How the government went to war on refugee charities
Fears that backlash will intensify as government presses on with its widely condemned Illegal Migration Bill
The abuse received by staff at refugee charities is varied: every so often there are death threats, sometimes accusations of treason, usually racist slurs. The only thing that has become predictable is the timing.
Charity workers told openDemocracy they had identified multiple occasions where inflammatory comments by ministers and MPs triggered a deluge of hate towards them. The remarks, blaming charities and human rights lawyers for delays in the asylum system, have led to staff having their addresses made public and being harassed in the street.
Now, with Rishi Sunak staking his premiership on the most hardline immigration policy in decades, charities fear that increasing hostility from the government could place them in danger.
The newly appointed deputy Conservative Party chair Lee Anderson last month accused British charities providing aid to migrants on the French coast of being “just as bad as people smugglers”.
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
Those supporting asylum seekers in England, he added, were merely part of “one big multi-million pound industry”, echoing a talking point circulated among the far right.
Several charity workers told openDemocracy that Anderson’s comments were only the latest example of what they believe is a strategy aimed at discrediting and demonising organisations standing up for refugees.
Many date the beginning of the backlash to comments made by then home secretary Priti Patel in 2020, just over a year after her appointment. In September, Patel tweeted that Home Office deportations ruled to be unlawful were being “frustrated by activist lawyers”.
Days later, lawyers at an immigration law firm, Duncan Lewis Solicitors, were attacked and injured by a man wielding a knife. An alleged attacker, Cavan Medlock, has denied involvement in a terrorist plot and is due to face trial later this year. The law firm believes that the responsibility for the attack “lies squarely at the feet of Priti Patel”.
A month after that tweet, Patel doubled down on her comments. Addressing October’s Conservative Party conference, she admitted the asylum system was “broken”. By then, 46,000 people had been waiting more than six months for a decision on their claim – a backlog almost ten times higher than it had been five years previously – despite the volume of applications having remained fairly stable.
Yet Patel suggested the blame lay elsewhere than the Home Office. She criticised “those defending the broken system – the traffickers, the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers, the Labour Party” for “defending” the existing system.
For refugee charities, the speech was salt in the wound after having spent tens of thousands of pounds on security in the wake of the attack on Duncan Lewis. One senior charity worker told openDemocracy they had received so many death threats following Patel’s comments that they had installed a panic button in their home as a precaution.
Nevertheless, many in the sector resolved to continue working with the government. Dozens of charities submitted written evidence during the committee stage of Patel’s controversial immigration law, the flagship Nationality and Borders Bill, in 2021.
“Everybody poured in mountains of evidence and when the government published the results they basically said: ‘All the respondents said we shouldn’t do this, but we are going to do it anyway,’” recalls Zoe Gardner, who was working for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants at the time.
The bill, which passed last year, allows the government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda indefinitely to have their claims processed there rather than in the UK. It was condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as being incompatible with the Refugee Convention.
Gardner believes that in stonewalling charities, the government gave organisations no choice but to be more vocal and public in their criticism. “The approach of being the ‘critical friend’ of the government by moderating the worst parts of the bill and getting them to take on board our expertise didn’t work,” she said. “So charities started to think that we’ve kind of reached that point where you actually have to speak up.”
The split deepened last week when a minister admitted the government had not bothered to consult any charities or international organisations before publishing its divisive Illegal Migration Bill. Simon Murray told the Home Affairs Committee that the bill “wasn’t a situation which required extensive engagement with third party (organisations)”. MPs said the omission was “arrogant”.
The bill, which would give the home secretary powers to deport migrants before having their asylum claim heard, has been condemned for undermining human rights laws by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and MEPs.
With their expertise completely ignored, even well-established charities who have previously worked constructively with the Home Office, like the Refugee Council, have now taken a more critical stance.
Yet for many Tory MPs the growing chorus of criticism is merely confirmation of political bias in the sector, rather the product of charities driven to the wall.
There already had been past attempts to cast charities as political opponents. Former culture minister Oliver Dowden accused the sector of becoming “subsumed by wokery”. Others, like former Conservative minister John Hayes, who leads the so-called ‘Common Sense Group’ of Tory MPs, went one step further having already described charities as adversaries in a “Battle for Britain”.
Hayes coordinated a complaint to the charity regulator in April 2021 about race equality charity the Runnymede Trust after it criticised the findings of a government review into racism. The Charity Commission found no wrongdoing, but the charity was deluged with hate mail.
The commission also investigated the children’s charity Barnardo’s in 2020 after a complaint from the same group of MPs over its a blog post explaining the concept of white privilege. It again found no wrongdoing.
