoD and British universities have trained soldiers from China, Sudan and Uzbekistan – as we have done in Sri Lanka, in Colombia. How many other repressive regimes is our government propping up? How many refugees have been created by British government policies?
But it’s not just the asylum seekers, but also the undocumented, the ‘irregulars’, those who don’t fear persecution but who migrated because there is no land, no work, no possibility of livelihood, or of feeding, clothing and educating a family, no future at home. What does this have to do with us? As Sivanandan has memorably said, ‘We are here because you are there.’ One way or another most of those who come to these shores without official permission are refugees from globalisation, from a poor world shaped to serve the interests, appetites and whims of the rich world, a world where our astonishing standard of living, our freedoms, the gobsmacking array of consumer novelties, fashions and foods available to us, and thrown away by us, are bought at the cost of the health, freedoms and lives of others. In the terms of trade and intellectual property agreements, in the imposition on poor countries by the global economic police of policies that remove food self-sufficiency and drive small producers off the land, in the substitution by agribusiness of biofuels for food production in the vast tracts of Africa and Asia bought up by corporations for profit, in the soaring food prices in the poor world which sparked riots in Egypt and Tunisia. This is the real immigration debate which the politicians never have: how the entire system of immigration controls, not just in the UK but in Europe, the US, Japan, south Korea, the Gulf states is built, is predicated on the most massive global injustice.
Brave new world for whom?
At the heart of globalisation is a ruthless social Darwinism, which is reflected in and reinforced by immigration controls. The points-based system for immigration awards points for youth, salary, qualifications and talent. If you don’t have these attributes, you’re not wanted. If you’re not computer-literate and don’t speak English, in most countries you can’t even apply for a visa – the visa application service, now, in common with much else, run by commercial operators, requires forms to be filled in online and in English.
This brave new world, a wonderful world for the young, fit, educated, white and middle-class, is not open to the poor, the sick, the disabled, the old. In Cameron’s Britain, as in Thatcher’s and Blair’s, and in the globalised, privatised, marketised world, those who can’t work will find their lives squeezed out to mere existence – just like asylum seekers.
When we – as human rights activists, lawyers, detention visitors, volunteers at day centres – engage in debates and campaigns, our arguments must be informed by this global framework of massive injustice. It reminds us that our demands for asylum and migrant rights are not special pleading, but demands for basic justice.
Areas of concern – legal aid
So what are the areas of particular concern confronting refugees and migrants today? Clearly, the first is the proposed legal aid cuts, which will deny legal advice and assistance to those unable to pay for it, making access to justice very difficult. The justice ministry plans to restrict legal aid in areas such as employment, housing, family, welfare benefits, community care, mental health and immigration to cases where people’s life or liberty is at stake, or where they are at risk of serious physical harm, or immediate loss of their home. In areas where legal aid remains available, the threshold for contributions to legal aid will be lowered so that even those on income support might have to pay. The coalition Justice for All estimates that half a million people, the vast majority poor, will lose eligibility if the proposals become law. In the immigration field, people facing separation from family members through refusal of family reunion, or through removal or deportation, for example, will not get representation, or even advice on how to prepare and present their appeal. Justice for All estimates that not for profit providers, such as law centres and CABx will lose 77 per cent of their legal aid funding. Many will have to close their doors.
The government says the cuts won’t affect asylum seekers and those in detention. But legal aid in these areas has already been cut to shreds. Hundreds of legal aid immigration firms have been forced out of business in the past few years by vicious cuts to legal aid in asylum and immigration, and a change to retrospective payment which drove Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ), formerly the Refugee Legal Centre, into administration when the Legal Services Commission (LSC) refused to pay the £2m in fees which it owed RMJ and which would have saved it, and the government blandly and dishonestly reassured the thousands of stranded clients about ‘alternative provision’. Insult was added to injury by the LSC then refusing franchises to hundreds more dedicated legal aid solicitors (including immigration and asylum), in a process condemned as irrational by the High Court.
