Britain should not turn its back on refugees

On the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, Britain is pushing an anti-refugee agenda.

A protester holds on to the railings outside the Houses of Parliament during a demonstration to express solidarity with migrants and to demand the government welcome refugees into Britain, in London, September 12, 2015 [File: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters]
A protester holds on to the railings outside the Houses of Parliament during a demonstration to express solidarity with migrants and to demand the government welcome refugees into Britain, in London, September 12, 2015 [File: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters]

This week, we mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Refugee Convention, put in place in response to the appalling failures during the Holocaust. It is a source of great sadness for me that Britain, the country that gave me sanctuary and which has honoured me in different ways, now wants to turn its back on everything that the convention stands for.

When you are fleeing war or violence, you do not stop running until you feel safe. Two decades ago, I fled to Britain from war-torn Afghanistan. Having spent most of my childhood hiding from rockets and weathering the inhumane conditions of refugee camps where I survived tuberculosis, I arrived in the United Kingdom as a traumatised 15-year-old. Separated from family, I had little formal education and a total of $100 to my name.

In a place of safety, I was able to rebuild my life. I was proud to be honoured for my achievements in healthcare and innovation both by Priti Patel, now Britain’s home secretary, and by the then prime minister, Theresa May. And yet: the British government today is closing the doors to others like me, with their own hopes and dreams, with its proposed Nationality and Borders Bill.

This anti-refugee bill proposes to create a two-tier asylum system. A person fleeing war or persecution will be criminalised or jailed if their journey was not pre-authorised – thus destroying the very rationale of the convention, which deliberately emphasises not the question of how they arrived in the country but why they were forced to flee their home in the first place.

Under this proposed legislation, I would not have been given the chance to learn English, study medicine at Cambridge University, and become a doctor fighting coronavirus in the UK. If I were fleeing for my life today, I would be denied an asylum hearing and summarily deported.

Most people fleeing war or persecution do not have the “luxury” of accessing pre-authorisation, desirable though that may be. Back in Afghanistan, there was no “legal” escape route available to me or other civilians caught in midst of gunfire and shelling. And this is also the case now for the 1 percent of the world’s population that has been forcibly displaced because of conflicts – a minuscule proportion of whom end up on the UK’s shores.

The Refugee Convention, which Britain contributed to after the horrors of World War II, could not be clearer: the right to seek asylum is universal, regardless of how refugees reach your shores. Governments may not impose penalties based on the method of arrival if they can “show good cause”. By focusing on “how” vulnerable people are entering the UK, over a principled duty to protect them, Britain threatens to breach its own international commitments and turn its back on people who need it the most.

The other threat this bill poses is an existential one. Anti-foreigner and anti-refugee sentiments have been creeping into UK politics; a departure from the kindness and compassion that was shown to me by the British government and people in past decades. The heartbreaking images of desperate people coming across the English Channel in small boats have been presented to our nation as a “refugee crisis”. Yet, the UN refugee agency recorded that in 2020, the UK received just below a third as many asylum applications as Germany and about two-fifths the number as France.

As American troops withdraw from Afghanistan and my friends and family back home endure escalating violence, I cannot help but feel history is repeating itself. Except, I fear that the people looking to Britain for safety will be denied it in the most ruthless way.

Refugees have long been part of the fabric of Britain. They have enriched our health and education system, as well as our culture and community. Not long after I qualified, I set up Arian Teleheal, a charity that uses technology to connect doctors in war zones with low resources to clinicians in the UK National Health Service to exchange medical expertise. In many ways, it personified the “global Britain” that we were promised after Brexit. It made one thing clear – diversity of experience and knowledge benefits everyone – and in many cases, saves lives.

The 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention should serve to remind Britain of its proud history of offering protection to people like me. It must now step up and play its part in an increasingly dangerous world. The way we treat people is emblematic of the country we wish to be. On this anniversary, the message to the British government must be clear: give us a compassionate and fair approach to asylum – one that global Britain deserves.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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