Not floating, drowning: the fatal consequences of migration for families left behind

by third-year student Bethany Adams

In Southern Vietnam, climate breakdown and structural issues are driving migration as well as heightening gender inequalities, and children are drowning in the midst of it all.

Every year in rainy season, after weeks of raining, the streets of Hoi An get flooded. Giving boat operators new opportunities. Photo by Toomas Tartes on Unsplash

A Google search of Southern Vietnam will tell of the vibrant floating markets tourists like you and I can visit for an unparalleled cultural encounter. But these nescient and romanticised illustrations of the Mekong delta are far from the ongoing realities of the Vietnamese people living there. These people are not floating; they’re drowning. 

What we are witnessing in Vietnam are the opening scenes of a global tragedy. There are few places in the world that are as vulnerable to climate breakdown as the low-lying delta in Southern Vietnam. Emerging through the Cambodia-Vietnam border, the verdant Mekong river is very important for the livelihoods of people who live on and around it, and it produces over 50% of the country’s staple food[1]. Flooding is usually welcome in the fertile rice paddies of the delta, but steadily rising sea levels have polluted freshwater.

With climate breakdown increasingly actualising across the world, scenes like this will only become more prevalent. The threat to people’s[2] livelihood has triggered displacement and internal migration – though people’s reasons for moving are not only due to rising seas and volatile weather.

It has become more widely appreciated[3] that people’s mobility or immobility due to environmental changes cannot be separated from their social, political and economic contexts. In other words, we cannot allow the climate-migration nexus to be politicised, as this allows institutions and corporations to get off scot-free. By ignoring the complexities surrounding people’s migration and solely blaming climate change, structural issues are ignored and thus, the root of the issue is left unresolved. In the Mekong delta, the reduction of soil fertility can be traced to the construction of an upstream dam[4] which has impacted the movement of sediment, ultimately leading to lower yields for farmers[5]. Clearly, decisions are being made from the top down which are inadvertently triggering economic migration of people in the delta, but because corporates pin the blame on the ominous ‘climate change’, they get away with destructive activities. With this in mind, we can say that climatic changes are not the root cause, but are exacerbating existing trends[6] of internal economic migration. So, who wins and who loses? In what ways are farmers forced to migrate?

Repeated flooding, varying rain patterns and continued crop loss are adding pressure to already economically constrained families thus causing people to migrate from the Mekong delta[7]. There are around 5000 seasonal migrants[8] from the delta who most commonly go to the nearest city of Ho Chi Minh. Money is remitted to allow families at home to secure food in flood season[9]. While migration is viewed as preferable, moving to the city requires a certain economic and social prowess, so it isn’t accessible for all. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ives-ives-eEjJphHZgAA-unsplash-1024x768.jpg
Traditional women workers in Vietnam. Photo by Ives Ives on Unsplash

Poor communities in the Northern villages have the least resources to migrate so are often described as the trapped population3. Women can also be considered a trapped population for whom migration makes their situation worse. As men are viewed as breadwinners[10] in this region, they are chosen to migrate with the aim of remitting capital to their family left behind. The de facto head of the house are then women who are left to manage the farm on top of their household responsibilities10

Some believe10 that the absence of men makes gender roles more fluid as women are able to take on managerial roles in the agriculture sector from which they would be otherwise excluded. However, while these women are empowered to make more decisions, structural issues persist which limit them. Because of their gender, women are unable to access resources like seeds or fertiliser from the government10. Also, because unequal gender relations are structurally embedded, women don’t have the same access[11] to education as men and boys. Consequently, when they are dumped with the additional responsibilities of farm management, they are ill-equipped to take on managerial roles[12].

The other disregarded impact of male out-migration is the psychological and emotional toll on women left behind. In a series of interviews, women said they felt abandoned and found it difficult to discipline their children10. In fact:

“During interviews, female respondents broke into tears when revealing their personal problems”10

Therefore, it can hardly be said male out-migration is improving women’s lives in the delta. In these mothers’ daily struggles for survival, children are also affected. As women have to fish and work the paddy fields often, they have to leave their children unsupervised10. This is by no fault of their own. It is clear that interlocking structural issues force mothers to make this decision in order to provide for their family. But the impact on these children is fatal, they are drowning[13]. Three months ago, five children drowned in a pond in the delta[14].

Drowning isn’t uncommon, the World Health Organisation estimates[15]between 7,000 and 11,000 children drown in Vietnam every year. This is the fatal impact of intersecting climate, migration and gendered issues.

