Everyone has the right to live free from all forms of discrimination. We all have the right to privacy and justice. We have the right to take part in the running of our country. These rights are set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and when they are not being fulfilled, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.
‘Refugees need our help to rebuild their lives, not to face further persecution’
People seeking asylum are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. They are forced to flee because of a threat of persecution and a lack of protection in their own country. This could be due to war or genocide or for political, religious or social reasons. If any one of us feared for our lives or our loved ones, we would want to know that others would help us to safety.
How we treat refugees is about who we are. They have made massive cultural, social and economic contributions to society since the French Huguenots in the 1560s, considered the UK’s first refugees. This is despite growing hostility, fuelled by the media and government policy. These include Michael Marks, a Jewish refugee from Belarus who formed Marks & Spencer with Tom Spencer in Leeds in 1894, and singer-songwriter Rita Ora, whose family left Kosovo because of the persecution of Albanians in 1991.
Refugees need our help to rebuild their lives, not to face further persecution. The government’s proposed Nationality and Borders Bill represents a major attack on people seeking safety. It will undermine the UK’s commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is in the House of Lords for debate. If passed, it will create a discriminatory two-tier system that will judge a person seeking asylum on the route they take to the UK, not why they came here. It is recognised under the 1951 Refugee Convention that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means to escape and claim asylum in another country; therefore the bill will profoundly undermine our obligations under international law.
As well as violating the 1951 Refugee Convention, it will criminalise those seeking asylum for exercising their legal rights, with a four year prison sentence for those who enter the UK irregularly. The bill also proposes to expel people seeking asylum to offshore processing centres and out-of-town institutions, rather than housing people in the community, which is inhumane. Furthermore, there is nothing in the bill to establish safe routes for people to seek asylum and it restricts safe routes for family members to join a refugee already here.
At People’s History Museum (PHM) we are telling the personal experiences of those who seek sanctuary. Here are just two.
Melina sought asylum in the UK in 2019 due to persecution on the basis of sexuality. Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Zimbabwe where Melina was a police officer and also played for the national netball team, including at the World Cup. When she was arrested, she knew she would not win her case. Melina booked a flight to the UK whilst a previous visit visa was still valid and claimed asylum on arrival. She was granted leave to remain and has since retrained as a carer in the UK.
Marzia Babakarhail was a judge in Afghanistan and set up the Afghan Women Social and Cultural Organisation to help women and girls. Twice the Taliban tried to kill her. Marzia fled to the UK in 2007, successfully claiming asylum. She became a British citizen in 2016 but is unable to practice law. Marzia is now a caseworker for her MP, Debbie Abrahams, assisting mostly on immigration cases.
Under the proposed changes, Melina and Marzia would be criminalised for seeking asylum in the UK. It would be considered that they arrived outside of what the government considers a “safe and legal” route without permission of the UK government to journey here.
There needs to be a better approach to supporting those seeking sanctuary that is more effective, fair and humane. This means standing up for people’s ability to seek safety no matter how they came here and ensuring they can live in dignity while they wait for a decision on their asylum application. It means empowering refugees to rebuild their lives and make valuable contributions to our communities. And it means the UK working with other countries to help people who are forced to flee their homes. It means standing Together with Refugees and against the Nationality and Borders Bill.
Zofia Kufeldt is programme manager at People’s History Museum. Together with Refugees is a coalition of international development charities, grassroots and community organisations, refugee-led groups and cultural institutions. Find out more at phm.org.uk/campaigning or by following #TogetherWithRefugees. Visit Migration: A Human Story at People’s History Museum until 5 June
Photo: Manchester’s People’s History Museum is running an exhibition telling the stories of refugees