Starkly different views on welcoming refugees divide Britain’s main parties

A refugee family at an integration centre in Scotland. Jane Barlow/PA Archive

A key principle of humanitarianism is that “human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found” and particular attention paid to the most vulnerable. The principle that the “dignity and rights of all victims must be respected and protected” is reflected in the 1951 Refugee Convention and in the European Qualification Directive – both of which the UK has signed.

There is a clear responsibility on all countries towards those affected and displaced by conflict, war and terror. So what do Britain’s main political parties say about how they will meet the UK’s moral and international legal obligations to refugees?

The principal message of the Conservative party manifesto is clear: we don’t want refugees or asylum seekers. The Conservatives want “to change the definition of refugees” because the existing system is geared towards the young and the better off who make it to the UK. The Conservatives intend to “reduce asylum claims in the UK” while accepting some refugees from conflict areas, as occurs with the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme. Three years after this Syrian programme began, the party is finally promising to make sure councils, faith groups and businesses get the help they need to deal with refugees arriving on this scheme.

Yet the Conservatives’ record on asylum speaks for itself. In government, the party has sought to prevent asylum seekers from entering the UK, including children due to be brought into the UK under the Dubs Amendment and other children with a rightful claim to enter the UK who have been dispersed across France. It has also blocked some asylum claims of those who have made it to the UK and generally sought to create a “hostile environment” for migrants in a country where everybody is expected to be a border guard.

A different approach

The Labour party’s manifesto argues that the rising number of refugees and displaced people “is a failure of diplomacy, conflict resolution and of human rights, which is why they will be at the heart of Labour’s foreign policy.” The party would produce a “cross-departmental strategy” within its first 100 days of government to meet international obligations on the refugee crisis, but there are few detailed commitments. The manifesto does, however, state that the current arrangements for housing and dispersing refugees are unfair and “not fit for purpose” and pledges to review the arrangements should it win office.

The Liberal Democrat’s manifesto sets out a number of important commitments. To apply the asylum system fairly, efficiently and humanely. To offer safe and legal routes to the UK for refugees to prevent them from making dangerous journeys. To expand the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme and re-open the Dubs unaccompanied child refugee scheme. To end indefinite immigration detention and expect working-age asylum seekers who have waited more than six months for their claim to be processed, to work.

Flowers placed near the scene where a teenage asylum seeker was attacked in Croydon, south London in April. Yui Mok/PA Wire

While the Scottish National Party’s manifesto picks up many of the issues raised by the Liberal Democrats, it would adopt the recommendations of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees and create a National Refugee Integration Strategy to ensure that all government agencies coordinate support for and assist refugees. The SNP would oppose continued cuts to support that make asylum seekers destitute and they would “fundamentally change the UK government’s system for housing asylum seekers”.

The UK Independence Party manifesto states only that “UKIP will comply fully with the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and honour our obligations to bona fide asylum seekers.” While the Green Party manifesto states that it would enact “a humane immigration and asylum system that recognises and takes responsibility for Britain’s ongoing role in causing the flow of migrants worldwide.”

Hard realities

Overall, what is absent from all the party manifestos and from public debate is a failure to discuss how the UK asylum system works and to understand the reality of life in the UK as a refugee or immigrant. My research on the UK’s asylum system shows how Home Office policies and practices (which I argue are arbitrary, unlawful and a wasteful use of resources) contribute to wrongfully refusing asylum claims. Cuts to legal aid and the effect of a constant restructuring of the asylum and immigration tribunal also play their part.

Curiously, in view of Britain’s imminent exit from the European Union, not one party addresses the rising cost of border enforcement that is likely to occur after Brexit.

The proposals on offer from the main parties differ radically regarding our obligations as citizens and the responsibility of the government for refugees and vulnerable people. Their views range from indifference, to vacuous statements, to an acceptance of humanitarian principles. On June 8 voters are being asked to choose between starkly different visions of the future of Britain which have very different implications for refugees who seek to enter the country.