Catherine Bebbington for UK Parliament/Flickr. Creative Commons.
The legislative process isn't very exciting. In the UK, as in many other countries, it involves long documents, long meetings in parliamentary committees, and long debates in the Houses of Commons and Lords. The refugee crisis currently taking place in Europe, on the other hand, is something akin to exciting. It’s moving, horrifying, distressing, urgent. The images that face us on a daily basis are genuinely dystopian—squalid refugee camps in the heart of Europe, dead children washing up on beaches, police tear gassing people fleeing a war zone. There is something everybody can do about this, activities that can contribute to the humanitarian effort and help to relieve the crisis. And so we see a large scale movement of people in the UK and across Europe donating clothes, toiletries, food, and volunteering their time under the banner #refugeeswelcome.
The current refugee crisis in the Middle East is of course a crisis of displacement, but the fact that it has now become a crisis within Europe is largely due to a succession of laws that have been passed in European states over the past ten to fifteen years. These laws have made it almost impossible to reach Europe ‘legally’ to seek asylum. Why do we need negotiations on burden sharing? Why are the southern and eastern nation states receiving so many refugees while countries like the UK are not? Because laws have been passed to prevent people from boarding a plane without the correct travel documents. While the right to cross international borders without a passport or visa is enshrined in international law because it is a fundamental necessity for refugees to get to safety, this practice has been made illegal in most western states. The responsibility for checking papers has been passed to airline staff, whose failure to prevent asylum seekers from arriving in a destination country incurs a fine.
Carrier sanctions are just one element of what academics call the ‘non-entrée regime’, or, more colloquially, ‘fortress Europe’. Other elements in the regime include limiting asylum seekers’ access to legal aid, detaining them, dispersing them, impoverishing them, deporting them to third countries or back to the countries from which they fled. In the UK, all of these policies are enshrined in law; MPs representing us in parliament passed these laws. There are destitute, disempowered, almost rightless asylum seekers living every city in the country and this was done in our name.
And the walls grow ever higher
The Immigration Bill currently going through parliament introduces more of the same. The other contributions in this series address specific aspects of the bill, but an illustrative policy is that it makes it legal to separate children from their parents so that the former can be put into care while the latter are deported. It does not have to be this way. But as long as the nuts and bolts of the legislative process repel broad-based public interest, our politicians will continue to justify doing what they and special interest groups want by pointing to the UK’s democracy and our assumed support for their actions. What I am suggesting, then, is that even though calling for the UK to take more Syrian refugees is important, and sending clothes and other essentials to Calais and Lesbos sends a powerful message of support for the people landing there, there is vital work to be done in the boring, complex, hard to get your head around world of British legislation.
A number of organisations including the Refugee Council, the Migrants Rights Network, and Refugee Action are all working hard in this, as are MPs such as Paul Blomfield. So far, however, every amendment proposed by MPs in the committee looking at the bill—which they are doing line by line—has been rejected. There has been little public engagement or media coverage of this, in part because those who are being targeted do not garner much sympathy from the electorate. Politicians are certain that there is far reaching concern about immigration, as well as widespread support for restricting the rights of migrants as far as possible. That there is also widespread hostility to such policies is not, however, on their radar. #refugeeswelcome could change this.
Clearly, the depth of support for the #refugeeswelcome movement is going to be tested in the coming weeks as the terrorist attacks in Paris give rise to growing Islamophobic and anti-refugee sentiment. But in conjunction with fire-fighting this inevitable turn in the public mood some engagement with the politics of immigration playing out in parliament would be a welcome intervention. This could include educating yourself and (importantly) others about the Immigration Bill, writing to your MP raising your concerns, and supporting local asylum and refugee charities who are likely to bear the weight of ameliorating the impacts of the Bill. If #refugeeswelcome is, at its core, saying that we are all human beings and that the human rights conventions were made for a reason, might dehumanising immigrants in the UK not also be of concern?