The Ongoing International Refugee Crisis
Written by Nafeesa Zaman
In August last year, ten refugees on a cramped dinghy attempted to cross the English Channel. Their journey was captured by Ali Fortescue, a Sky News reporter, after following the BBC’s lead with a live report. The scene caused outrage and was criticised for being “voyeuristic and distasteful”.
The ten migrants are not alone in making this life-threatening journey. In 2020, more than 8,400 migrants and refugees crossed the English Channel to the UK, quadruple the number in 2019.
With no official documentation and little money, using airports or ferries to travel safely are out of the question. Refugees across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa embark on life-threatening trips across Europe in hopes of a better life. Often, migrants and refugees’ resort to desperate measures to cross the English Channel, frequently using unseaworthy transport, including kayaks and dinghies, or even paddling pools.
The impact of Covid-19
While the Covid-19 pandemic has dominated countries’ news agenda since March last year, it is vital to remember the plight of refugees. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees are far more vulnerable to Covid-19 due to their lack of access to water, sanitation systems, and health facilities. While those living in refugee camps face an even higher risk of catching the virus due to overcrowding. The NGO, International Rescue Committee stated refugees in camps in Syria, Greece & Bangladesh face a heightened risk of coronavirus due to living in more densely populated conditions than the Diamond Princess – the cruise ship where transmission of the virus was four times faster than Wuhan.
For refugees successfully reaching the UK, those placed in detention centres as they await their application outcome face overcrowded conditions. Last month a coronavirus outbreak was reported at a Kent refugee site that houses 400 residents.
Clare Mosely, founder of the charity Care4Calais, whose volunteers help men inside the site, told the Guardian: “Many questions have been raised over the suitability of this type of accommodation, particularly under Covid-19, and the severity of this outbreak appears to validate those concerns…The Home Office has a responsibility to house people fleeing wars, torture and persecution in a safe environment. After all they have been through, the one thing they desperately need is to feel safe.”
Stricter Government Legislation
Some may criticize the UK government’s response to migration control for becoming far stricter in recent years. In 2012, Theresa May, former Prime Minister first spoke about creating a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants. When questioned about why annual net migration was at 250,000 rather than the promised tens of thousands, she said: “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”.
This increasingly authoritarian immigration policy has been echoed by the current UK cabinet. At the Conservative party virtual conference, Priti Patel, Home Secretary described the asylum system in the UK as ‘fundamentally broken’ and vowed to create a new ‘firm and fair’ UK asylum system.
Following this, in November last year, UK and French authorities signed a deal to make channel migrant crossings ‘unviable’. The deal headed by Priti Patel and Minister of the Interior of France Gérald Darmanin, agreed to double the number of French police patrolling the coastline targeted by smuggling networks and increase the level of surveillance technology. The move was criticised by Amnesty International UK, who stated it was “profoundly disappointing”.
Despite these stricter legislations, European Union asylum applications fell to an eight-year low in 2020 – their lowest level since 2013. As a result of the Covid-19 travel restrictions, requests fell by 31% in 2020.
What does this mean for the future?
Last month, UNHCR warned those seeking asylum are ‘under attack’ at Europe’s borders and urged an end to pushbacks and violence against refugees.
UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs said: “The pushbacks are carried out in a violent and apparently systematic way. Boats carrying refugees are being towed back. People are being rounded-up after they land and then pushed back to sea. Many have reported violence and abuse by state forces.”
“The right to seek asylum is a fundamental human right. The Covid-19 pandemic provides no exception; it is possible to protect against the pandemic and to ensure access to fair and speedy asylum processes.”
For refugees, the pandemic has only further exposed their vulnerability in the UK asylum system. Creating a ‘hostile environment’ for an already marginalized community contributes to their suffering and dehumanization. Whilst the UK government have a legitimate right to manage their borders, they must also respect human rights. Respecting human lives is not a choice, it is a legal and moral obligation.
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