Britain's anti-refugee fortress grows worse

November 23, 2012
A sit-down protest against an imminent deportation in June.

Britain is a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. But despite its international legal obligations as signatory to this and other human rights conventions, the reception granted to those knocking on Britain’s door in hope of protection is far from welcoming or humane.

In fact, Britain appears to be doing everything in its power to keep its doors tightly closed to those often referred to as “scroungers,” “terrorists,” “economic migrants,” or other “bogus” refugees hiding behind a smokescreen of asylum ― adding deadbolts by the day.

In an effort to circumvent its obligations to asylum seekers, Britain has enacted a series of deterrence policies that bypass and refuse protection at various stages of the asylum process.

Many asylum seekers first encounter these policies before they arrive in Britain. Strategic mechanisms implemented before individuals have even left their countries of origin comprise what is commonly known as “containment.”

These include stringent visa requirements, sanctions on those responsible for the transport of irregular migrants, and what is known as the “third country rule”, which requires those that claim asylum to do so in the first European member-state they enter.

In theory, it intends to deter those who may consider using the asylum system as a means of bypassing traditional immigration controls. But such repressive regulations fail to distinguish between “abusive” and “genuine” claimants.

Frances Webber, a barrister specialising in Britain's immigration cases, said in 1996 that: “While the Convention prohibits returning refugees to the country of their persecution, it says nothing about allowing them in in the first place.”

Britain today takes full advantage of this legal loophole. In combination with tight border controls at home, Britain ― like much of Western Europe ― has rightly been called a “fortress.”

Those who do arrive are greeted by a host of additional deterrence tactics meant to encourage asylum seekers to leave the state while simultaneously discouraging others from following in their wake.

The “fast-tracking” of asylum claims refers to a separate, accelerated form of processing asylum applicants whose claims are considered to be “straightforward.” Individuals placed on the abominable Detained Fast Track are meant to be given a decision as quickly as possible and are held in detention throughout the processing of their claims ― all in the name of the “administrative convenience” of the UK Border Agency.

With a 99% refusal rate and a 73% guarantee they will be forcibly returned to their countries of origin, placement on the fast track is, for many, the equivalent of a death sentence.

Britain’s detention network is among the largest in Europe and, according to Stephanie Silverman of the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, about 27,000 people spent time in detention last year alone.

The indefinite nature of incarceration based on immigration grounds leaves many languishing in detention centers ― what the Border Agency have re-named “Immigration Removal Centres” (IRCs) ― for anything from a few months to several years.

The widespread use of compulsory biometric measurements, fingerprints, restraint with handcuffs, sedation and the rampant internment of asylum seekers in detention centres and prisons is reflective of punitive practices more commonly associated with convicted criminals than with those fleeing persecution.

Many individuals being deported suffer terrible injuries at the hands of private security companies such as G4S and Serco, contracted by the British government to carry out removals.

In 2010, Angolan husband and father of five Jimmy Mubenga died at the hands of three G4S guards responsible for his forced removal from Britain. In a final blow two years later, the Crown Prosecution Service ultimately decided not to prosecute state-sanctioned G4S or its guards for Mubenga’s harrowing, untimely death.

For those with claims being processed in the community, survival becomes a serious challenge ― yet again.

The combination of little to no financial support and no work rights means many asylum seekers are forced to resort to illegal means to satisfy their basic necessities. The shrinking zone of legality in which asylum seekers are forced to exist turns many from “asylum seeker” to “foreign national prisoner” ― and who would argue with the deportation of a foreign national prisoner?

The implication of such a title expedites and supports a government policy of deportation.

Refugees face many challenges in their pleas for protection in Britain. But there are many activist groups and support organisations seeking to counter the injustices inherent to British asylum and immigration policy.

This government opposition and awareness-building come in the form of direct actions outside detention centres, airports, and the UK Border Agency, as well as individual and issue level campaigns.

The National Coalition for Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) is an organisation that supports community-led campaigns for justice in both the asylum and immigration system.

The coalition builds support at the local and national level to lobby members of parliament, the Home Secretary, the immigration minister, and airlines responsible for removals.

Detention Action, an organisation that provides practical and emotional support to individuals living in immigration detention, has launched various campaigns related to specific issues such as the indefinite nature of detention and the previously discussed Detained Fast Track.

The blog is dedicated to “growing the resistance against mass deportation charter flights” and the NoBorders Network is a network of groups and individuals fighting for the free movement and equal rights of all people through direct action, targeting companies and organisations (such as G4S) complicit in immigration injustices.

The hard work and effort of these organisations and the dedicated individuals that comprise them has prevented the forced removal of many.

Despite the human chains formed outside detention centres or the intensive campaigning they may undertake, the uphill battle against deportation is one that often ends in an airplane takeoff.

The increased awareness and community solidarity that results, however, make it worth the effort. One thing is for certain: as long as Britain continues to put deadbolts on its state doors, the battle for justice will not soon come to an end.

[Molly Haglund is the author of “Punished for Persecution: An Analysis of the Criminalization of the Asylum Seeker in the United Kingdom”, which can be downloaded here. Many more resources and campaign information can be found at the NCADC's website. Detention Action's reports can be found here. The No Borders Network is here.]

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