Reflecting on the Home Secretary’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference yesterday, Tamsin Baxter, our Executive Director leading our External Affairs teams, offers some thoughts on the UK’s history of offering protection to those who need it.
We should never forget that after the horrors of the Second World War, the nations of the world came together in 1951 to agree a new arrangement, which would aim to offer protection to people fleeing persecution from their own government. The resulting UN Refugee Convention, in which the UK played a decisive role, has sought to offer people such protection over the last 70 years. People were given the right to cross international borders in search of safety.
We have already witnessed a dilution of this Convention through the recent Nationality and Borders Act. Successive governments have made it increasingly difficult for people to travel to the UK in search of safety, so that there are very few legal routes to protection. People are now forced to travel to safety in dangerous ways that the government believes it can describe as ‘illegal’. As a result of the new legislation their mode of travel counts against them in their subsequent asylum claim and also that they have travelled through what is deemed to be a ‘safe country’. How can it be fair to penalise people for how they reach our shores and demand that they only come to the UK seeking safety through ‘legal’ routes, when there are so few ways of doing so?
It is absurd to suggest that countries on the southern edge of Europe which people pass through to get to the UK should take in all the people fleeing war or persecution from other continents. That is not a sustainable model. The UK, along with other free and democratic countries, should play its role, sharing responsibility in providing safety to people.
We also need to remember that there are many reasons why people might want to seek safety in the UK, such as family connections, history, language and cultural links.
Instead of seeking to prevent people from seeking safety here, we should be working with our international neighbours on practical ways to understand the needs of people, particularly in Northern France, and providing safe alternative routes.
Nor should we be locking up people who arrive to this country in search of safety. The Home Office itself has invested in imaginative community alternatives to detention projects, which have shown a more cost effective and sustainable way to support such people. We should be seeing more of those projects, instead of more detention centres.
And while politicians may complain about the lack of integration in our society, can that be a surprise when successive governments have failed to have a cross-departmental integration strategy? We need such a strategy more than ever, and a critical part would be ensuring funded and accessible English language teaching.
Let’s not forget that polling has shown us that people want to see an asylum system that is compassionate and fair. The public finds the Rwanda plan cruel and considers it wrong to treat people seeking protection as criminals. The widespread support for refugees in recent years (particularly for refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and now Ukraine) illustrates how out of step the Government is with the majority of the general public.
We need far greater imagination and compassion from our government. We showed it in 1951 and in the following decades; now is the time to show that same level of ambition to ensure that we don’t ignore our fellow human beings who are in search of safety.