No room at the inn

December 27, 2008 at 10:30 pm | Posted in Asylum, British Politics | 1 Comment


You’ll have to forgive the wonkish legalese, but there’s a principle in international law called non-refoulement, which forbids the expulsion of refugees back to states where they might be subjected to persecution. Deeply ingrained within the 1951 UN convention (of which Britain is a signatory), it arose from the widely-felt shame of failing to provide an adequate safehaven from Nazi genocide, and a resolve that it must never happen again.

Increasingly, though, it’s hard to reconcile our country’s commitment to this deeply important principle with the reality of our actions. Nearly two weeks ago I wrote about the Centre for Social Justice’s report into the gross incompetencies within our asylum system, and noted how the process could become both more efficient and more humane. But whilst that report was laudable for its strong and constructive criticism, it only noted the injustices which face those ‘lucky’ enough to enter the country. In fact, as the Refugee Council reports, our mistreatment of refugees extends beyond our borders.

In recent years, Labour’s worked under the assumption that the best way of dealing with immigrants and refugees is to stop them from even getting on a plane. To do this, the state relies on its immigration controls being implemented in foreign countries – partly by public servants who’re ‘posted’ abroad, but mostly by employees of private airlines and security companies. None of these people are tasked with or trained in refugee protection; they don’t know how to identify refugees and ensure their safety, because their priority is to stop them from entering Britain in the first place. Private airlines routinely refuse boarding to any passenger suspected of seeking asylum, and there is a complete lack of transparency over how they make their decisions.

This outsourcing of immigration control makes it exceptionally difficult for genuine refugees to take safe routes into the country, and since their fear of persecution is no less real, many are forced to seek more hazardous ways of getting here. The report sheds light on the desperate, life-risking routes some refugees have to take, and describes the trauma of dealing with smugglers, travelling through lawless zones and encountering border guards, particularly for women and children.

But the main consequence of our government’s policy of ‘intercepting’ asylum seekers is that it means most refugees face one of two outcomes. The ‘lucky’ ones remain in a state of perpetual transit; unable to return home, they’re forever knocking on the door of ‘Fortress Europe’ and seeking ever more desperate – and dangerous – ways of sneaking in unnoticed. Meanwhile, those who aren’t so lucky risk being swept up in a system of deportations which will eventually lead them back to the country they first fled.

In many small, bureaucratic ways, we have eroded and undermined our 60-year-old commitment to providing refuge for victims of violence and persecution; whilst we still claim to abide by the high principles of international law, the obstacles we place in refugees’ paths are often too difficult to overcome. In this supposed season of reflection, we should ponder what it says about Labour as a political party, and Britain as a country, that we’ve allowed it to happen.

This is a follow-up to a previous post, Restoring Dignity for Asylum Seekers, which you can find here.


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  1. […] on hand-outs from churches & charities. For those of us who’ve cast a despairing glance over the state of our asylum system, Labour’s failure to rectify this is nothing short of […]

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