File photo of migrants picked up at sea attempting to cross the English Channel File photo of migrants picked up at sea attempting to cross the English Channel  (AFP or licensors)

JRS appeals for protection of refugees as UK government cracks down on asylum

JRS UK renews its call to protect refugees as the government announces plans to make asylum impossible.

By Linda Bordoni

Four people drowned on Wednesday in the English Channel when a small boat, laden with migrants, capsized in the icy waters between Britain and France. 43 people were rescued, with more than 30 of them pulled from the sea

The tragedy took place the day after British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced new plans for laws to prevent migrants from claiming asylum.

He even spoke about imposing blanket refusals on Albanians seeking asylum and said that those arriving in the UK illegally would be swiftly detained and sent back

As Jesuit Refugee Service UK told Vatican Radio, the announcement is the latest in a string of developments aimed at punishing refugees for how they travel, creating barriers to asylum and deepening the hostile environment migrants and refugees are met with.

Megan Knowles, JRS UK’s Interim Deputy Director, explained many steps are needed in order to ensure the dignity of all persons and uphold the right to asylum.

Listen to the interview with Megan Knowles

At a time in which a narrative of fear and closure prevails, Megan Knowles highlighted the need to challenge some of the language used:

“People are not illegal, It is not illegal to seek asylum.”

The Interim Deputy Director of JRS UK was speaking on the day following Rishi Sunak’s announcement to double down on plans to make asylum impossible and in the wake of yet another migrant boat sinking in the English Channel, which she said, "is completely unacceptable and a wholly avoidable tragedy which, I think, is deeply upsetting to many of us.”

Rescue operation in the English Channel
Rescue operation in the English Channel

Denouncing government proposals that she says stem from “a standpoint of fear,” Knowles decried a perspective that sees refugees and people seeking sanctuary as “the country's ill, and something that it needs to be protected against.”

“Higher walls and policing and imprisoning people in search of safety will not stop them making dangerous journeys when they have no choice.”

She noted that the government's proposals did not include provisions for safe and accessible routes for refugees.

“When people need to flee and they need to move because a crisis happens, it happens imminently. People haven't got the time or the space to go to an embassy to get a visa or to access that,” she said, adding that “we saw that quite clearly last summer with Afghanistan.”

In its statement following the PM’s announcement on Tuesday, JRS noted that the top nationalities of people making small boat crossings include Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, and Iran, all of which are countries where conflict and lack of freedom severely impact their populations.

Knowles said that any changes and developments in the asylum system have to recognise that human dignity is the first principle needed to underpin the UK’s asylum policy.

“The increasing hostility of an asylum system” and a “narrow obsession with immigration control” are not going to work, she insisted.

“An asylum system that recognises human dignity rather than hostility. That's what we need.”

Welcoming communities

Acknowledging that the plans proposed by the government contrast terribly with the message of Christian leaders, including that of Pope Francis, who has repeatedly asked us to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” our brothers and sisters on the move, Knowles said there continues to be an “incredible response from church and local communities in the UK, showing welcome and hospitality to refugees within their communities.”

“I think it's something that the UK government could learn from, if they look at what actually works within communities and they listen to the people who are making those things work and supporting those initiatives.”

She noted that initiatives like the Homes for Ukraine scheme have been incredibly successful within communities, because although there are problems, “the bits that are working are the bits within communities, and a lot of the time it is church communities, it's individual groups of people going to visit people in hotels, for example.”

What gives her hope, she added, is the concrete way communities continue to respond by welcoming and integrating refugees and migrants.

As for JRS, Knowles continued, the plans are to continue lobbying the government and sharing that message that invites us to welcome to protect, to promote, to integrate our brothers and sisters in need.

She explained that the political system in the UK has changed drastically, as have some of those traditional ways of lobbying governments, and that they are not working as effectively as they used to.

File photo of empty rubber dinghies used by migrants to cross the English Channel
File photo of empty rubber dinghies used by migrants to cross the English Channel

Hospitality rather than hostility

“What we're looking to do in the future and starting now, is working much more within communities to enable and to see hospitality, rather than hostility,” and really build that up by working together and ultimately challenging the government, Knowles said.

In a multicultural reality such as the British one, she highlighted what she described as a “complete disconnect" between government policy and the British public.

Recalling the “horrendous and cruel” government plans announced last Spring to send refugees to Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed, the JRS Deputy Director said that generally people were scandalized by the proposal describing it as “horrific” and reiterating that “This is not how we treat people. These are not British values.”

But yet again, Megan Knowles said, “the British government has again made announcements embedded in that sense in which we are going scapegoat refugees and asylum seekers”  and abandon their right to dignity “for political footballs.”

She concluded expressing gratitude to all those people “who are showing hospitality and are, in their day to day lives, showing support to refugees, asylum seekers and all those who are vulnerable.”

“That's the only way that we can show our own national government that this is not what we want.”

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14 December 2022, 18:22