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Refuge ;

Why we need to learn from the mistakes of Australia's asylum regime

In Limbo, a 2020 film about asylum seekers waiting out their processing on a remote Scottish island, we see a glimpse into the less life-threatening effects of denying asylum seekers adequate healthcare. The medical centre on the island is attended infrequently, leaving Omar, a Syrian asylum seeker, unable to have his arm cast removed for months after his arm has healed. With the cast on, he cannot play his grandfather’s oud, the only thing he brought with him from Syria. Omar is separated from his family and, unable to play, severed from his culture. In the film’s final moments, cast removed, and fears faced, Omar takes to a stage and plays again, a step towards healing and reconnecting.

Not all asylum seekers are so fortunate. Conditions such as leg infections, severe depression, or repeated seizures have been fatal for asylum seekers in Australian offshore detention in the last 5 years.

As Judith Butler said: “under what conditions [do] some lives cease to be eligible for basic, if not universal, human rights”. So, in my master’s dissertation, I wanted to understand how Australian politicians justified an erosion of rights for asylum seekers.

Australia’s example

The Medevac process, introduced in Australia in early 2019, allowed asylum seekers to be temporarily transferred to Australia, from their offshore detention, for medical treatment. When it passed it was widely hailed as a step forward for Australia’s otherwise strict asylum regime. Only nine months later, Medevac was repealed.

Doctors, human rights groups, international NGOs, and the UN have all spoken out against the use of offshore detention in Australia. Many point to the detrimental health impacts of offshore detention itself, exacerbating mental and physical conditions in an already vulnerable population. Others, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, report that the health system on offshore detention is “ill-equipped to manage the current mental health crisis on the island”.

The UK is following Australia’s lead

This is not how the asylum system is built to work. Article 31 of the Refugee Convention instructs states to not “impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees… who enter or are present in their territory without authorisation”.

Yet in our Houses of Parliament, the Nationality and Borders bill is creeping towards assent. The bill appears directly inspired by Australia, granting the government the right to send asylum seekers to a “safe” third country for offshore processing, and allowing them to perform boat pushbacks at sea.

Justification for the bill seems to be inspired by Australia. Supporters claim the bill will prevent ‘illegal immigrants’ from taking advantage of the UK’s asylum system. It will protect our borders, put a stop to Channel crossings – it will make our asylum system ‘fair’.

UK Border force boat in Dover

The power of political language

As my dissertation explores, many of these justifications for tougher border regimes, which allow states to evade their international responsibilities, are misrepresentative.

“The British people have had enough of… foreign criminals, including murderers and rapists, who abuse our laws” - Priti Patel, Hansard, Monday 19 July 2021

By presenting the border as being under threat, it creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’- with them being a threat, and us being under threat. Overrepresenting the number of dangerous asylum seekers also allows politicians to construct the border as something in need of defending. Both of which were common tropes in the Medevac repeal.

“The British people have had enough of… people trying to gain entry illegally ahead of those who play by the rules” - Priti Patel, Hansard, Monday 19 July 2021

Both Australia and the UK created binaries of ‘legitimate/illegitimate’ asylum seekers. One way that states create these binaries is by conceiving the asylum system as a ‘fair queue’, and thus condemning those who are perceived to have ‘jumped’ the queue. As Katharine Gelber explains: “the use of the term queue in the immigration context is misplaced. It renders any understanding of the queue analogy illegitimate”.

In presenting themselves as merciful to one, inhumanity to the other can be more easily justified.

“The British people have had enough of… uncontrolled immigration” - Priti Patel, Hansard, Monday 19 July 2021

Interchangeably using the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘asylum seeker’ removes the inherent vulnerability of asylum seekers. It detaches an asylum seeker from their precarity, their context, their humanity. It creates an identity for them which can be more readily understood as threatening than vulnerable.

How should governments approach asylum regimes?

Stricter border regimes do not solve the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers, or so-called ‘illegal immigration’. People choose unsafe routes to asylum, such as the Channel crossing, as a last resort. Creating more safe routes in the UK for asylum seekers would direct people to more secure, better-managed channels.

The UK has capacity for a far larger asylum-seeker intake. The overwhelming majority of refugees remain in neighbouring countries, often in developing regions. Despite rhetoric, the developed world houses only a small proportion of the world’s refugees.

But even with the developed world, the UK does not carry its weight. In 2021, the UK ranked 17th in the EU+ for intake of refugees when measured per head of population.

Cracking down on so-called ‘illegal’ routes for refugees rather than focusing on creating more safe routes, simply allows the UK to shirk its humanitarian responsibilities.

Refugees are welcome

What can we do?

When international bodies like the UN Refugee Agency and Amnesty International openly condemn a bill, and it still churns through the stages to assent in Parliament, it is easy to feel helpless.

But there are institutions advocating for change. The Good Law Project, Refugee Action and the Refugee Council, amongst others have all published detailed reports and advice against the bill.

Our treatment of the most vulnerable is a test of our humanity - we cannot allow our government to fail.

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