Chag Pesach semach. It is allegedly springtime and allegedly the festival of freedom. I am finding it difficult to be cheerful. It’s not just the fact that I can’t hang out with my lovely family, eat great food and argue about which bits of the Seder need to be cut out. It is also the relentless horror emanating from the Home Office.
Leave to Remain
Still, I actually have plenty of reasons to be cheerful. We have had some amazing news. Norma, who some of you might have met at the Jollof Café or seen in our publicity video, was awarded Leave to Remain. This is an enormous relief for Norma and everyone concerned. As always these celebrations leave a bitter taste. Why did they have to drag my friend through such a hellish experience? You made her destitute, stripped away her dignity, left her vulnerable and dependent on the fr
agile kindness of strangers. It’s not a way to treat any human, let alone someone who has been forced into exile. At least it is over now and all the people, including myself, who have come to rely on Norma’s kindness and care can sleep a little easier safe in the knowledge that our friend is not going to be ripped away from us any time soon.
Norma wasn’t the only person to win her leave to remain this month. One of the men in Home Office housing was finally awarded his leave. That’s more good news. I hope that the support that the Brighton community has provided cushioned some of the horror of the badly misnamed “asylum support” system.
Souper Douper Router
Speaking of which, we were very excited to be chosen as the winner of the first ever online Brighton Soup. We were awarded £581.21 and will be able to use that money to carry on providing an Internet connection or, as one might say, a lifeline to the people dumped in Home Office accommodation. The event was also great fun and that’s no small achievement in these socially isolated days. Thank you, soupers.
We also said goodbye to our long-time residents, Nasrin, Rasoul, Daneal and Rozha. It’s not a real goodbye. We remain friends and will see them often. (Nasrin will also help with any sewing or clothing alteration needs, just get in touch). Every exit is an entrance somewhere else, so we said hello to a young
woman and her soon to be born baby. It’s pretty shocking that the UK thinks that it’s okay for pregnant women to sleep rough because they’re too foreign. Fortunately, people of Brighton are living up to the motto on our gates. It might be a struggle at times, but I’m glad that I have a soul
Citizens of the World
There are also things to look forward to. There are the obvious ones, warmer weather, other people, but also slightly less obvious ones, like the next in our Citizens of the World in Conversation series. We are extremely excited by this one. We have two great contemporary commentators and thinkers about the border, Leah Cowan and Emily Kenway, in a conversation chaired by Aliya Yule of Migrants Organise. The conversation is going to be in conjunction with Brighton’s very own Feminist Bookshop. Both Leah and Emily have books out with Pluto Press, Border Nation and The Truth About Modern Slavery. It’s on 8 April at 19:30 and you can get your tickets here. Given the rapidly deteriorating legal situation and the disgusting attack on asylum there couldn’t be a better time to engage with such brilliant commentators.
A New Plan for Asylum
I am going to give a little bit of commentary of my own. Not much needs to be said about plans that propose withholding refugee status from people who from people who find a way to enter the country without a visa. At the risk of insulting your intelligence I’m going to draw a couple of observations. Applying for a visa is at best fraught with danger for a lot of people in need of refuge. In fact, my guess would be that in the majority of cases it’s downright impossible. Even leaving that aside, the UK, like most other golf playing nations, goes out of its way to make sure that you are not going to get a Visa if you want to claim asylum. No one should be surprised that if you’re an asylum seeker, you’re likely to cross a border without having the permission of the relevant border guard. I think that the only thing that really needs to be said about these plans is that it is a disgusting attempt to criminalise seeking sanctuary. It is a despicable new low even for the UK government.
I am going to try to say two further things. The first is that this government wants to reconceptualise asylum. Perhaps people who have actually studied the legal history of these things will correct me, but as I understand it there was a movement after the Second World War to deal with the phenomenon of displaced people. As Arendt observes, in a world in which rights require the protection of a legal system, as a displaced person you have no standing anywhere and no rights protect you. You will be present in some territory but your personhood will not be recognised by the authority that governs that space. The life of the displaced person really is nasty, brutish and short. The conventions, for all their limitations, were an attempt to rectify that problem. They were an attempt to deal with the anomalous person. If you found yourself outside of the country of your nationality because of your fear of persecution and thus unwilling to avail yourself of its legal system, you were to be granted the protection of the state in which you now found yourself. You would never be without legal standing.