Ms. Bông who lives in Ngo Hien district of the Mekong Delta, seen collecting her fishing net from the mangrove swamp along the road. Photo from eco-business.com

Overall, male seasonal migration doesn’t empower women because many structural gender inequalities are still unaddressed and their lives are made more difficult. Ultimately, migration has fatal consequences for children, which will only increase as climate change intensifies other factors and causes more men to migrate.

Hence – not floating, drowning. With climatic changes multiplying a range of structural inequalities, women are struggling to stay afloat, juggling their many responsibilities, and children are literally drowning. We must choose to tackle structural issues at every level to stop this fatal cycle.


References

[1] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1468-2435.2010.00646.x?saml_rFfloaeferrer

[2] https://theconversation.com/climate-change-is-triggering-a-migrant-crisis-in-vietnam-88791

[3] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0309132518781011

[4] https://theconversation.com/climate-change-is-triggering-a-migrant-crisis-in-vietnam-88791

[5] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-016-1684-3

[6] https://academic.oup.com/rsq/article/30/3/1/1566102

[7] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1468-2435.2010.00646.x?saml_rFfloaeferrer

[8] https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/26269346.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_SYC-5187_SYC5188%252Ftest&refreqid=excelsior%3Afc3d63c62a01bbe6e284e2dae5e5d948

[9] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21632324.2015.1022973

[10] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1177/097185241001300201

[11] http://www.thanhniennews.com/education-youth/in-the-mekong-delta-poorest-homes-education-takes-a-back-seat-54242.html

[12] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1758-5899.12400 

[13] https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/26269346.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_SYC-5187_SYC5188%252Ftest&refreqid=excelsior%3Afc3d63c62a01bbe6e284e2dae5e5d948

[14] https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/five-children-drown-in-mekong-delta-pond-4161190.html

[15] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-22/perth-swimming-teachers-tackle-vietnamese-drowning/7422714

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Who are the ‘most marginalised’ and do the Sustainable Development Goals serve them?

by Communications Manager Sunit Bagree

Our Inclusive Urban Infrastructure action research project is concerned with how the provision of water, sanitation, energy, transport and communications infrastructure impacts upon security of tenure in cities in the Global South. Infrastructure development can not only benefit or bypass people in terms of access to public services, it can reduce or increase their vulnerability to forced eviction, harassment and other threats.

Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The official title of this project is ‘Towards Trajectories of Inclusion: Making infrastructure work for the most marginalised’. But who are the ‘most marginalised’? In this context, many would point to people living in informal settlements, as they often lack access to public services and security of tenure. Yet it is important to recognise that informal settlements are diverse and complex.

Marginalisation has been conceptualised in many different ways. A useful starting point is to think of marginalisation as both a process and a condition that causes individuals and groups to be excluded from the benefits of economic, social and political life in ways that can vary across time and place. Examining these spheres of exclusion in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlights some of the deficiencies of the Global Goals.

In the economic sphere, SDG Target 1.1 relates to income poverty, with the international line set by the World Bank at US$1.90 per person per day (at purchasing power parity). The US$1.90 line may help us to understand who are the most marginalised in terms of income poverty. Yet this should not obscure the reality that US$1.90 a day is a ridiculously low threshold. The World Bank partly acknowledged this in 2018 when it began to report on US$3.20 and US$5.50 per day income poverty lines. But many economists have called for an even higher international income poverty line, with studies in recent years demonstrating that U$10-11 per day is associated with access to basic healthcare and a permanent escape from income poverty.

Inhabitants of Plachimada protest outside the Coca-Cola factory in their village. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NL

As Jason Hickel has argued, using a more ethical income poverty line disrupts the (pre-Covid) narrative that humanity is winning the battle against income poverty, and should refocus our attention on how the overwhelming majority of new income since 1980 has been captured by those already on high incomes – something the SDGs also fail to do. Furthermore, the SDGs ignore the (ir)regularity of income, as well as other crucial economic concepts such as wealth, which are essential for a comprehensive understanding of economic marginalisation. 

In the social sphere, the SDGs adopt a haphazard approach to exclusion on the basis of identity. People with disabilities, for example, are explicitly referred to in just seven of the 169 targets and 11 of the 231 unique indicators. Although the United Nations (UN) aspires to do far more to disaggregate data by disability, it is unclear when this will actually happen. Moreover, sexual and gender minorities are one of the most prominent groups that are completely excluded from the SDGs. The UN has a campaign for equal rights and fair treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, but this is separate from the SDGs.

