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Wellbeing of refugee women and children threatened by new UK Home Office asylum policy

Mariam was forced to flee her home country of Eritrea after her husband, who had been forcibly conscripted into the army, escaped and she was imprisoned. Mariam evaded further persecution in Eritrea and sought refuge, finally entering the UK in the back of a lorry over 10 years ago. Mariam now fears that refugees in comparable circumstances will not receive fair treatment under proposed changes to the UK’s asylum system.

Currently assisting Covid-19 patients as a clinical support worker, Mariam said that “When I left Eritrea, I didn’t know if I was going to live or die”. 

“Every time you give someone sanctuary, you have the opportunity to save a life. Why would you send them back? Help them, save them. The UK gave me an opportunity and now I’m working. I don’t want to be dependent on the government.”

Two in every three women and children presently accepted as refugees would be turned away under the government’s proposed New Plan for Immigration, according to recently released analysis of published government data.

Should the new legislation be passed, the majority of those accepted as refugees under current rules – who are confirmed to have fled violence or persecution by meticulous official checks – will have their claims deemed inadmissible due to their method of arrival.

The research has been compiled by Together with Refugees, a coalition of more than 200 organisations who are calling for a more “effective, fair and humane approach” to refugees in the UK.

An analysis of Home Office data by the Refugee Council has found that, of the 59,941 people who received refugee status or humanitarian protection from 2015-2020, 29,882 were women or children; roughly 50%.

Sabir Zazai, a spokesperson for the coalition and CEO of the Scottish Refugee Council, said that:

“Abandoning people fleeing war and persecution, including women and children, is not who we are in the UK. These are mothers escaping war-torn Syria, women fleeing sexual violence in Congo or children escaping life-long conscription into the military in Eritrea. These are people in fear of their lives. These are people like me. These are also people like you, people who want to live in safety and dignity.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel said that people entering the UK “illegally from a safe country like France” should not receive asylum anymore, because they are supposed to claim asylum in the first safe country rather than their preferred destination. However, no such obligation exists in international law. Rather, Art 31 of the Geneva Refugee Convention 1951 specifically declares it irrelevant whether a refugee enters the country of asylum legally or illegally and that states cannot impose penalties on refugees for illegally crossing borders when seeking protection. Legal entry is not a requirement for refugee status, and neither is claiming asylum in the first safe country. This was also confirmed in the landmark case of R v Uxbridge Magistrates Court (ex parte Adimi) [1999] Imm AR 560. Refugees are free to choose in which country they want to claim asylum, and many do – because they reject suffering any longer in an overcrowded refugee camp or long to set up their lives in a country where they already have relatives. 

The fact that the method of entry is legally irrelevant, is even more important as there are no safe and lawful routes available for refugees, which is exactly why many people are compelled to rely on the services of illegal smugglers. Despite the UK’s participation in resettlement schemes, the numbers of refugees permitted to resettle are minimal compared to the overall number of refugees: According to the Home Office, the UK as resettled almost 25,000 people since 2015 – when there are over 20 million refugees worldwide under UNHCR’s mandate, of which almost 1,5 million are in urgent need of resettlement. In Germany, over 140,000 asylum applications have been lodged in 2019 alone – hence, it cannot be said that the UK is disproportionately affected by the refugee crisis.

A Home Office spokesperson justified the changes, calling the current system “broken” and stating that:

“We will continue to work closely with the UNHCR to ensure those in greatest need get our support. We make no apology for seeking to fix a system which is being exploited by human traffickers, who are encouraging women and children to risk their lives crossing the Channel.”

Priti Patel is right when she says that the existence of smuggling routes is deeply unfair to those with less financial means, and that we need to stop the deaths of people dying on illegal journeys, but excluding refugees based on their method of arrival is not the right way to do it. Instead of restricting the ability of asylum seekers to exercise their right to apply for asylum in the UK, the government should focus on opening up more legal and safe channels for refugees.

Parliament must vote against these proposed changes and ensure that those who are fleeing war and persecution are adequately protected, in line with their international obligations.

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