Refugee safety at risk of becoming a 'racist popularity contest', UK panel told

'Treatment of Ukrainian refugees is absolutely what we should be mirroring for other refugees,' government committee hears

Migrants are taken to Dover, Kent, on a Border Force vessel after trying to cross the English Channel on October 14. PA
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The UK government’s varying responses to refugees risk turning their safety into a “divisive, racist popularity contest”, MPs and peers have been told.

There is a “stark” disparity between how refugees are treated, with immigration policy often “drawn upon racial lines”, the joint committee on human rights heard.

The lack of functioning safe routes to seek asylum in the UK is forcing people to risk their lives, said Zehrah Hasan, advocacy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

Home Office figures show Afghans were among the top nationalities crossing the Channel this year, she said.

Ukrainian refugees — one of the only groups able to travel to the UK on a visa to seek safety — were not in the figures.

“The treatment of Ukrainian refugees is absolutely what we should be mirroring for other refugees,” Ms Hasan said.

“Everyone deserves to have a route to safety, regardless of their skin colour, or their religion.

“And this disparity that we can see between racialised refugees and white refugees is so stark and demonstrates, in our view, how often government immigration policy is drawn upon racial lines.”

Ms Hasan said resettlement programmes were important, but “no substitute for a fair and compassionate system”.

“These schemes actually see the government reinventing the wheel, with a scheme for each crisis, announcing bespoke visa routes when bombs land on Aleppo, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s forces are destroying cities across Ukraine,” she said.

“This approach risks turning refugees’ safety into a divisive, racist popularity contest … by simultaneously offering a warm welcome to Ukrainians whilst threatening those who cross the Channel, who are mostly black and brown, with deportation to a country they have no connection to.”

Ms Hasan called for more safe routes, including for a travel document granting people in northern France clearance to enter the UK to claim asylum.

This month, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said migrants crossing the Channel will face a ban from claiming asylum in Britain.

“So if you deliberately enter the United Kingdom illegally from a safe country, you should be swiftly returned to your home country or relocated to Rwanda,” Ms Braverman said.

The committee was told that people should not be penalised for how they get to the UK when safe routes have been closed off to them.

Ms Hasan said it was “really appalling to see people being punished for taking the only route that’s currently open to them”.

Jonathan Ellis, public affairs and policy strategic leader at the Refugee Council, said “the mode of transport should not be used against people”.

“This kind of discrimination, that the mode of travel will be counted against you in terms of assessing your asylum claim, I think is hugely, hugely significant," Mr Ellis said.

"There are precious few safe and legal routes … this is cutting off the route to safety for so many people."

A home office representative said: “We have welcomed hundreds of thousands of people to the UK through our global safe and legal routes, evidenced by schemes from Hong Kong and Afghanistan, as well as the two Ukrainian schemes, which show we respond flexibly and generously to crisis situations.

“In addition, more than 40,000 people have come to the UK in recent years through our refugee family reunion rules, which is available around the world.”

Updated: October 26, 2022, 9:17 PM