Of course, members of groups who endure identity-based exclusion have diverse experiences. As a whole, however, these groups face disproportionate levels of marginalisation. Engaging with intersectionality, i.e. how people experience discrimination differently depending on their overlapping identities, provides a powerful approach to understanding who are the most socially marginalised, including in relation to urban infrastructure. Unfortunately, the SDGs’ highly uneven approach to identity-based exclusion is not conducive to a comprehensive intersectional analysis and response.

Recognising that both economic and social exclusion derive from unequal power relationships gives rise to deeper insights into the nature of marginalisation. For example, economic marginalisation does not mean ‘uninvolved’. As Janice Perlman highlighted in the 1970s, and adverse incorporation theorists have subsequently developed, the issue is that some people are engaged in economic activity on unfair terms. Similarly, as our previous research demonstrated, and as other recent research discusses, some social groups may actively avoid being counted. This is because they fear persecution if they are identified.

Thus marginalisation is fundamentally political, with the most economically and socially marginalised possessing the least influence over decision-making. Unfortunately, the SDGs are also weak when it comes to tackling political exclusion.

SDG 16 is concerned with institutions and decision-making (among other issues) yet it does not refer to democratic political processes. Critics argue that ‘since the SDGs do not require political reform, they are a big hit with wannabe life presidents, despots and one-party states’. There are also more technical problems with SDG 16. The targets and indicators that do exist suffer from ambiguity and there is a lack of innovation to address the challenge of unavailable data.

The SDGs are not worthless. But the ‘leave no one behind’ promise underpinning the Global Goals can represent empty words for the most economically, socially and politically marginalised.  An approach based on human rights (including the right to adequate housing, which incorporates security of tenure and access to infrastructure), radical equality and participatory democracy offers a better route to understanding and responding to marginalisation. This includes how different forms of exclusion overlap and reinforce one another, creating the most severe forms of marginalisation.  

In regard to urban areas, the idea of a ‘right to the city’ can be said to incorporate the principles underpinning such an approach. In my view, the ‘right to the city’ is most useful as a rallying call for organised and networked solidarity against oppression and for empowerment. Through this, a more holistic understanding of marginalisation, including cultural and subjective dimensions of exclusion, may be generated. That sounds a lot like action research to me!

Sunit Bagree is Communications Manager for Inclusive Urban Infrastructure, a project funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund under the title ‘Towards Trajectories of Inclusion: Making infrastructure work for the most marginalised’ (grant reference number ES/T008067/1). For more information visit www.inclusiveinfrastructure.org.

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The Youth Vote UK: Empowering our voices

by Politics and International Relations student Alette Moller

We don’t need to look far to see that youth voices in the political process need strengthening. In the 2016 EU referendum, a ‘majority of 18-34 year olds’ voted to remain, while a ‘majority of those ages 55+’ voted to leave. Young people turned out in the lowest numbers, something not uncommon in the UK, and the verdict to leave the EU will have significant consequences for the future. We need a louder collective voice in decisions that affect us.

I joined The Youth Vote UK with the conviction that we, young people, are the future of politics, and our involvement in the political process is key to democracy. The Youth Vote UK, as an organisation committed to empowering the voices of young people, believes that the first step to getting young people more involved in politics is ‘getting them into polling stations’.

Youth Vote UK campaign in Edinburgh to encourage young people to vote

Background

The Youth Vote UK was originally founded in 2017 by Alex Cairns, and was rebooted in 2020. Recognising that 18-24 year olds typically turnout to vote in lower numbers than those in higher age categories, the organisation aims to encourage greater youth involvement in the democratic process. Their approach involves organising campaigns and events prior to local and regional elections, as well as posting blogs on election candidates and outcomes. The blog also includes opinion pieces, such as on the health of our democracy and the future of financial services.

Leadership and structure

The CEO and founder of the organisation is Alex Cairns, and the core team is comprised of 10 people, including the Deputy CEO Fareez Faiz as well as Heads of Functions and Associates. There are 26 Campus Ambassadors connecting the organisation to universities across the UK. I joined The Youth Vote UK as a Campus Ambassador for the University of Sussex. As part of the Policy and News Analysis team, I have been able to write about issues that I care about, such as the influence of fake news on democracy and have also written about election candidates and political parties hoping to help inform young people.

