Why the UK has it so wrong on refugees

Missteps have meant the Sunak government’s approach on refugees is weak and disjointed

Published : 04 Aug 2023 08:00 PM
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August, in the newspaper business, has long been referred to by old ink-stained wretches and editors as “silly season”.

Parliament has shut down, and so too county councils. Schools are out for the summer and many in business are on holidays — so “silly season” gets its name because there are newspaper pages to be filled and websites to be fed — and stories that are, well, silly, or would not normally see the light of day, get the oxygen of publicity.

I was reminded of the advent of silly season when I read that small newts, lizard-like creatures, might be the reason why the former UK prime minister Boris Johnson and his family might not be able to build a swimming pool in the back garden of their new Cambridgeshire home. Newts are a protected species and hence take precedence over a paddling pool.

How the Bibby Stockholm move backfired

And again, silly season reared its head with a report that a Welsh sheep farmer suspects that large black panther-like cats are to blame for the loss of several animals in the Cambrian Mountains that make up most of the mid-Wales. 

It seems that a DNA analysis suggests that large felines are indeed to blame for the loss of livestock there over the years. The cats are believed to have been released into the wild by an owner who had kept the game felines illegally.

But perhaps the most stark reminder that silly season is indeed now came in a news story that fire safety officers believed the new barge shipped from Amsterdam to accommodate refugees and migrants to the UK does not meet fire safety standards. The Bibby Stockholm was towed into place in the small harbour of Portland in Dorset on the UK’s south coast three weeks ago. It was heralded as the centrepiece of a new get-tough approach by the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that would end the long-standing practice of putting newly arrived refugees and asylum-seekers up in hotels. It’s costing British taxpayers £6 million (Dh28 million) every day to pay for those hotel rooms — a not insignificant sum and one that is quoted at every available opportunity by government ministers and those who want to appear tough when it comes to ending the daily armada of small boats that make it to Britain’s southern shores from France.

It’s just a pity that the thousands of refugees who

 have fled social, religious, political and economic

 upheavals in their homelands and simply want an 

opportunity to have a better life, are used as pawns. 

That is truly — and sadly — silly

Time and again, courts have stepped in, and the thrust of the Sunak government policy on migrants has been riddled with legal, fiscal and practical impediments.

The barge had been previously used as temporary accommodation for asylum seekers in the Netherlands and was also used for oilfield workers working on rigs off the coast of Norway. Before being pressed into service by the UK government, it was stripped of all but the most basic services and its small cabins were fitted with bunk beds. Televisions in the cabins were disconnected too, lest British taxpayers believe that the refugees and asylum seekers had any level other than the most basic creature comforts at their disposal. The UK government also brought in national media and television crews for a tour of the barge at its most basic — all 222 rooms over its three-storey structure.

The first 50 newcomers were supposed to be put on board this week. But too bad no one bothered to check to make sure the barge was compliant with the fire code. Those first arrivals have been delayed until the barge meets fire safety 

standards. Oops!

But the government policy has long been riddled with a series of self-inflicted oops’ moments. There is a legion of opponents who are only all too willing to offer support to the refugees and asylum-seekers to show that many Britons are compassionate, welcoming and opposed to the hardline policies advocated by Downing Street.

Lawyers for various new arrivals have managed, through actions at the High Court, to force the Home Secretary Suella Braverman to increase the level of payments offered to refugees. 

While the minister, who has long-term leadership ambitions, is eager to be seen as a get-tough no-nonsense politician, the various court rulings suggest that the policies are needlessly cruel, mean-spirited, and illegal.

Sending new arrivals to Rwanda to await processing has been touted as the way forward. But time and again, courts have stepped in, and the thrust of the Sunak government policy on migrants has been riddled with legal, fiscal and practical impediments. That figure of £6 million per day? It turns out that using barges and setting up temporary encampments in former air force and army bases would roughly cost the same.

If ever there was a definition of silly season, this entire chapter of missteps and mistakes on refugees and migrants seems to be it. It’s just a pity that the thousands of refugees who have fled social, religious, political and economic upheavals in their homelands and simply want an opportunity to have a better life, are used as pawns. That is truly — and sadly — silly.

Mick O'Reilly is Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News. Source: Gulf News