A Safe Haven? Britain's role in protecting people on the move

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Across Europe, people who have fled human rights violations, conflict, violence and hardship are living in inhumane conditions, and thousands have drowned trying to reach the continent. While the UK government has been a leader in providing assistance to countries hosting large numbers of refugees, it has fallen short of its moral responsibility to provide safe routes to protection for people seeking refuge in the UK, and has failed to advocate for an approach that protects the rights of all people on the move. This briefing, published by Oxfam GB in partnership with 12 other agencies, provides an overview of what the UK should do to deliver on its responsibility to respond to global displacement.
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  JOINT AGENCY BRIEFING NOTE 14 APRIL 2016 Refugees try to keep warm by a fire on the shore of Lesbos in February 2016. Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam Intermón A SAFE HAVEN? Britain’s role in protecting people on the move Across Europe, people who have fled human rights violations, conflict, violence and hardship are living in inhumane conditions, and thousands have drowned trying to reach the continent. The current humanitarian crisis is the result of political failure. The dominant response, based on deterrence and containment, is causing enormous suffering to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. While the UK government has been a leader in providing assistance to countries hosting large numbers of refugees, it has fallen short of its moral responsibility to provide safe routes to protection for people seeking refuge in the UK, and has failed to advocate for an approach that protects the rights of all people on the move.  INTRODUCTION The world’s richest continent is failing some of the world’s most vulnerable people. In the last two years, European governments have been unable or unwilling to agree a common humane response to people seeking refuge. This has resulted in the tragic loss of thousands of lives in the Mediterranean, a deplorable humanitarian situation in Europe, and women, men and children embarking on long and hazardous journeys through the continent. The current humanitarian crisis in Europe is ultimately the result of political failure. While the response from European Union (EU) Member States has been mixed, the overriding imperative appears to be one of deterrence. The deal that was struck between the EU and Turkey on 18 March is the latest example of that approach. That deal is doubly flawed  – it is both immoral and impractical. On a practical level, it is likely to be counter-productive, as history suggests that when one migration route is closed down, another one opens up and people are pushed even further into the hands of smugglers. People who are desperate, with ever narrowing choices, will take huge risks to reach a safe haven. At a principled level, the deal risks undermining basic moral and legal obligations. It also sets a dangerous precedent: what message does it send to the world, including those countries with large refugee populations, that wealthy Europe, a continent that has traditionally championed human rights, appears so quick to erode them? For its part, the UK has been a leader in providing vital assistance to support refugees in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. But it has fallen short of welcoming its fair share of refugees. 3  Delivering aid does not absolve the UK of its moral responsibility to offer a safe haven. The UK government must recognize that, to realize shared responsibility to the world’s refugees, it needs to combine effective aid with a far more welcoming approach to refugees, including actively hosting them. While welcoming and integrating refugees requires resources and investment, refugees make significant, positive contributions to their host communities. 4  The UK government must also advocate for an approach that ensures the protection and the basic human rights of all people on the move, regardless of their legal status. This briefing provides an overview of what the UK should do to deliver on its responsibility to respond to global displacement. The briefing first describes the principles underlying shared responsibility and then provides recommendations for action. Section 1 calls for the expansion of safe and legal routes. Section 2 examines reception conditions in Europe. Section 3 describes ways to improve humanitarian responses in Europe. Section 4 describes the need for fair, efficient and humane asylum procedures. Section 5 looks at how to improve conditions in countries hosting large numbers of refugees, and section 6 outlines the drivers of displacement. All the elements together form a ‘If I had stayed in Iraq they would have killed me for marrying someone of a different sect. I had to leave quick. I’ll go anywhere to live in peace, to escape from there.’ Sami, 29 from Iraq, interviewed in Serbia in October 2014 Since the Syria conflict began in March 2011, the UK has granted asylum to 5,845 Syrians. A further 1,337 have been resettled in the UK through the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. 