The detained fast track is another blot on the asylum system. An excellent new report from Detention Action (DA formerly the London Detainee Support Group), Fast track to despair, documents how the fast-track system is structured to operate to the maximum disadvantage to asylum seekers at every stage. Introduced when asylum numbers were four times what they are now, supposedly to hive off and deal quickly with the ‘straightforward’ cases, ie those which could quickly be refused, the detained fast track was set up to ensure failure. Claimants needing to recover from the odyssey of illegal travel – stuffed in lorries with no air, or on the sea in leaky boats, or being bounced from country to country – have no time to compose themselves, no time to prepare a claim or to find and present evidence in support. Then, the 99 per cent refusal rate is quoted triumphantly by politicians to show how efficient the fast track is in rejecting groundless claims. The reality is that, as the DA report shows, the conditions and timescales make it impossible for many asylum seekers to understand, let alone actively engage with the determination process.
Looking at immigration detention generally, an area where vast private corporations have made millions from the relentless growth in numbers detained, and where allegations of brutality and neglect are commonplace, it is shocking that there is still no time limit – and the period that is deemed ‘reasonable’ for holding someone for deportation has gone up from around ten months in 1984, when the leading case of Hardial Singh set out the principles and criteria for lawful detention, to somewhere between two and four years now. Recent Supreme Court decisions have established that it is unlawful to have a secret policy, contradicting published policy, providing for the blanket detention of all foreign national prisoners, and that detention without proper monthly reviews in which the necessity of detention is considered, makes detention unlawful. They are very welcome – but today’s unforgiving climate makes it harder than ever to campaign for the rights of foreign national prisoners not to be unlawfully detained, and not to be separated from family members by deportation.
The work done on ending the long-term detention of children, and that being done on securing rights for trafficking victims, is clearly of great importance. But our campaigns must go beyond media-friendly issues, lest we inadvertently reinforce the attempts by government and media to divide asylum seekers into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, innocent and guilty, showing compassion for children while leaving in place the systems which criminalise, marginalise and dehumanise their parents and other adults.
Deportation of young people
Many of those facing deportation now are young men who came here as young children, often from the most horrific situations, having seen and experienced things no one, let alone a child, should be exposed to. But many found themselves isolated by language difficulties, mocked at school for their funny accent, without help or support to deal with the psychological consequences of their experiences. I represented some of these young men. One I particularly recall became a bully, threatening younger children, robbing them, and was sent to a young offenders institution. Fair enough. But he and his family were from Rwanda; they had lost relatives in the genocide, his mother couldn’t give him the help he needed because of the depression and trauma she was suffering, yet the attitude was ‘he’s got to go’, and he was sent back to Rwanda, where he had no one. His mother was beside herself with worry. Young people like this desperately need help, not being ‘sent back’ like defective goods.
Islamophobia is the next issue of concern. It informs policy in a number of ways. The debate about Britishness instituted by Labour and carried forward by Cameron in his critique of multiculturalism, suggests that you can’t be properly British and properly Muslim at the same time. Issues such as the rights of women and homophobia are taken up by politicians so dishonestly and so opportunistically. Many of the attitudes and practices they condemn are equally prevalent in other faith communities, but we don’t see anyone speaking out against these groups or suggesting they can’t be properly British.
Muslims have become a ‘suspect community’, like the Irish in the 1970s. Risk-profiling computer programmes, written to select who gets body-scanned, searched and subjected to intensive questioning at ports, identify specifically Muslim behaviour, eg regarding the use of ATMs and credit cards, so that ‘high risk’ equates with ‘practising Muslim’. The security services build mosaics from disconnected fragments of information and end up targeting innocent people as terrorist suspects, imposing extraordinary restrictions on them for years on the basis of pure suspicion and secret evidence. Control orders are being abolished, but not national security deportations, which subject people to even tighter restrictions, eg 16- and 18-hour curfews, a ban on all non-vetted visitors (including health visitors, doctors etc, who all need advance Home Office permission to visit patients at home), a ban on computers (seriously affecting children’s ability to do schoolwork) and on mobile phones.
I started representing one man, a Jordanian, five years ago, in 2006. He was arrested for deportation in July that year, three days after his wife gave birth to their first child by caesarian section. He was held in Long Lartin maximum security prison for two years, then released, forced to move first to an all-white area where his hijab-wearing wife was cursed, spat at and assaulted when she left the house, and then to a racially mixed area, but to a basement so damp that it exuded over four litres of water a day (a benefactor bought him a dehumidifier) where he tried to bring up his three children and look after his wife, who had a nervous breakdown after the racist attacks, while being allowed out of the house for only six hours a day. All this on the basis of the most tenuous fragments of so-called intelligence (that is the information he and we were allowed to see). He and his family have faced and continue to face the most extraordinary pressures. This has been extensively written about.