Encouraging young people to vote in the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections

Influence

The Youth Vote UK has been able to connect with political figures such as Members of Parliament to get the voices of young people heard. For example, in April of 2021 The Youth Vote UK organised a ‘Question Time’, which allowed young people to raise questions and issues important to them with MPs and MSPs, as well as with academics. For example, matters relevant to tuition fees and future employment prospects of under-25s were discussed in the session. The organisation is active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, and has over 1,800 followers across its social media platforms. Their goal is to advertise their voluntary projects and inspire greater engagement in the political process.

As Marian Wright Edelman said, ‘Democracy is not a spectator sport’. So, the more politically active young people are, the bigger of a difference we can make.

Keeping up with the political scene

Keeping informed on political matters means that we can participate effectively, from signing petitions to voting in elections. There are many ways to accomplish this, however, it is good to know what to avoid and what to look for. According to research done in 2020, over a third of Americans use Facebook as a ‘regular source of news’. Yet, Facebook uses your ‘profile and previous behaviours’ to personalise your feed. This means that the platform is unlikely to deliver content that is balanced, or challenges your views. Therefore, social media can be a starting point for finding political information, but using it as a sole source should be avoided. Instead, reading across a range of news outlets allows you to access a wider variety of information. News apps such as BBC News and the Guardian send notifications to your phone, so you can compare headlines and keep up to date. Additionally, politically neutral blogs such as those posted by The Youth Vote UK provide summaries of manifestos in the run up to local and national elections. Yuval Noah Harari asserts that ‘clarity is power’. Remaining accurately informed brings us closer to democracy.


You can follow The Youth Vote UK on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or TikTok to get information on election candidates, results and more. You can find out more about The Youth Vote UK by visiting https://www.theyouthvoteuk.com.

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How Qatar ‘sports-washed’ its global image

by MA International Relations student Matthew Dare

In this blog post, I will discuss the questionable means through which Qatar altered global perceptions, and the global impact on the future of the sports industry.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar promises to be a sporting experience like no other. Awarded under suspicious circumstances by disgraced former FIFA President Sepp Blatter in 2010, its build-up has been less than smooth. Such is the Middle East’s incompatibility with elite sports that the tournament has been delayed until the winter for player welfare marking a significant break with tradition. The state has also faced criticism for its deployment of slaves and reliance on migrant workers. Despite this, Qatar remains undeterred in its quest to deliver the 2022 World Cup. This blog explores why that is and how it is endemic of Qatar’s foreign policy mission to rebrand and establish itself as a global superpower.

What is sports-washing?

‘A process where states attempt to improve their image through involvement in the world of sport’. Here the iconic image and global brand power of sporting clubs, nations, and competitions are hijacked to whitewash against a state’s existing poor image. This is problematic as it creates sinister ulterior motives for sport’s governing bodies. Deciding where to host a competition is no longer about who can promise the best tournament. Instead, it involves decisions on ethics and rights. Furthermore, these decisions often involve a great deal of corruption calling their legitimacy into question. In the case of football, the true nature of the ‘beautiful game’ must be called into question. Manchester City have managed to reach the summit European football with the help and finance of the Abu Dhabi United Group led by the Abu Dhabi royal family. This partnership has been mutually beneficial. Manchester City have achieved a decade of footballing success and have seen significant investment in the blue half of Manchester.

Meanwhile Abu Dhabi have achieved great exposure, managing to market the country and its assets and detract from its history of inequality and oppression. Manchester City’s rise has come from ‘dirty money’ and their successes should be questioned. This provides a stain on the nature of football as a fair and equal sporting contest. Sports-washing is therefore something to be concerned about. Sport cannot be a vehicle through which states hide their oppressive nature. Authorities should do their utmost to limit its impacts and prevent this from happening in the future.

Why are Qatar so involved in Western sporting practices?

Qatar is a state of immense wealth backed by the world’s third-largest natural gas and oil reserves. It boasts immense futuristic cities in the middle of some of the world’s harshest deserts such as its capital Doha. The UN classifies it as a country of ‘very high human development’ with an impressive HDI score. It also financed oppressed and minority groups during the Arab spring. Despite this, Qatar’s international standing is less than favourable.

The gulf state’s dramatic rise came at the cost of its migrant work force. It’s believed 90% of its workers are migrants, most of which are slaves. They come from countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh in efforts to escape poverty yet are subject to great exploitation. Qatar has since been found guilty of mass human rights abuses. They also have great gender inequality.

