Seven things the government did in 2016 to devastate the lives of migrants and refugees
02 December 2016
If there is one issue that defines 2016, it is the issue of immigration. This has been the year of the anti-migrant headline. We’ve been warned of “migrant invasions” and even been told that migrants are to blame for the country’s housing crisis. It has been the year in which a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU was turned into an ugly fight about UK border controls, epitomised by that UKIP poster, and a government that refuses to give any assurances to the 3 million EU nationals currently in the UK about their future ability to remain. It has also been the year that has witnessed a tragic two-fold increase in anti-migrant hate crimes, leading many to raise alarm bells about a pending rise in the racist far right. Feeding in to this anti-migrant frenzy has been a year of some of the most draconian policy decisions from the UK government, here's a snapshot.
1. Agreed to send more refugees back to Afghanistan
2016 is set to be the most dangerous year on record for civilians in Afghanistan.* Latest UN figures show a steady increase in civilian casualties, with child casualties witnessing the highest rate of increase, up 18% from last year. With total disregard for these figures, and with little fanfare or media interest, in October the UK, along with its EU counterparts, brokered a deal with the Afghan government to send unlimited numbers of refugees fleeing Afghanistan’s on-going conflict back to the country. Under the Joint Way Forward deal, refugees can now be forcibly returned to Afghanistan. Forcing people back to a country they fled for their lives is not only the highest degree of inhumane policy making, but the deal also exposes the double standard given to the value placed on human life, based entirely on what passport one holds. While the UK is happy to send back Afghanis, it maintains the country is far too dangerous for its own citizens; the FCO currently advises “against all or all but essential travel” to Afghanistan.
2. Signed a deadly deal with Turkey
The UK's part in the deal cooked up between Turkey and the EU in March is probably the deadliest of the government's decisions this year. In an attempt to reduce the number of people travelling from Turkey to Greece, EU governments set aside their duties under international refugee law and made a deal with the Turkish government to send migrants back to Turkey. The closing of this route has not deterred the thousands of people trying to reach safety in Europe, it has only forced them to take a far more dangerous route across the Mediterranean to reach Italy instead. This has resulted in what is now the deadliest year ever for migrants in the Mediterranean. 4,663 people have already died in 2016 as of November, up from 3,771 in 2015. The tragic increase in deaths in the Mediterranean is a result of government policy and was entirely avoidable. Since the deal was first proposed many have warned of its dangers. The medical organisation MSF was so outraged they rejected tens of millions of EU funding. These criticisms were ignored and Europe’s decision makers have ploughed on with this deadly deal and callously watched thousands of human lives unnecessarily perish at sea.
3. Sent military ships to the Mediterranean
With the Mediterranean providing the stage for such a tragic crisis, one could have expected a humanitarian response from our government, sending life boats perhaps. Instead the UK sent the military. As part of a Europe-wide plan called Operation Sophia, in September the UK sent its second Navy ship to the seas near Libya with the intention of bringing down a supposed vast network of criminal smugglers, with the primary tactic of destroying their boats. A House of Lords report into Operation Sophia found that the project was ultimately unsuccessful as it had made migrants’ journeys more dangerous as smugglers shifted to using rubber dinghies as the more expensive wooden boats represented a “significant financial loss” when destroyed. The operation was also criticised for only tackling low-level smugglers. According to findings from a new MEDMIG project, however, shows that the focus of European governments on tackling smugglers may be totally flawed as the large criminal networks they are targeting may not even exist. The report shows that most smugglers are found through migrants’ own social networks and communities. In any case, if the UK was genuine about wanting to stop smugglers then they would stop pursuing policies that effectively close borders and leave migrants with little option but to be smuggled across.
4. Extended the 'Great Wall of Calais'
Faced with a growing population of people in Calais trying to reach the UK, the government responded with a £17 million package to prevent them making it across the Channel. Money that could have been used to help house people for example, was instead spent on making their lives even more precarious and their journeys even more dangerous. This package included £1.9m to extend the 4m high, 1km long wall at the Calais port. The construction contract for which was awarded to the private multinational company Vinci, further boosting the profits of Europe's private border security industry, now estimated to be worth a whopping €15billion.
5. Assisted in sending refugees from Dadaab back to Somalia
Outside of Europe, the UK helped spread its novel approach of responding to refugees by sending them back to the very country they fled from. In her maiden speech to the United Nations, Theresa May declared the UK's commitment to assist in returning Somali refugees from the world's largest refugee camp in Kenya. She promised "£20m from the aid budget to encourage refugees who fled the country to return home from the Dadaab camp." Plans to return refugees to Somalia are highly controversial given that it is one of the most politically unstable countries in the world, and so dangerous that the UK government advise all British nationals to leave the country. And claims that the return of refugees from Dadaab is entirely voluntary has been debunked by aid agencies who point out that people living there have little choice given the Kenyan government's plans to close the camp in a matter of months. A move, incidentally, that was inspired by Europe's approach to refugees.
6. Locked up more migrants than ever before
For any migrants who actually managed to make it to the UK in 2016, thousands of them found themselves locked up. The UK system of immigration detention means innocent people are put behind bars for doing nothing more than having crossed a border. This year, more people than ever before entered the immigration detention system in the UK. Latest figures to March 2016 show an all time high of 32,163 entering the system. Unlike a prison sentence where people know their release date, people in immigration detention are held indefinitely. Only 63% are released in less than 29 days, the rest can find themselves locked up for months or even years.
7. Introduced new hostile anti-migrant legislation
In order to make it crystal clear that the current UK government wants to make life as difficult as possible for migrants in the UK, they introduced the Immigration Act 2016. The Bill criminalises migrants in more ways than ever before. People can now have their driving licences seized as it becomes a criminal offence to drive while unlawfully in the country, and they can also have their bank accounts frozen. The Bill also makes it harder for people to have secure homes as landlords face being locked up for up to five years if they’re found renting to anybody without the correct immigration status. And it’s not just landlords who are being turned into immigration officers, recent policy proposals suggest that the Home Office also wants teachers and health care professionals to begin checking on pupils and patients immigration status. By turning all of us in to immigration officers in this way, the government is ensuring that the UK will become an ever more hostile place for migrants.
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*UNAMA began systematic record keeping in 2009