1  This means that the UK has  provided protection to  just 0.15% of the estimated 4.8m Syrian refugees, and that – of the 555,485 Syrians who have applied for asylum in the EU in the last five years – just 1.6% have applied in the UK. 2    2  comprehensive approach, and thus cannot be traded off against each other. This briefing note is written based on the status quo with the UK as a member of the EU. While some of the details could change if the UK was to leave the EU, the principles behind the recommendations hold, irrespective of whether the UK is a member of the EU or not. The briefing was written by 13 agencies 5  working in the countries from which people are fleeing, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and in countries across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in Europe, including the UK. SHARED RESPONSIBILITY In 2016, the number of people displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations around the world is more than at any time since the Second World War – estimated at over 60 million. 7  While a staggering 86 percent of the world’s refugees were hosted by developing countries by the end of 2014, 8  there has been an increase in irregular migration to Europe, with over a million people arriving in 2015, which represents approximately 0.2 percent of the EU’s population. Given the magnitude of global displacement, it is clear that there is no single or easy solution. Rather, governments within Europe and across the world need to develop a coordinated response that is: ã   Humane and rights-based,  whereby everyone is treated with dignity, and has their fundamental rights respected and protected without discrimination, in line with international human rights, refugee and EU law. ã   Comprehensive and conducted in the spirit of genuine solidarity and with a commitment to shared responsibility,  whereby governments work together and respond to the needs of people on the move, including by hosting them. ã   Enabling of a dignified future for people who are displaced, by ensuring their right to work and education. ã   Focused on preventing and resolving the crises that drive displacement as well as reacting to their effects . Significant advances can be made in 2016. In September, the UN Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, and a summit to be convened by US President Obama, will both offer opportunities for new commitments at the international level. We hope the UK government will take a lead role on the world stage by shaping a new framework that actively welcomes people forced to seek safety in another country and ensures protection of all people on the move. The number of asylum claims made in the UK remains relatively low. In 2015, Germany and Hungary received over half of all applications made in the EU, while the UK dealt with just 3.1% of ar rivals (38,370). 6    3  1 EXPAND SAFE AND LEGAL ROUTES TO THE UK European governments, including the UK government, must recognize that the lack of legal channels to protection in Europe is forcing people to travel dangerously and irregularly – often with smugglers. Expanding safe and legal routes to Europe and within Europe would help save lives, protect refugees’ futures and result in fewer people being forced to travel irregularly. States must focus on safe, organized routes to refuge without conditions. The UK government should reconsider its policy on visa requirements for nationals from countries of srcin of prima facie refugees, 11  and should advocate for other European states to do the same. It is a cruel paradox that, for example, a Syrian student would have been granted a student visa more readily before the outbreak of the conflict in Syria than after it. 12  This is because visa applications are routinely refused if the authorities believe there is an intention to claim asylum upon arrival. Furthermore, visa requirements are imposed to control the number of people claiming asylum. For example, in March 2015 changes were made to the immigration rules to remove the ‘transit without visa’ exemption for Syrians with a visa for entry to the USA. This was done explicitly for the purpose of preventing Syrians from claiming asylum in the UK. 13  Visa requirements should never be used as a mechanism to curb the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers. To use visas in this way undermines the right to seek asylum and threatens the international protection system. In emergency situations, the international community should simultaneously suspend visa requirements for people affected, in a spirit of responsibility sharing and for determined periods of time for affected nationals. While visa requirements exist, European governments, including that of the UK, urgently need to develop and increase safe and legal routes to their territories, including via resettlement, humanitarian visas and expanded application of family reunification schemes. The expansion of legal channels to protection would have the added advantage of undermining the smuggling networks by decreasing demand for their service. This would likely reduce the number of people moving through Europe irregularly, and therefore increase the manageability of the movement of people to and within Europe. Most importantly, it would protect lives: the lack of safe and legal routes has caused much of the suffering we see in Europe today. In 2010, before war broke out in Syria, the UK approved 70% of visas for Syrian nationals; by 2015, this had dropped to 40%. 9  Syrians rescued by the Phoenix, a search and rescue vessel operated by Migrant Offshore Aid Station and formerly staffed by several members of MSF, had asked for help in different countries before making the sea crossing. A young Syrian man said he had asked for asylum in 13 embassies while he was in Egypt at the beginning of 2015 (including Germany, UK, Sweden, France and US). All of them rejected his request. 10    4
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