As more and more pictures of desperate people crammed onto trains, squeezed under car bonnets, shaken by hazardous journeys on small boats hit our TV screens and dominate public and media debate, political dithering abounds: what do we do with these “migrants” on our doorsteps? Have they come to our country for the right reasons? What do we do with them?
Leaving aside, for a moment, our common humanity and the fact that it instinctively feels right to reach out to the stranger and help them in their hour of need, the issue is, at its core, a human rights issue—and for some reason it is not being framed as such. There is a risk of the issue being hijacked or treated as a political issue, entwined with the UK’s current agenda relating to the EU referendum, Labour’s election for a new leader and other issues. This is wrong, for a few reasons which the media and our politicians seem to be ignoring at this point in time.
The right to claim asylum is a human right as enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (article 14) and the 1951 convention on the status of refugees. International law gives the explicit right to individuals to enter a country and request for asylum to be granted. Countries can turn down those asylum claims and not all those who claim to be refugees in need of protection, as per the 1951 definition of what constitutes a refugee, will ultimately be granted asylum; but the right to claim that asylum and to be heard is a fundamental right.
Britain has made it near to impossible for people to reach our border to claim asylum: Britain and many other countries have sought to make it harder for people to claim the above mentioned right by making it increasingly difficulty for people to reach our shores and enter legally to claim asylum in the first place. This in turn has meant that people have risked their lives and spent their lives’ savings to find other means to reach Europe. After doing so they are classed as illegal immigrants (if they enter our country) or are labelled as migrants……whereas actually, they have not had any other ways of reaching our shores. The debates about tackling the problem of illegal trafficking and traffickers is therefore not the issue at stake; the issue at stake is that we as countries have failed to keep our borders sufficiently open for people to reach them by less costly, less dangerous means.
Britain’s closed borders have also contributed to pressures on other countries and undermined the rule about asylum application in country of first arrival: currently the number of individuals reaching the borders of other European country borders by dangerous and costly means is extremely high. Many of these people may have wished to claim asylum in the UK but have had no way of getting here; this means that the number of people who, by law, should be applying for asylum in other European countries as their country of first arrival is extremely high, is putting undue pressure on these countries when Britain could be sharing this burden.
It also means that the concerned individuals are not shying away from spending more money and taking more risks to travel across the borders of their country of first arrival to reach the countries where they would like to claim asylum. Pictures of dead migrants in lorries in Austria and under car bonnets amply testify to this.
Britain should play its role in sharing the burden and giving a home to people under threat: we should not use the current asylum regulations of the EU (notably the rule about applying in the first country of asylum) as an excuse for not taking in asylum seekers and refugees. There is no excuse for the low number of Syrian refugees Britain has taken in–and I feel ashamed of the stance of our political leaders and the slow speed with which they seem willing to change their position. Why can’t Britain offer, graciously and without conditions, to take in more people from war torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and others who may exercise their right to claim asylum? The argument that Britain is full and that we have no room is a fiction of the press —where there is a will, there is way. Taking in more people who need our people is one of the fundamental ways in which Britain can show that it is truly “great”.
The British government should not use the current situation to further its political aims: currently it looks as if the government could be set to exploit the current situation of refugees and asylum seekers as a tool for negotiation with the EU, in the hope that in exchange for accepting more refugees, the other European countries may accept David Cameroun’s call for EU policy change for the benefit of the British people. The media have already started talking about this. This would be a disgusting political appropriation of what is essentially an issue of human rights and international solidarity and an issue of international shame.
If even the argument around our common humanity, our calling to love our neighbours which is fundamental to all faiths and none, does not suffice to convince us that something needs to be done, can we evoke international law and urge governments to be compliant with the legal frameworks which they have signed up for?