No human is illegal: Safety of refugees is not a moral responsibility, it’s an obligation

People hold up banners during a vigil for refugees in Nottingham, Britain, September 7, 2015. © Darren Staples
Public anger has reached a peak over the UK’s inability to deal with the refugee crisis. David Cameron has created a smokescreen around the UK government’s obligation to help refugees reach safety.

‘No human is illegal’- protest chants emanating from major UK towns and cities are part of an echo chamber spanning across Europe, with public anger at a climax people are being galvanized into action, defiant against the inaction and apparent inability of their government to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees attempting to reach the safety of European shores. They further reject the stigma that has been attached to the refugees by both the Western elite governments and the press– ‘the illegals’. As Immigration attorney Shahid Haque-Hausrath, commented on the popular use of this label ‘‘I’m not aware of any other circumstance in our common vernacular where a crime is considered to render the individual – as opposed to the individual’s actions – as being illegal. We don’t even refer to our most dangerous and vile criminals as being “illegal.”

Calls for the UK to take in more refugees intensified with the Stop the War Coalition, Amnesty International, Syria Solidarity Movement, the Refugee Council and Refugee Action, drumming up support for a large scale protest after the publication of the picture of Aylan Kurdi, drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach. It is not only this that riled up the masses, but the seemingly ubiquitous images of the endless stream of suffering refugees escaping the horrors of war and poverty that is dominating the public sphere; from Twitter and Facebook feeds to our TV sets and papers.

The hornets’ nest has well and truly been stirred and now over 420,000 Brits have called upon the government to take in more refugees. On September 14, Home Secretary Theresa May will be attending a meeting of the EU's 28 member states for emergency talks on Europe’s escalating refugee crisis. These protesters are demanding that May pas the message that the people risking all to reach British shores are not ‘illegals’, and should not suffer this stigma and that the EU’s inaction to help them will lead to many more bodies floating to the bottom of the ocean, as they state on Facebook “we can’t continue to allow thousands to die trying to reach the EU.” It is the journey they say, not the destination that is killing them.


But what of the UK government’s legal obligation to assist the refugees seeking safety? As one of the signatories of the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 protocol under the UNHCR, the government has agreed and is duty bound to the following:

•     It demonstrates its commitment to treating refugees in accordance with internationally recognized legal and humanitarian standards

•     It gives refugees a possibility to find safety;

•     It demonstrates its willingness to share the responsibility for protecting refugees; and it helps UNHCR to mobilize international support for the protection of refugees.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron © Toby Melville

UK government Smokescreen

But instead of adhering to this convention, those in the upper echelons of power have ensured that the route to their shores is impassable and nigh on-impossible.

But this hasn’t prevented the Home Office from attempting to convince the general public that they have helped the majority of refugees seeking asylum in the UK. Figures published on their website show that there is barely an issue let alone a crisis.

From January- June 2015, 87 percent of Syrian requests for asylum were granted and 4,980 Syrian asylum seekers and their dependents have been granted asylum since 2011. Another Home Office smokescreen is veiling a much greater issue. It’s true that those who successfully reach UK shores have been granted asylum, but under the 1951 convention the UK government has promised to ‘give refugees a possibility to find safety. They have obliged this with a mere 216 Syrians under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons relocation scheme- that is the number of vulnerable people they have helped to reach British shores from refugee camps.

Demands from UNHCR

Cameron has now pledged that the UK will take in an additional 20,000 Syrian refugees under the same scheme; a scheme which had proven to have little success the first time around. But they are seemingly doing this for two reasons. Firstly under their own very British scheme, Cameron can ignore the fact that not all refugees are Syrian. Designed specifically for Syrian nationals, he pays little heed to those fleeing other war ravaged countries including Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover he can ignore the calls of a fairer distribution of Syrian refugees from other schemes such as the UNHCR Gateway Protection Program. Maurice Wren, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “Today’s announcement will not, however, help those who are standing on the shores of Libya, contemplating boarding a rickety boat, in a desperate attempt to reach family members already living in safety in the UK.

This scheme was only put in to affect after the UN refugee agency the UNHCR demanded that other countries take in 130,000 Syrian refugees above and beyond their ordinary asylum intake. Additional to this more than 350,000 refugees were detected at the EU's borders in January-August 2015 and there are an expected 800,000 asylum applications in Germany this year, this is hardly a shared responsibility from the UK.

A modern farce

The UK has taken a farcical approach to dealing with this crisis. Cameron has focused his efforts on breaking the link between the British courts and the European Court of Human Rights. He also wants to scrap the Human Rights Bill and pass this instead to the British Supreme Court. Seemingly because of the row with the Home Office about the UK’s deportation of Abu Qatada and its ruling in favor of votes for prisoners. And let’s not forget his rhetoric about the ‘swarms’ of migrants.

Chancellor George Osborne was the first in the cabinet to attempt to match the noise of the protest drums to his bang of the war drums, giving the strongest signal yet that Britain will take part in military action in Syria. Osborne warned that dealing with the escalating refugee crisis meant tackling President Bashar al-Assad’s “evil” regime. His comments coincided with that of French President Francois Hollande who is considering military strikes. It seems that building fortresses and going to war is the most logical answer for those in power.

So far the answer to the moral responsibility from Theresa May has been to ensure that fewer Syrian refugees can enter the country by endorsing and paying for a Calais fortress, investing millions into building an additional two miles of fencing that they hope will effectively prevent infiltration. From the very outset May was also reticent to admit that there was a refugee crisis. Instead her focus was on driving the rhetoric of ‘illegals’ still further.

This is why working with the French government in returning illegal migrants to West Africa […] work which will take place to ensure we can return people and as we have said in the UK government, break that link to those making the perilous journey and thinking that they can settle in Europe.” It was the so-called economic migrants or ‘illegals’ she was hoping would engulf the worries of the UK population, with a ‘those people stealing our jobs’ attitude. Sadly she has now been proven wrong.

So what are we left with? Not only broken promises but a farce. A country that has signed the Bill of Rights, the Prime Minister who doesn’t only want to scrap the implementation of rights but refuses to participate in a proposed mandatory EU program to resettle migrants, claiming instead that more must be done to stabilize their countries of origin. We have a Chancellor convinced that we should bomb Syria to save Syria and finally a Home Secretary reluctant to admit that there is a refugee crisis. 420,000 have called upon the government to let in refugees. All simply want them to implement their own promise and end the stigma and shaming humans as illegal and give them the safety they most need. And finally Cameron’s statement of looking after refugees is a moral right… No Cameron. People have been protesting for as many years as refugees have been drowning - you’ve just woken from a slumber and claimed it was your idea.

Laura Burdon-Manley, RT UK Correspondent


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.