They are people, not boats: Speaking out against the Refugee Ban

Another hostile and cruel immigration bill has been passed into law in the House of Commons. It sounds surreal to write this sentence again in July 2023;  the last piece of legislation, the Nationality and Borders Act came into force on 28 June 2022, and the one before that (Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act) just in 2020. 

It would be hard to keep track of all the laws and hostile policies if the reality of them is not so painfully visible in the daily lives of thousands of people we see and organise with at Migrants Organise. 

This country is in a  perpetual cycle of violent immigration legislation, and the way it has been conducted speaks volumes about everything that is wrong with our democracy. The reality of immigration as a normal human phenomenon and international protection as a part of our legal  and moral responsibility has been completely erased from the conversation. 

A lot has happened since the last bill. The war in Sudan broke out, generating another humanitarian emergency. We’ve had three Prime Ministers, countless Ministers, and MPs accompanied by countless scandals and a crushed economy

Image by Migrants Organise outside Parliament at a demo agains the Refugee Ban Bill. March 2023.

Despite so many failures to address many urgent issues facing our country (or even recover essential WhatsApp messages needed for the Covid Inquiry) this government, still reeling from the Rwanda Plan defeat, prioritised the Illegal Immigration Bill most efficiently. When the bill returned from the House of Lords back to the House of Commons, this government pushed 18 votes in under four hours, overturning all Lord’s amendments. 

This sets a dangerous precedent. Imagine what else can be pushed through the Commons in 18 votes under 4 hours, with complete disregard for the Lords? 

Some ministers’ unprecedented attention to detail included painting over children’s cartoon characters in a ‘reception’ facility – the mural was feared to give too much of a “welcoming message”. No episode of The Thick of It, Yes Minister, or even Monty Python would come even close to this level of the surreal. 

The bill is so egregious that it provoked the first-ever rebellion from the former PM Theresa “Hostile Environment” May and another 15 Conservative MPs.

Some concessions have been made concerning the detention of pregnant women and unaccompanied children, which is meant to keep some backbenchers quiet. These concessions are tinkering around the edges of a terrible policy. They will not do much to justify the most illiberal piece of legislation, which is by the admission of the Home Secretary in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). 

It’s important to note that the ECHR has nothing to do with the EU or Brexit. It was drafted in the aftermath of WW2 and the Holocaust to protect the people from the State and ensure the atrocities committed would never be repeated. This is in addition to  The 1951 Geneva Convention, signed and ratified by the UK, which provides further and specific guarantees to people in need of protection. The Convention provides an internationally agreed legal framework which defined legal routes to protection and which the UK government has been trying to limit for decades.  

The Illegal Immigration Bill – or to name it what it is, The Refugee Ban Bill- will effectively end refugee protection as defined by the 1951 Convention. It makes it ‘legal’ for the UK not to consider applications of people based on the mode of entry. As there are no regular ways to enter the UK and apply for asylum, all people seeking asylum who entered through irregular routes – something that is provided for by the 1951 Convention – will be detained and deported. This includes children, pregnant women, victims of trafficking, and people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan or Syria. 

While waiting to be removed, vulnerable and traumatised people will be detained in military bases and barges. Huge contracts have been handed to profit-making enforcement companies to do this dishonourable and inhumane job. A magic money tree has appeared again to pay billions to inflict misery and injustice.

Like with the so-called ‘Rwanda Plan’, many provisions of the Illegal Immigration Act will be challenged in courts and probably found unlawful. 

This will take a long time, and many people will be stuck in limbo. Legal advice is difficult to obtain, and the process takes a long time. The government will attack the judiciary and legal profession for doing their job. The right-wing media will come after advocates and human rights campaigners, which will embolden growing far-right populists prepared to act on their hate online and in places where refugees are detained

We, the imaginary voters,  are supposed to forget the mishandling of the pandemic, the PPE contracts dished out to friends and relatives, and the parties that went on in government offices while we obeyed the instructions and grieved for our loved ones in isolation. 

We are supposed to forget the fall of Kabul and the promises made to Afghans we left behind. We are expected to forget the rising queues at food banks and the school meals secured by footballers. We are supposed to ignore the medication shortages and the loss of our freedom of movement in the EU, to mention just a few side effects of getting ‘Brexit done’! 

We are supposed to forget the rise in our bills, rents and mortgages, the pollution of our rivers, and the abysmal failure of the privatised for-profit water companies

All of the above, and much more, is supposed to be erased from our memory on the next election day, and we would vote for the government prepared to detain pregnant women and children, paint over Mickey Mouse posters on the wall to make children unwelcome and send them off to Rwanda. 

One cannot help but ask what sort of people, including politicians, would think this is a winning strategy for anything. 

In the sea of other news, almost unnoticed by the UK’s mainstream media, is an announcement that the longest-serving Dutch PM Mark Rutte is quitting politics after his coalition government collapsed on Friday, July 7, after the ruling parties disagreed on a new asylum policy.

For months, Dutch ministers have discussed new measures to limit the number of people seeking protection. But two coalition parties refused Rutte’s proposal to make it harder for refugee families to reunite.

Rutte has led the Netherlands since October 2010 in four different coalitions, making him the longest-serving prime minister in Dutch history. The carrier-ending move for him was an attempt to limit family reunion for refugees. 

Is there a lesson here for Rishi “Stop the Boats” Sunak? Or Suella “Rwanda Dreams” Braverman? Or perhaps Robert “Mickey Mouse” Jenrick? 

Sadly, no. This government is in their Hostile Environment policy bubble, which is all about brutal enforcement, regardless of the human, reputational and financial costs.  Refugees are not people to them – they are faceless statistics, numbers and boats, and they think this is the vote winner.

But there is a lesson here for the opposition and the rest of us. 

We must stand in solidarity with refugees and migrants and maintain our convictions, our resilience and our hope. 

Despite the hostile rhetoric and policies, plenty of research and polling shows that British public attitudes about immigration are increasingly positive. Progressive opposition must show leadership, devise an alternative approach, and shift the narrative away from enforcement and hostility. 

We all must create space for solidarity and defeat attempts to divide us. The hostility, dehumanisation, gaslighting and criminalisation of people on the move must never be accepted and normalised. They are people, NOT boats!

Reach out to your community at work or in your neighbourhood,  your trade union, your faith group, your school or university, reach out to many campaigning groups, charities and organisations  – and organise.

The government’s cruelty is designed to silence and isolate us – but we won’t let it. Now is the time to organise together for dignity, justice and welcome.

As Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it is done!”  So don’t be a bystander. Organise! The  Solidarity Knows No Borders community has been doing just that- organising from the grassroots for a better future, for dignity and justice for all. 

Solidarity Knows No Borders (SKNB) is a community of migrant organisations, groups and individuals, working in solidarity, to end hostility and racism against migrants and refugees.
Together we are demanding dignity and justice for all.