You are a journalist, a satirist, a campaigner, an opposition politician. For years you work to create the flash of light, the moment of revelation, when the veil falls and the world can see the wickedness you have fought in all its ugliness. And then…
You think you have exposed lies and corruption. You expect society will turn on the powerful now it knows the truth. But the only truth you have revealed is that the public doesn’t care and their leaders know it.
‘J’accuse!’ you cry.
‘So what?’ comes the reply.
Next week ought to reveal the mendacity behind our asylum system. For decades politicians have said that ‘the United Kingdom has a proud history of offering sanctuary to those in need’, as Priti Patel put in the summer. From the Huguenots fleeing Louis XIV to Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin to the victims of Hitler and Stalin, we have been a safe haven. The state has nothing against genuine refugees, the propaganda line continues, it wishes only to stop economic migrants: the cheats, who pose as victims of persecution, and sneak into Britain to exploit our generous country.
This has never been the whole truth or even much of a half-truth. Generations of workers with asylum seekers have argued that the state has done everything it can to stop genuine refugees arriving by putting visa restrictions on any country whose citizens need to flee. Desperate men and women set off across the Channel, they fall from the undercarriages of flights and land in back gardens or car parks, because they have no legal way to enter the UK, however genuine their claim to asylum may be.
But once asylum seekers were on our soil the Home Office had a commitment under international law to give them a hearing to determine whether their claims were genuine or not.
Now it is tearing it up. The government’s proposedNationality and Borders Bill, comes back to the Commons next week. It says that anyone arriving in the UK by an illegal route could have their claim ruled as inadmissible, receive a jail sentence of up to four years, have no recourse to public funds, and see their family members barred from joining them. If that is, they are not deported to a safe country instead.
The government is not pretending that it will spare authentic victims of persecution from punishment any longer. The mask is off. The state will treat genuine refugees as criminals. The only legalway for them to enter Britain will be if the UK admits them to approved resettlement schemes, which are undoubtedly humane and worthwhile, but help only small numbers of refugees. (Readers who believe all the alarmist guff coming out of Patel and Farage’s mouths should know that in 2020, there were around six asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in the UK. Across the EU27, there were 11 per 10,000.)
The Home Office machine is unstoppable. Nothing can slow its grinding wheels. You might have thought that the calamitous western defeat in Afghanistan would have stalled it. Politicians poured out their sympathy for religious minorities, judges, women’s rights activists, Afghans who had worked for Western forces and all who faced oppression at the hands of the Taliban.
Yet summer turns to autumn, and Patel is presenting a Bill that would make an Afghan who trekked across Asia and Europe to find friends or family in the UK a criminal, automatically, without consideration of his or her circumstances or knowledge of the dangers they face. (And before readers interject, I need to say that there is no obligation under international law for asylum seekers to claim sanctuary in the first safe country they reach.)
At a fringe meeting organised by Freedom from Torture, at the Conservative party conference, attendees wondered how a refugee could be turned from a victim of an armed and triumphant theocracy into a criminal by the UK state. Caroline Nokes, former immigration minister, said the ‘othering’ of those who arrive across the Channel was absurd:
‘Do we treat differently the brave Afghan woman judge who comes by official resettlement scheme and the same person who arrives by boat?’
Apparently, we do.
Another Conservative speaker talked of the disconnect between the government’s assumption that we are all mistrustful of foreigners and what actually happened in his Surrey constituency, where Afghans were greeted with overwhelming generosity.
A leading backbench Tory once told me the best way to understand Boris Johnson is to think of him as a caricature Remainer. He’s a rich, southern elitist, who thinks the voters are thick racists and need to be treated as such.
His asylum Bill does that. By treating those who arrive by irregular means as criminals, it shows that the government wants to target people rather than people smugglers. A legal opinion commissioned by Freedom from Torture from four barristers led by the human rights QC Raza Husain says it represents ‘the biggest legal assault on international refugee law ever seen in the UK,’ and for good measure ‘seeks to reverse decisions by the UK Courts going back 20 years, without offering any justification for doing so.’
Ministers will say that refugees should use safe legal routes. But, as the QC’s opinion says, for the overwhelming majority, ‘there are no such safe legal routes. There is no such thing as a refugee visa.’
A two-tier system will mean different rights for different people based on their mode of transport rather than their individual circumstances. The UN refugee convention and the European Convention of Human Rights, and any international treaty on asylum you care to name says you cannot penalise asylum seekers for being asylum seekers.
Yet that is what the government is proposing to do. The mask is off. The state is no longer even bothering to pretend that the UK is proud to welcome genuine refugees. How many will care, I wonder.
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