The effect of the conventions has been that the sanctuary seeker who is able to reach the West has been able to rebuild her life in a new country. I add the caveat “reach the West” not because Europe is the space of human rights or any such nonsense, but because the vast majority of the world’s displaced people are living in huge, semi-permanent refugee camps under the auspices of the UNHCR well away from rich countries and condemned to generations of limbo. You can check out Mohamedsalem Wared talking about the Western Saharan experience, if you want a flavour of that.
Anyway, these proposals are a clear statement of intent to rip up that settlement. Asylum, if it is to be granted at all, is to be a bus to hide under whilst the shooting lasts. This is why the Home Office keeps insisting that anybody travelling to the UK through a safe third country is not a refugee. It’s futile, I think, to respond to the Home Office that there is no requirement on you to claim asylum as soon as you are somewhere with a functioning legal system. That’s true, but nor does the Refugee Convention place an obligation on a signatory government to let a refugee settle on their territory. From the government’s point of view, the conventions are not there to allow you to start your life over again. They are not there to bring you under the protection of UK law. You remain a foreigner who must be kept out of UK society. Instead, they impose the minimal negative obligation, not to let you die. If you’re only right is to a bomb shelter, then you’ve have no reason to ignore the first one that you come across.
This leads me onto the second thing that I want to say. It’s this whole philosophy that needs to be resisted. From my point of view, the whole tenor of the refugee welcome movement’s response has been wrong. We should not be demanding safe and legal routes for refugees. I will be clear, I’m not going to oppose expanding refugee resettlement schemes. The vast majority of the world’s wealth is in the global North and the vast majority of the world’s refugees are in the global South. There needs to be a rebalancing in both directions. But, making that the core plank of our demand both obscures the fact that these proposals, without rewriting the refugee conventions, are an attempt to reconceptualise what it is to be a refugee and, in so doing, tacitly accept the government’s position. Safe and legal routes to refugee resettlement mean people languishing in displaced persons camps for years whilst their claims are processed. It means the UK in her graciousness selecting a tiny number of people, perhaps even handpicking them, as deserving the chance to rebuild their life over here. It means that everybody else can go hang.
The demand also ignores two other obvious facts. One is that safe and legal routes exist. I am reasonably well travelled. I have no fear of planes, trains or ferries. They have a great safety record. What is required is an end to carrier liability and an end to the imposition of visas restricting travel from refugee producing countries. In short, you need to be given the opportunity to reach the border and lodge your claim for asylum.
The second obvious, but neglected fact is that people claim asylum because they have no other route to status in the UK, or France or wherever. My ancestors did not need to claim asylum when they left/were forced out of the pale of settlement. For a start, they couldn’t because there was no refugee convention, but that didn’t matter because they didn’t need to establish a well grounded fear of persecution to build a life for themselves in the UK. Immigration control was within its infancy back at the turn of the 20th century, but although things became more and more restrictive from 1905, almost everybody in the UK has some immigration story in their family. If that seems wrong to you, just think how many people have an Irish background. But even if we restrict our gaze to those places that have been the primary targets of immigration control, the significant numbers of people with family origins in Africa, Asia or the Caribbean show that throughout the 20th century there have been real possibilities to establish yourself in the UK without the need to claim asylum either at the border or in a refugee camp. It is the 21st century that has been anomalous. Migration has never been and is not now a problem. The issue is immigration control.
We should not simply be trying to defend the narrow legal category of asylum. The refugee conventions are the wrong tool to defend people’s right to move. The refugee is a legal exception and asylum a legal mechanism for dealing with a legal exception. We should be fighting against a system which forces people who need or want to move into that exceptional position. I would like to see the sector pushing back against the idea that migration is a problem. I would like to see us reminding the world that there is nothing radical about upholding your right to seek out a life for yourself and that what is novel is taking extraordinary measures to prevent you from enjoying that right.
We should be celebrating movement and championing hospitality. These are the values that underpin a good society. We are committed to them and we should be proud of them. Not every person whom you support is as wonderful as Norma, but I know that each and every person whom this community brings in will bring more joy to the world than they bring pain, and so will their children and their children’s children. I know this, not only because people are great, but because plurality is the fundamental human good and openness to others is the only path to happiness