The UK abandons refugees

by Chris Bertram on March 6, 2023

The UK is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, along with a number of other international instruments providing for humanitarian protection. The Convention provides that someone who is a refugee – a status that they have on the basis of their objective circumstances, having a well-founded fear of persecution on specific grounds and being outside their country of citizenship or habitual residence – must be granted certain protections by signatory countries. The most important of these is that they not be sent back to a place where they are at risk of persecution. The weakness of the Convention is that people cannot usually secure recognition as refugees by a country unless they claim asylum on its territory. Accordingly, wealthy nations seek to make it the case that those wanting protection cannot physically or legally get onto the territory to make a claim. That way, states can both vaunt their status as human rights defenders (“we support the Convention”) and nullify its effect in practice.

Today, ostensibly as a response to the “small boats” crisis, which has seen tens of thousands of people from countries such as Afghanistan and Iran arrive in the south of England after crossing the channel, the Conservative government has announced new plans to deter refugees. Those arriving will no longer be able to claim asylum in the UK, as the government will not try to find out whether they are refugees or not, they will be detained, and then they will be removed to their country of origin or to a third country (potentially breaching the non-refoulement provision of the Convention). The plan has been to send them to Rwanda, although because of legal challenges nobody has actually been sent and, anyway, Rwanda lacks the capacity. Even the plan to detain arrivals in the UK runs up against the problem that the UK lacks the accommodation to do so. In addition, people who cross in small boats are to be denied the possibility of ever settling in the UK or of securing citizenship. So as well as being a stain on the UK’s human rights record and a measure of great cruelty, the plans appear to be practically unworkable.

The government, echoed by the Labour opposition, blames “evil smuggling gangs” as the “root cause” of the small boats crisis. But, of course, the real root cause of the crisis are the measures the UK takes to evade its obligations under the Refugee Conventions, measures that make it necessary for anyone wanting to claim asylum on the territory to enter without the authorization of the UK government. People at risk of persecution, whether Iranian women protesting against the veil, or Afghan translators who worked with the British government, are not granted regular visas to hop on a flight, nor will they be able to get to the UK by road or rail. The UK has sealed these routes, making those who want to cross turn to the boats as a solution.

This has suited the UK government because it wants to weaponize asylum for domestic political reasons. The UK now has large numbers of people who have waited for years while their claims go unprocessed, all living on a pittance (around £5 a day) and, since COVID, crowded into hotels in large numbers, thereby providing a focus for local resentment and far-right campaigning, which demonizes victims of persecution as potential terrorists and sexual predators. The regularly televised arrivals of boats on the south coast also generate a sense of perma-crisis that fuels popular concern and resentment. This too has political value, unless it makes the government look weak and out of countrol, hence the latest tightening of the screw.

Of course the government and its media supporters claim that many who come are “bogus” and that “genuine refugees” would stop in the first country they passed through that was safe. But none of this survives scrutiny. The presence of people who are not refugees on boats does not detract from the rights of those who are, and the Home Office ends up accepting that most people from a range of countries (Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea etc) are refugees. There is no obligation under the Convention for refugees just to stop and the first “safe” country, and people may have very good reasons to choose the UK as their destination, including historic links to the UK, family connections, or speaking English. Moreover, the Convention is not just about “safety” but about providing people whose citizenship has been rendered ineffective by persecution with a means to remake their lives as members of a new political community. The UK government seeks to thwart this. A shameful day.



Raven Onthill 03.06.23 at 12:06 pm

The Biden administration in the USA is proposing something similar on the US southern border.


P.M.Lawrence 03.06.23 at 3:20 pm

… Moreover, the Convention is not just about “safety” but about providing people whose citizenship has been rendered ineffective by persecution with a means to remake their lives as members of a new political community…

As I read it, the Convention does not do that as such, at least not in any direct sense. Rather, it provides a metaphorical place to stand, from which attempts to do that can be made in a practical way (i.e., not as a vacuous thing). That is, recognised OR unrecognised refugees should not be equivalent to regular immigrants with the rights of those, but should be allowed to immigrate anywhere that will have them. That would be vacuous if “anywhere that will have them” were the empty set, but does not oblige any particular country they reach to take them as immigrants on a permanent basis, just as temporary transients with only the rights implied by that, even if that status is open ended.

From that, it should be clear that the Convention really is about safety, in the first instance, or it couldn’t even confer as much as temporary transient status in practice. But the Convention’s role does not end there, as it then opens the way to move beyond that. It should not foreclose moving on from that status even though it does not guarantee that (or regular immigrant status would be vacuous). The thing is, though, current agendas are indeed striving to make even refugees’ acknowledged rights vacuous after all, and that is what should end.

Concretely, in the light of all that, it seems that things like Nansen passports could help a lot. (The cynic supposes that that is why they ceased to be a thing.)

But why has the plan been to send refugees to Rwanda, when it would be a so much more modest proposal to send them to Svalbard under the rights conferred on its signatories by the Svalbard Treaty and where they could always get a living in the mines?


hix 03.07.23 at 7:22 am

Just a more extreme version of what everyone else is doing. Think the west should just admit to not being willing to uphold any refugee convention and get on with a honest discourse about how many and which type of refugees one is willing to take for which reasons. Also how that can be managed with some realism. If one goes for prioritizing those genuinely most in need, economic gains should be difficult to achieve. Don´t think any of those cases got a chance to get to claiming asylum as things work now however. If the calculation is somehow mixed, it would be nice to go there from the start with a realistic plan and expectations instead of something like “Ukrainians, look like us got college degrees, cheap qualified workers, now come and function on the spot within a month and without us doing anything”


engels 03.08.23 at 2:39 am

Seems like a job for Human Rights Lawyer Man:

Sir Keir Starmer has joined the chorus of criticism over Rishi Sunak’s “unworkable” plans to stop migrants coming across the English Channel, as Labour warned legislation may not get through parliament

It was going to break the gangs – it didn’t. Now we’ve got the next bit of legislation with almost the same billing, I don’t think that putting forward unworkable proposals is going to get us very far.”

Asked if the plan was legally feasible, the Labour leader said: “I don’t know that it is and I think we’ve got to be very careful with international law here.”


Confused and looking for answers 03.11.23 at 8:33 pm

It seems the leaders in a number of western countries are talking about alternatives to refugee asylum law. As mentioned above, Joe Biden has something similar, and I know Macron in France and the coalition parties in the Netherlands have been talking a lot more about deporting refugees recently. Did something trigger this? Is this just a continuing ripple effect from the anti-refugee protests in 2015? Is the far right stronger than it was? Did each of these countries discuss a new refugee regime in a recent WEF meeting?

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