Women are subject to oppression and censorship on almost all matters. They are restricted by ‘male guardianship laws’ and punishments are often fatal. Access to health care and education are also limited and, in some cases, prohibited. This is frowned on by Western culture which has condemned Qatar and distanced itself from their regime.

Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup and 2030 Asian games are attempts to distract from this. Through hosting the World Cup, Qatar will become a global hub for the world’s biggest sporting tournament. It will attract thousands of fans, tourists and journalists and provide a significant economic boost. Hence, it is a prime opportunity for Qatar to market itself to the West. This would complete Qatar’s transition to a global superpower within the international community.

How successful will this approach be?

This is a risky strategy. Many poorly organised or unsuccessful global events have left host countries in difficult positions. The 1976 Olympics left Montreal in great financial ruin that outlived any beneficial legacy of the games. In truth however, Qatar’s sports-washing agenda is already working. The state has been subject to global exposure for a decade before the tournament has even begun. In this time its image has begun to change with more and more people associating the gulf state with the football rather than its human rights records. It’s benefited from lucrative sponsorship deals with FIFA and UEFA and has seen successful ‘feeder events’ such as the FIFA Club World Cup in 2019 and 2020.


References

Figures

[1] Euronews, 2018, Russia hands over World Cup mantle to Qatar, Euronews. Available from: https://www.euronews.com/2018/07/15/russia-hands-over-world-cup-mantle-to-qatar Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[2] FIFA.COM, 2021, Education City Stadium, Qatar, FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Available from: https://www.fifa.com/worldcup/photos/galleries/education-city-stadium-qatar#education-city-stadium-qatar-x3153 Accessed: 18/06/2021.

Hyperlinks

[1] Laughland O, 2017, FIFA Official took bribes to back Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid, court hears, The Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/nov/14/fifa-bribery-corruption-trial-qatar-2022-world-cup Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[2] BBC Sport, 2013, World Cup 2022: FIFA taskforce to seek new dates for Tournaments, BBC Sport Football, Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/24401699 Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[3] Ganji S K, 2018, Leveraging the World Cup: Mega Sporting Events, Human Rights Risk, and Worker Welfare Reform in Qatar, Journal on Migration and Human Security, Vol 4, Issue 4, p. 221-259.

[4] Zidan K, 2019, Sportswashing: how Saudi Arabia lobbies the US’s largest sports bodies, The Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/sep/02/sportswashing-saudi-arabia-sports-mohammed-bin-salman Accessed: 18/06/2021

[5] Conway R, 2014, FIFA Corruption Report: Who is to blame and what happens now? BBC Sport, Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/30042309 Accessed: 18/06/2021.   

[6] Doward J, 2018, Amnesty criticise Manchester City over ‘Sportswashing’, The Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2018/nov/11/manchester-city-owners-accused-sportswashing-gulf-image Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[7] Hattenstone S, 2018, The UAE is trampling human rights, Man City must finally speak out, The Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/23/uae-human-rights-man-city-jailing-british-academic Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[8] Jacobs H, 2015, How Qatar got so rich so fast, Business Insider, Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/how-qatar-got-so-rich-so-fast-2015-5?r=US&IR=T Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[9] UN, 2021, Human Development Report, United Nations Development Programme, Available from: http://www.hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/QAT Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[10] Pattisson P, 2013, Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup ‘Slaves’, Modern day slavery in focus, the Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/25/revealed-qatars-world-cup-slaves Accessed: 18/06/2021.

[11] Grant H, 2021, ‘We’re treated as children’, Qatari women tell rights group, Rights and Freedom: Women’s rights and gender equality, The Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/mar/29/were-treated-as-children-qatari-women-tell-rights-group Accessed: 18/06/2021.

 [12] Chalkey B, Essex S, 1999, Urban Development through hosting international events: a history of the Olympic games, Planning Perspectives, Vol 14, Issue 4, p. 369-394.

[13] Essex S, Chalkey B, 1999, Olympic Locations and Legacies: A study in Geography and Tourism, Pacific Tourism Review, Vol 3, Issue 1, p. 3-4.

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The UK government’s ‘new plan for immigration’ creates an unethical two-tier system of protection for asylum seekers

by Ceri Oeppen, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, Sussex Centre for Migration Research

In today’s Queen’s Speech to Parliament, the UK Government lays out their agenda for the coming year.  One of those agenda items is their ‘New Plan for Immigration’. 

