I f the refugees make it to Britain, they exchange one hostile environment for another. Sajid Javid, while Home Secretary, first declared it a national emergency that a small number of refugees were getting across the Channel on boats. Since then the vitriol has expanded and the situation for refugees who arrive has worsened. Priti Patel has launched a full-scale assault on those who cross, backed by the whole of the Cabinet, every Tory MP, most of the press and of course, the far right. Some of this is empty, dog whistle bluster such as suggestions for recalling obsolete Royal Navy warships to defend the Kent coast against inflatable kayaks.
But Johnson’s announcement in November of £16 billion additional spending on the military, fully supported by Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer, have begun to put flesh on these bones. In a bid to make Britain the anti-immigrant policeman of the seas Johnson claims he plans to make the country “the foremost navel power in Europe”. Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh tweeted “We should never have lost Calais in 1558. Why not take it back?” These absurd Britannia-Rules-the-Waves outbursts are more than just rhetoric. They help build an atmosphere of menace, which places refugees in real danger.
Various far-right groups have threatened or attacked some of the cheap hotels where refugees are housed while their claims are processed. Refugee solidarity activists and Stand Up To Racism groups have responded with Refugees Welcome demonstrations, support and solidarity. It is essential to continue to counter the hostile environment and let exiles know they are welcome. It is also important to bring material support. Refugees have to live on a pitiful allowance, often swallowed up by fares to get to sign in appointments with the police. Some decent food, clothes and conversation isn’t charity. It’s a political act of practical solidarity.
Legal information and access to legal support is also vital. Government attempts to scrap legal rights for refugees and to bar their right to make claims for asylum continue. Some refugees are imprisoned in detention centres on arrival. Others are given detention bail, which states a refugee is subject to arrest and immediate removal from the country. Even when they have made initial asylum claims and have got into the system, many live in fear knowing that at any time they can be detained and sent for removal. There is an increasing trend towards arbitrary arrest and deportation. Refugees who have crossed the Channel are already being deported to European countries and fingerprinted (often forcibly) on their journey. They are not allowed to claim asylum, however horrendous their experience may be and however much they have the right to do so.
The government claims refugees are obliged to claim asylum in the first safe country they enter. This is a lie. Family reunification is also under attack. The Dubs Amendment, which created a way for small numbers of unaccompanied minors to join family members in Britain, has been scrapped. French organisations working with unaccompanied minors report in fact this has been a dead letter for at least the last two years. The new Immigration Act makes family reunification harder still. Lawyers working on asylum claims and using human rights law to defend the rights of refugees have been targeted.
In September, when some illegal deportations were stopped Tory MP John Hayes, chair of the Common Sense group of Tory backbenchers, responded, “You’ve basically got a group of activist, bourgeois, liberal lawyers who are gaming the system by making vexatious claims at the last minute”. The Home Office released a video clip in which Priti Patel led the charge against these “activist lawyers”. This construction of another enemy within signals a new attack on refugee rights in particular and on legal rights in general. It has also lead to actual physical attacks on law firms and individual lawyers. On top of this is an attempt to prevent access to Judicial Review.
This was a difficult channel to access before the current legal assault, but could at times be used to reverse unjust decisions in asylum cases. Now there are even tighter restrictions on it. Refugee solidarity work should be an essential and central part of our anti-racist work. The treatment of refugees in Europe is a scandal. The abuse of refugees and the attack on the right to asylum is systematic, calculated and brutal. There is no such thing as a socialist who is not an anti-racist and there can be no such thing as an anti-racist who does not stand with the refugees and defend their rights.
Part 1 of Refugees Under Siege is available at socialistreview.org.uk/462/refugees-under-siege