A personal reflection from Asylum Welcome’s Services Director, Almas Farzi (known as ‘Navid’).
About thirty years ago, fearing for my life, I fled Iran. I certainly fitted the UN Refugee Convention description of having a well-founded fear of persecution – so immediate was it, that even though my wife was eight months pregnant we made the difficult and dangerous journey overland across Europe to seek sanctuary in the U.K. On arrival, our claim was assessed and we were granted asylum. Under the Home Secretary’s new plan, we would have arrived “illegally”, have had fewer rights and opportunities, and less security. There would be a presumption that we shouldn’t be here at all.
Having now worked in the immigration and asylum field for more than two decades, I have seen countless others in similar positions to my own, and many in even worse situations. I am therefore deeply saddened and angry about the Home Secretary’s new immigration plans announced on Wednesday 24th March. These plans target asylum rights that should be considered at the heart of human rights and that are a fundamental part of recognising a shared humanity.
It is especially distressing for me as a refugee to see the rhetoric coming from a Home Secretary whose family were themselves migrants. It furthers the impression that to succeed as a person of colour in this country, you must shut the door behind you and deny institutional racism in our system. Would her family have been able to come here under these plans? This dangerous approach puts the lives of refugees at risk, despite her claims of the opposite.
The Home Secretary claims that she is trying to rescue migrants and asylum seekers from people smugglers. She refers to the Kurdish family from Iran whose lives were destroyed while trying to come to the U.K. But should they really have waited with 30,000 other Iranian refugees living in Turkey in terrible conditions, many still being pursued by the Iranian authorities, hoping beyond hope that they would be among the 5,000 refugees a year – out of 26 million globally – to be selected to come to the U.K. under official resettlement programmes?
For years, asylum seekers have wrongly been called “illegal” and have been told that they should stay in the first safe country through which they pass, neither of which are true under the Refugee Convention. What we are not told is that the reason that people’s lives risk being destroyed is because they are left with no realistic option but to make the dangerous journey to Britain, as our government is not allowing safe routes to be created on any meaningful scale.
We are told that the new plans will protect those who flee persecution, oppression and tyranny. But the plans contain no detailed commitments or proposals as to how to actually better protect people. How can people who are being persecuted and are in danger, even outside of the country that they have had to leave, possibly benefit from this firm but not fair policy!?
All of the resettled Syrian families around Oxford that we work with will tell you of their many relatives stuck in camps in desperate situations who are struggling to survive and who have so little chance of ever being resettled. Even when the new resettlement scheme eventually starts, will they really take their remote chances on this?
The Home Secretary indicates that reforming the asylum system is the focus of her plan. In fact, I would argue that the plan is to get rid of the asylum system altogether by creating two definitions of refugee – deserving and undeserving; legal and illegal. This is wholly against the principles of the Refugee Convention and lacks any understanding of why people flee their country and of the suffering and discrimination already built into the asylum system.
As someone who has myself gone through the system and who works closely with people who are affected by it on a daily basis, I know that the new plan fails to address the misery that this system creates for asylum seekers – its wastefulness, inefficiency and perceived bias towards the ideological approach deployed by the government. The system has for many years eaten away at human rights and put enforcement before compassion and humanity. Instead of recognising human rights and bringing much-needed efficiency to the system, the new plans will increase the pressure on and fear of refugees. The new plans prevent them from feeling safe and able to get on with their lives. This is not just a continuation of the hostile environment but an extreme escalation which should bring shame to us all in the U.K.
Government credibility around asylum and migration issues is very much in question. There are legal, inspectorate and public health challenges to the use of former military barracks to accommodate asylum seekers in what are inhumane and dangerous situations. The victims of the Windrush scandal are still seeking justice whilst asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are forced to live in miserable conditions on just £39 pounds per week. The hostile environment created for migrants and refugees by successive governments pervades every aspect of their lives.
The New Plan for Immigration could hit several short-term targets for the government, but, as have many other attempts by successive Home Secretaries of various parties in the past, it will fail to stop a steady flow of people arriving. The countries where so many asylum seekers come from – Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq and others – are so dangerous that people will take risks, and people will have to take risks, to get out and to get here. And which countries will accept the U.K. sending refugees back to them – countries that have far greater numbers of people coming in than ever come to the U.K. – simply because they have passed through those countries on their journeys? The current plan fails to recognise these realities. There are plenty of other things that we do need to do to develop a fair, efficient and accessible immigration and asylum system that treats people with dignity, respect and fairness, rather than criminalising them. We should get on with making these happen.
Human rights organisations, and refugee and charitable organisations, along with many other groups that care about human rights, need to work together with people across the spectrum, and with politicians and the public, to improve these plans. Crucially, we need to do much better than we have so far in terms of expressing our views, mobilising support and offering alternatives. Only then can we create the humane, tolerant and respectful society that we all deserve.
Almas Farzi – Navid