Finally, irregular or undocumented migrants. We are all familiar with the enforced destitution policies towards refused asylum seekers brought in by the last government and continued by this one, and the enormous hardship and misery they have caused. We are aware of the mega-exploitation of the undocumented by gangmasters, the massive waste of human talent with multi-lingual graduates working illegally as security guards or in petrol stations. Many of you will have been involved in campaigns for regularisation. I imagine you would have been as shocked as I was to see the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research), a former supporter of the earned regularisation campaign, publicly recant and support enforcement in its recent report No easy options. Not only does it call for renewed and strengthened enforcement of removal of so-called irregulars, it also calls for the active involvement of the voluntary sector in encouraging them to leave, in particular those organisations which receive public funding. Its argument is as follows: public opinion is against regularisation; the immigration control system is in disrepute because of a lack of enforcement; it is only by supporting enforcement that we will persuade people that the system is credible, that immigration controls do work and that we can afford to be generous in particular ‘deserving’ cases.
I have taken issue with their premises and conclusions and I won’t rehearse those arguments at length here. IPPR appears to accept with equanimity the fact that the UK, in common with other European states, refuses to sign the Migrant Workers’ Convention. Why, instead of calling for enforcement of immigration control, does IPPR not talk about enforcement of labour rights? This would address anti-immigration arguments based on migrants undercutting pay and conditions – that is part of the appeal of the Living Wage campaign, that it benefits all workers, not just migrant workers, and encourages solidarity, not competition.
Role of the voluntary sector
But my main concern with the IPPR report, here, today, is to address the argument that NGOs have a duty to help in enforcing controls, by actively encouraging undocumented migrants, including refused asylum seekers, to go home. I see grave dangers for the ‘voluntary sector’ including churches and charities getting involved in the mechanisms of control. I’m concerned at Barnardos’ involvement in the short-term holding centre at Pease Pottage, and at Refugee Action taking on the contract for the voluntary returns programme from the International Organization for Migration.
It is very tempting to see it as a natural extension of a humanitarian remit to work in a holding centre to ensure humane conditions there, or to take on voluntary returns to ensure that they are truly voluntary. But there is no getting away from the fact that Pease Pottage is a short-term detention centre, complete with 2.5 metre high perimeter fences and staff authorised to use control and restraint techniques on non-compliant adults and children. And that detention per se, not just the conditions of detention, traumatises children. Nor can the involvement of Refugee Action in voluntary returns make such returns any more truly voluntary; return can only be truly voluntary if there is a real choice, in other words security of immigration status. These organisations legitimise unacceptable policies. I described their involvement as the nosegay hiding the stench of reality.
I will never forget a meeting with a pastor at a major European airport. He had, he told me, witnessed terrible brutality during deportations. What had he done to stop it, to publicise it, to prevent its recurrence? Nothing. He said that if he spoke out he would be moved and so would be unable to be there to help those needing his assistance at the airport. That’s the danger: paralysis, self-censorship in the interests of a co-operative relationship – but for whose benefit?
But why shouldn’t voluntary sector organisations actively encourage people to avoid the inevitable forced return by leaving when there really does appear to be no alternative? Because it’s not our call. Lawyers advise on the options, the pros and cons. Detention visitors, when we know someone is being removed, might put our hands in our pockets to ensure that he or she has some money to get through the airport at the other end, and perhaps to make a bit of a fresh start. As people who have become friends, we might even go to the airport and try to see them off. Some people even book onto the deportation flight (if it’s not a charter flight) to monitor the deportee’s treatment on the aircraft and on return to their home country. These are all acts of friendship. But a contract with the Home Office means you are acting to legitimise and to enforce Home Office policy, which is fundamentally at odds with what we are about. In this, we cannot serve two masters.
So in our campaigning, we need to emphasise:
- We seek justice, not charity or special treatment, for migrants and asylum seekers;
- We reject the social Darwinist politics underpinning global migration controls;
- Fighting for policies based on human and social rights for all makes common cause with the struggles of other excluded and marginalised groups and builds solidarity, not competition.