- By Felicity Laurence,
- Hastings Community of Sanctuary Campaigns Team
Last year, not far from Hastings, a fragile small boat drifted uncertainly towards a small beach and the cluster of sunbathers relaxing there. As the overladen dinghy encountered the waves at the shore, the people on the beach waded in and pulled it to safety, helping the passengers onto land, and offering them hot drinks, rest and kind words.
Authority eventually turned up and took the new arrivals off. Perhaps some of them ended up crammed into the ex-army barracks brought back into use by the Home Office – including Napier Barracks in Folkestone, where nearly 200 of the 400 people held there contracted Covid in the middle of winter; and where conditions were recently condemned in a High Court judgement as being so crowded, inhumane and unsafe as to be unlawful.
Perhaps some of them were among those immediately detained in Immigration Removal Centres, and forcibly deported a few months later, often with great brutality including deliberate ‘pain-inducing’ procedures and in many cases also suspected of being unlawful on several counts. The chair of the cross party parliamentary group on immigration detention, Alison Thewliss MP, described the Home Office’s behaviour in these removals as ‘barbaric’.
But in those first compassionate actions on the beach, there is an expression of an alternative vision of ‘who we are’ as a people: as one person put it so simply: “Some human beings help some other human beings”.
This week 14th-20th June is Refugee Week, and never has it been so urgent to invoke this simple doctrine of kindness to people seeking refuge from the horrors they are fleeing. For the Government is planning fundamental changes to asylum law that take, in the words of Refugee Action, ‘a wrecking ball to the right to asylum in the UK’.
First, the right to asylum for anyone entering the country by an unapproved route will be removed.
This is in direct contravention of international law which stipulates that irrespective of mode of entry, people may legally claim asylum and have their case considered. Under the new rules, not one of the men, women and children arriving along the south coast would be deemed admissible, no matter how strong their asylum claim might be.
Second, they are now to be held in mass ‘reception centres’, while the Home Office finds another country that will accept them.
This could take many months, or more, although the rhetoric is that they will be deported immediately.
Third, even where leave to stay is granted to anyone whom it proves impossible to remove, they will have to reapply for protection every 30 months.
They will never be able to settle, never properly make a new life and the threat of removal will hang over them forever. Trafficked women and people forced here into slavery will be among them, the most vulnerable of all.
In the swelling opposition to these plans, six major high profile organisations including The Red Cross, Freedom from Torture, Refugee Council, Refugee Action, Asylum Matters and Scottish Refugee Council have now formed a coalition, the Asylum Reform Initiative (ARI), recently launching their campaign Together with Refugees. They seek an alternative, “fair and humane approach to the UK’s refugee system, including with new safe routes, so that people don’t have to risk their life taking dangerous journeys” – noting that most people who claim asylum here simply do not have access to “regular” routes: their only option is to enter in small boats or the back of a lorry.
There will be a profoundly adverse effect of the proposed legislation upon women and children, two thirds of whom would be turned away under the proposed new rules.
Home Secretary Priti Patel claims that she has the backing of the majority of the population. Together with Refugees disagrees; in recent research they found that most people want a kinder asylum system. In the South East specifically, 72 per cent of people agree that the UK needs an asylum system that is effective, fair and humane, so it can uphold its responsibility to offer refugee protection to those who need it.
The ARI have now been joined by over 200 other organisations, including Hastings Community of Sanctuary. During Refugee Week, we will continue working towards our own vision of being ‘together with refugees’; launching a fundraiser to help refugees in Calais and Greece; circulating postcards from the wonderful Conversations from Calais, which show vividly the humanity of the people making the journey from there to find sanctuary with us: making a series of vox pops with the many Hastings people who have volunteered in refugee camps.
Our usual main event, Festival by the Lake, has to be postponed until September. Hopefully we will be working with Hastings Museum and Art Gallery, who are then starting their exhibition of the poignant Lampedusa Cross – made from remnants of a boat that capsized in the Mediterranean with the loss of 311 people, and from which the survivors were taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa where they received compassion, help and sanctuary.
The small boats have started arriving again as the seas and the weather calm. People remain desperate enough to risk the crossing. Hundreds of us in Hastings want to see them able to come safely and legally. But however they come, we want to stand together with our fellow human beings, echoing that moment of grace on a small beach last summer.
Perhaps we might heed these prescient words from the late A.A. Gill, revered writer for the Sunday Times, written when he was in Lampedusa, observing what was happening there.
“The reason the Lampedusans are kind and good to these desperate visitors is because they can be. They’ve met them and they see them; the reason we can talk about ‘them’ as a problem, a plague on our borders, is because we don’t see them. If any of these refugees knocked on any of our front doors and asked for help, we would give it. We would insist they be protected and offered a chance to be doctors and civil engineers, nurses and journalists. We would do it because we are also good and kind. It is only by not looking, by turning our backs, that we can sail away and think that this is sad, but it is not our sadness.” (A.A. Gill, 2013)
For more information, please visit our Hastings Community of Sanctuary webpage, where you can sign our Pledge of support and follow us on Twitter. See also Hastings Supports Refugees Facebook and find further information about Together with Refugees here and Refugee Council’s ‘The Truth about Asylum’ here.