The speech will likely make much of the Plan’s stated aims to ‘promote legal pathways to protection’ and ‘protect UK borders’, but in reality, the Plan is full of discriminatory proposals that are highly unethical, and, I predict, will be subject to legal challenge.

The Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament, 2017. Photography by Roger Harris.

The Government’s ‘New Plan for Immigration Policy Statement’ sets out their plans, and was subject to a public consultation, which closed just three working days ago*.  We, at the at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR), responded to this consultation in detail, in discussion with community partner Sanctuary on Sea, who also responded, because we are so concerned at the New Plan’s content.

We are not the only ones worried.  The UN Refugee Agency wrote a 35-page document covering their observations (the summary is here), concluding that “many aspects of the Plan do not respect fundamental principles of refugee law” (pg. 34).  Countless other refugee, migrant and asylum seeker rights groups, and migration studies academics have also expressed distress at the New Plan’s content. 

So, what are we so worried about?

Whilst the Plan proposes a number of changes to British immigration policy, most worryingly, it shows the government aims to penalise those refugees who arrive in the UK through irregular means (e.g. with smugglers) rather than recognising that, for many people from conflict-torn countries, this is the only possible way to enter the UK.  This is unethical, and in contravention of a good faith interpretation of the UN’s Refugee Convention (signed and ratified by the UK in 1951), making it potentially illegal too.

According to the Refugee Convention, asylum seekers should not be penalised based on their manner of arrival, and those recognised as refugees should receive the same rights and support as citizens during their stay. 

The UK Government’s New Plan for Immigration proposes lesser support, rights and protection to those who arrive in the UK via irregular means (i.e. smuggled into the UK), versus those who arrive through formal resettlement or family reunification. 

This will create a two-tier system, reifying the image of the ‘good refugee’ (one of the tiny minority who arrive through resettlement – 5,610 in 2019) vs. the ‘bad’ (those who through lack of other options arrive in the UK via the use of people smugglers). 

Whilst the New Plan claims that they aim to “break the business model of the people smugglers”, it is clear from countless first person, academic and journalist accounts that it precisely the existence of border controls, border policing and the lack of safe, regularised, routes that drives the business model of people smugglers.  They are the only option for all but the 0.5% of global refugees who are resettled from refugee settlements in lower/middle-income countries to higher-income countries. 

If you live in a country like Afghanistan, Syria or Somalia, or you’re ‘stranded’ in a detention centre in Libya or a refugee camp in Greece, you cannot just apply for asylum in the UK, even if you speak English and have family or others to support you in the UK.  You can only apply for asylum on arrival in the UK, and as you will not be granted an entry visa (precisely because you come from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria etc), your only option is to arrive through irregular means.  The more aggressively borders are enforced, the more likely you are to need the help of smugglers to enter the UK in order to exercise your right to claim asylum, despite the risks both financially and in terms of physical safety. The New Plan for Immigration proposes to penalise those who arrive in this manner, even if their asylum claim is accepted and their status determined as a refugee, by providing only temporary protection, and reduced access to other rights and support. This is in contravention of the Refugee Convention.

There are other issues with the New Plan: it does nothing to address the issues we see faced by those in the asylum system (destitution, a culture of disbelief, hostile environment, unsafe/unsanitary accommodation, serious damage to health and mental well-being), makes ample use of xenophobic divisive language, and conflates terms (asylum seeker, refugee, illegal immigrant, foreign national offender).  It also states aims to amend previous immigration acts, in order to enable the possibility of future ‘offshore’ asylum processing and accommodation.  Much like the extensively-criticised Sewell Report on race, the policy statement about the New Plan makes virtually no use of academic, or other independent research evidence about the impacts and feasibility of immigration policy, and fails to build on best practice advice from international bodies like the UN.

The vast majority of refugees remain in their country and region of origin.  If the UK government wants to live up to its aspirational image of ‘Global Britain’, the least it can do is support and protect those people who do arrive in the UK and claim asylum, no matter the manner of their arrival, and do so in line with the international standards of protection for refugees that the UK helped draft in the 1951 Refugee Convention.      

Adapted Image: Refugees on a boat, Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe, 2016. Overlaid with an excerpt from ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire.

*The consultation process itself has also been widely criticised, not least for closing just days before the Queen’s Speech, but also for not allowing enough response time, for pushing respondents to an unwieldy, unfriendly, internet platform, for asking (mis)leading questions and not enabling responses from those most affected (i.e. migrants, asylum seekers and refugees).

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