With the commission unwilling to side with complaints, some Tory MPs have instead turned to campaigning for the government to cut funding to charities they believe have been too critical.
In December, the Thatcherite think tank Conservative Way Forward, then chaired by self-styled “Brexit hardman” Steve Baker, published a report accusing several refugee charities – including the Refugee Council, Refugee Action and Migrant Help – of using public funding for “damaging and politically motivated activities”.
The authors of the report are not named and little is known about how the group is funded. The charities singled out by the report disputed its findings. Tim Naor Hilton, the chief executive of Refugee Action, said the claims were “inaccurate” and that “no government money is used in our campaign work”.
Migrant Help told openDemocracy that Conservative Way Forward’s claim that it was “gravely implicated” in failings at the Manston reception centre for asylum seekers was false because it is not an accommodation provider and has no responsibility for Manston. The think tank refused to issue a correction.
Braverman herself last year ordered a review into a government contract given to a company that trains civil servants in immigration law. The move reportedly came after one of the firm’s directors, a barrister, was separately involved in a court case that prevented the unlawful deportation of an asylum seeker to Rwanda.
The Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, the public body which commissioned the training, said there was no conflict of interest.
Home Office steps up its opposition
The increasingly hostile climate for charities appeared to reach a nadir last month following a series of government interventions.
In January, the charity Freedom from Torture published a clip of the home secretary Suella Braverman responding to a question from a Holocaust survivor at a constituency meeting.
Joan Salter, 83, asked Braverman why she used words such as “swarms” and “invasion” to describe migrants, saying it reminded her of language used to “dehumanise and justify the murder of my family and millions of others.”
“I won’t apologise for the language that I have used to demonstrate the scale of the problem. I see my job as being honest with the British people and honest for the British people,” Braverman told her.
When Freedom from Torture posted a recording of the exchange on Twitter, the Home Office demanded the charity remove it and claimed that it was “heavily edited”. The charity denied this and shared a longer recording of Braverman’s answer, in which she began by thanking Salter and talking about her own parents, who were not born in Britain.
Weeks later, the Refugee Council accused the Home Office of attempting to discredit research it published showing that the majority of people on small boats crossing the Channel last year will be recognised as refugees, contrary to the government’s claims.
In a Twitter thread, the charity said that the Home Office tried to brief journalists that its figures were inaccurate. “Later on though they accepted that in fact we were right and they had got the figures wrong,” the charity wrote.
“They accused us of saying things that we hadn’t actually said. We understand they did issue a correction and clarification to some media outlets,” it added.
The Refugee Council did not want to comment further on the incident, but veterans in the sector condemned the Home Office for attempting to shut down criticism of its policies.
“The report is an incredible bit of research but it’s been completely spun by the Home Office as if the Refugee Council is trying to mislead the public. They’re desperately trying to paint refugee charities as the bad guys,” Daniel Sohege, a refugee protection specialist said.
Many fear that the backlash will intensify as the government presses on with its widely condemned Illegal Migration Bill, which passed its second reading in the House of Commons last night by a 62-vote majority.
The Refugee Council has already said the plans would break the UK’s commitment to the Refugee Convention and “could leave over 45,000 at risk of destitution and homelessness each year, stuck in limbo and potentially facing long periods locked up in detention.” It added that the proposal could cost up to £980m a year.
Braverman has been unable to give the usual guarantee to MPs the bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, admitting that it had “more than a 50% chance” of being found to be unlawful.
At the same time, the government has renewed its attacks on human rights lawyers. In February, the immigration minister Robert Jenrick claimed in Parliament that human right lawyers “exploit and abuse our laws”. Challenged to give evidence to back his statement, he instead made an admission that astonished the profession.
“We are monitoring the activities, as it so happens, of a small number of legal practitioners,” he told the Commons.
Charity workers believe that the comments are part of the government’s strategy to defang any voices critical of it.
“It’s much more convenient for the government if they have already primed the population to think ‘Oh these people are your enemies. They are lefty activists, they are trying to destroy our country,’ before a charity raises the alarm over people suffering or something not working,” said Gardner.
“By creating an association between the refugee charity sector and the opposition you can discredit one with the other. It’s just dirty tactics because the overwhelming evidence is that the government’s immigration policies have failed terribly, they’re in an absolute mess of their own making and have caused unbelievable suffering and so they’re unable to argue on the policies anymore,” she added.
The government, she believes, wants charities to “stick to the knitting”, but so far it seems that the attacks are having the opposite effect – instead, they are sharpening their needles.
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