Vinoth Ramachandra

Hot Air Over Refugees

Posted on: June 16, 2022

The British government is currently mired in a legal imbroglio over its plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. The controversial plan has divided the public, and all the Bishops in the House of Lords have denounced it. I do not fully share the thinking of the Bishops and do not wish to wade into these muddy waters; but simply to draw attention to the way the language and assumptions in these debates are often misleading.

The common distinction made between “legal” and “illegal” asylum-seekers is spurious. An asylum seeker enters a legal process which determines whether or not s/he is to receive refugee status. A person fleeing for his/her life from a conflict zone or the secret police usually has neither the time nor the resources to apply for an entry visa at another country’s embassy; and, in any case, visa applications even for tourism or social visits to Western nations are tedious, expensive, and often humiliating. Under international law, all of us have a human right to exit our country of birth or residence. But there is no corresponding right of entry to another particular country. Therein lies the rub.

Rwanda’s attraction to the British government is that it has a better record than most in receiving and protecting refugees from other African countries. There are legal safeguards for refugees, including freedom of movement and the right to work. On the other hand, it has a high rate of unemployment and a dubious human rights record, and has also been accused of targeting Rwandan refugees who have fled abroad.

The British Home Secretary (herself born into an Indian family that came to the UK from Uganda in the 1970s) believes that such an immigration policy will deter “bogus” asylum-seekers from coming to Britain on boats. This may well turn out to be the case, but it is extremely doubtful whether Rwanda or any other African country has the means to determine who is “bogus” and who is not. (As for the unscrupulous profiteers from people smuggling, I have never understood why the British and French police and navies cannot get their act together and track these people.) And, as the case of Ukrainian refuges has shown, there is a strong element of racism here in who is welcome and who is not.

The large-scale displacement of persons has its origins in the First World War and the draconian measures Western nations installed, including the visa system and the carving out of national borders and colonial mandates in North Africa and the Middle East. A fair number of the conflicts raging today in the world have their origins in Western colonial histories. And, of course, global warming has created huge numbers of environmental refugees. In 2009, the G8 nations promised $100 billion a year in aid to poor nations to help build resilience against the disastrous effects of climate change. A mere trickle of that money has materialised. Today’s BBC carries a reminder of how poor nations continue to feel betrayed by the West ( in this regard.

So, can we honestly discuss the problem of asylum-seekers and refugees without attending to such betrayals and hypocrisies, widening economic exploitation and environmental devastation in the Global South- as well as the deluge of arms shipments from the West (and Russia and Israel) into conflict situations and the strengthening of repressive regimes around the world?

Surely, these problems are all inter-connected. The future wellbeing of humanity (and the non-human creation) depends on fresh initiatives in multilateral disarmament, the effective regulation of finance-dominated capitalism, more widespread electrification generated by renewable sources- and, above all, the injection of moral thinking into nationalist politics.

2 Responses to "Hot Air Over Refugees"

Thanks as always, Vinoth, for your valuable perspective. The interconnectedness of these crises requires a multifaceted, cooperative, and principled response.

When it comes to these inhumane migration policies, the false outrage over alleged people smugglers is what is really ‘bogus’ here. Migrants’ rights organisations like PICUM point out that the cliché of the dastardly opportunist rubbing his/her hands in glee is an oversimplification. As usual the truth is far more complex. Refugees are aided by family members and even communities who are familiar with escape routes and sympathise with their desperate plight. Of course there are human traffickers as we see from the devastating, NATO-instigated crisis in Libya. However, there would be no stronger disincentive for these criminal rings if there were safe and legal routes for ALL migrants fleeing from the many interconnected geopolitical and socio-economic problems mentioned in the article. Or, as you point out from the outset Vinoth, the UK and other Global North countries simply complied with their international obligations. Here in Belgium they have a similarly cruel and chequered record for how they treat migrants in vulnerable circumstances originating from the Global South.

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June 2022
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