DAY 207: 1951

March 11th, 2017 § 0 comments

While March 8th (International Women’s Day) was the centenary of the Russian Revolution and has rightly involved us in all sorts of celebrations, I’ve been more recently preoccupied by the 1951 refugee convention, which isn’t currently having an anniversary and which is neglected,  ignored and trampled on by states which have supposedly signed up to it. I recall that the Convention defines a refugee as 

A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who,refugee not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.’

That is, as I had it explained to me, if you’re a Syrian or an Eritrean and you ‘re in France or the U.K.; and you reasonably don’t want to go back home because you’ll be persecuted there, then you’re a refugee. The countries which signed the Convention (who include the U.K., France, Italy, and many others) agree in principle, then, that if you’re a refugee they won’t send you back; rather, they’ll allow you to settle where you are, work have access to health care and so on.

Reader, that’s what it says, and that’s what we signed up to. It says nothing about the first country you arrived in, or about where your fingerprints were taken – the ‘Dublin III’ stuff . What has that got to do with it? If you’re afraid, you’re afraid, and the duty of (e.g.) the British government is to give you – and probably your family –  a home and a job.How has this country strayed so far from its original principles?

Here’s a recent example from ‘Passeurs d’hospitalités’: the country of arrival – in this case France – rather than accepting the refugee’s ‘justifiable fear of persecution’, finds a convoluted way of sending him back to the country which was persecuting him:’ ‘Hamid’ was arrested in Calais, identified as Sudanese by representatives of the embassy during his administrative detention 437652-france-immigration-detention-centrein the police station at the Calais border, under unclear circumstances. Still, he is not Sudanese, but an Eritrean, who arrived in Sudan at the age of 11.

Since then, he has been locked up in the detention centre of Oissel, near Rouen, with a view to his expulsion to Sudan. He has lost all appeals; the courts rely on his recognition by the Sudanese Embassy, and his asylum claim in detention (a fast-track procedure in a few days, which doesn’t offer the guarantees of a normal procedure) has been rejected. He may therefore be deported to Sudan at any time.

So : mobilize to challenge the decision-makers, and remember that, beyond the  expulsions to Sudan are themselves unacceptable; and this is a precedent for deporting Eritreans who have spent time in Sudan to that country, in the case that the embassy of Eritrea refuses to issue the passes allowing them to expel them directly. Sudan, on the other hand, will deport to Eritrea, which (the U.K. now thinks) is not a ‘safe country’ for deportations. (See UKUT 443 MST, MYK and AA v. SSHD June 2016, – revising the country guidance on Eritrea and high time.)

Just for a moment think of what you would do if you were trying to escape from such a dangerous country -we think naturally of Syria,


but there are many many others. How could you even begin to persuade the unwelcoming British authorities of your trauma and terror – probably across a language barrier? They would shelve your problem by locking you up preparatory to finding some other country to dump you in. In fact, what the refugee has most to fear on arrival is the detention centre (or ‘removal centre’ in our new language) -where you are likely to lose all power, in particular to be deprived of access to a lawyer. ‘There are currently nearly 2000 spaces in UK immigration detention centres (now officially called “removal centres”), an increase from 250 spaces a decade ago. Detention is administrative, without statutory limit and those held are not accused of any crime. Asylum seekers and migrants can be detained at any stage of their claim to remain in the UK – on arrival, with appeals outstanding and prior to removal. The decision to detain is made by an individual immigration officer and is not automatically subject to independent review at any stage. Legislation providing automatic bail hearings was passed in 1999 but never implemented, and has been repealed by the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act.

In BID’s experience, the detention of asylum seekers and migrants gives rise to situations of arbitrary detention, as defined by the United Nations and violates principles of liberty enshrined in international human rights law. It causes suffering and injustice on a level utterly disproportionate to the government objective of immigration control.’

These centres have been officially condemned:

In its report published today (10 March), the Prison Inspector urges the Home Office to take a ‘remedial action’ to address continuing long-term immigration detention of migrants, after finding a number of cases of excessive detention at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre.

During the inspection of Brook House Immigration Removal Centre near Gatwick Airport in October and November 2016, the inspection team found 23 individuals who had been detained for over a year.026234_cdb807a463234804b34eefbf342c1339-mv2.png_srz_600_303_85_22_0.50_1.20_0  Four of these had been detained for over two years and the longest period of detention they found was two and a half years.

The report provides further proof of the government’s failure to deliver detention reform, more than a year later after it was pledged by the Government. 

While acknowledging general improvements in detention condition at Brook House, the inspection team is critical of the fact that no analysis has been conducted by the Home Office on why average length of detention increased from 28 days to 48 days since the previous inspection in 2013.  The report states ‘(i)n the absence of such analysis, it was hard to see how detention periods could be systematically reduced and the inevitably negative outcomes for detainees mitigated’.  The inspection also found that the average cumulative length of detention was three months, which was described as ‘too long’. 

The UK remains the only country in Europe that detains migrants without a time limit.  Over the years, this policy has received severe criticism by a number of bodies, including the Shaw Review, the government’s own review of immigration detention which published in January 2016 and the cross-party Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention who produced their report in 2015.  The UK’s National Preventative Mechanism, to which the Prison Inspector belongs, also called for a time limit on immigration detention.’   

So, although I could well go on about how extremely grim if not desperate conditions have become for refugees in Greece or Croatia or Hungary, let’s briefly focus our attention on the phrase: ‘the U.K. remains the only country in Europe that detains migrants without a time limit.’ What has this to do with the spirit of the 1951 convention? All over Europe, countries which are ‘signatory’ to that convention are systematically ignoring and undermining the pledges they signed up to. The U.K. is not the worst, but it is a part of a grand alliance of countries determined to defeat the Convention’s purpose

It’s time to call, across the world, for a reaffirmation of the Refugee Charter in the light of the principles which inspired it. Come on, citizens, churches, NGOs, and shame your governments into taking up the responsibility for the world’s frightened people on the run; rather than shutting them out, locking them up and deporting them. ACT NOW!

Here is Niyat Kidane singing for Eritrean refugees at a camp in Ethiopia.


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