Rally stresses refugee welcome as UNHCR outlines concerns on UK asylum in Parliament

UN Refugee Agency tells lawmakers asylum bill 'drives a coach and horses' through refugee rights

Joel, a campaigner and Young Leader with Safe Passage made an impassioned speech at the Refugees Welcome rally in London, October 2021, sharing his personal experience of detention

Joel, a campaigner and Young Leader with Safe Passage made an impassioned speech at the Refugees Welcome rally in London, October 2021, sharing his personal experience of detention  © UNHCR/Sarah Hayward

LONDON – Hundreds gathered in London’s Parliament Square on Wednesday, with others joining similar events around the country, to show solidarity with refugees and send a message of deep concern to the UK Government about their restrictive Nationality and Borders Bill, which is being debated by lawmakers.

The Refugees Welcome rally was organised by Together With Refugees, a coalition of over 300 organisations. Passionate speakers, all with refugee backgrounds, shared their experience of arriving in the UK, of detention or alienation and of trying to integrate and rebuild their lives.

In a heartfelt show of solidarity people gathered in London's Parliament Square, at the same time as others gathered across the country, to send a clear message that refugees are welcome in the UK.

In a heartfelt show of solidarity people gathered in London's Parliament Square, at the same time as others gathered across the country, to send a clear message that refugees are welcome in the UK.  © Sarah Hayward

“The system is already hard, and the Government are making it harder,” said Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf, a campaigner for female asylum-seekers and former refugee from Somalia. “Who can say it better than a person living it? And that’s me.”

She spoke of the difficulties asylum-seekers already have accessing the support they are entitled to, and the destitution that many have suffered since the pandemic began in early 2020. After the Bill becomes law, she said, seeking asylum in the UK would be harder, and much slower, and women especially would pay the price.

The crowd, who had come out on a cold but sunny day, joined Mariam and other speakers, in calling for a more compassionate policy towards refugees, and for the Bill to be scrapped. Chants of “say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” were heard between speakers.

Signs of welcome filled London's Parliament Square as supporters gathered to show solidarity with refugees.

Signs of welcome filled London's Parliament Square as supporters gathered to show solidarity with refugees.  © UNHCR/Sarah Hayward

This passionate gathering could be seen from the Houses of Parliament. Inside, MPs from across the political spectrum were listening to experts assess the Bill at the UK Parliament Human Rights Committee, where UNHCR’s UK Representative Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor and Senior Legal Associate Elizabeth Ruddick, among others, provided evidence.

"There isn’t a pick-and-choose menu that one can decide upon. There is, in the Convention, only one refugee definition. There’s one set of rights for a person recognised as a refugee. There are no other options."

The question-and-answer session, allowing the Committee to probe UNHCR’s legal analysis and its fundamental concerns over the Bill, focused on the ways that the proposed plans would change the treatment of refugees according to their method of arrival, and the route they took to reach the UK.

Using such criteria to decide which rights someone has as a refugee, the UNHCR officials stressed, would be at odds with the 1951 Refugee Convention, a breach of international law, and counteract international cooperation on refugee issues.

UNHCR has previously released a legal opinion and public statement warning that the Bill would undermine asylum-seekers’ rights and expose them to more precarity. By creating a two-tier system, granting lower status, and abridged rights, (compared to those arriving regularly), the Government would deny people the support granted to them in international law. Such a model would also increase inefficiencies and costs to the taxpayer, UNHCR believes.

“There isn’t a pick-and-choose menu that one can decide upon,” Ms. Pagliuchi-Lor told lawmakers. “There is, in the Convention, only one refugee definition. There’s one set of rights for a person recognised as a refugee. There are no other options. Any attempt at curtailing rights is unavoidably in breach of the Convention.”

Ms. Ruddick stressed that the Convention sets out broad rights that the drafters recognised were necessary for refugees to rebuild their lives and contribute to their host communities. “It’s a carefully calibrated list of rights, and what the Bill does is drive a coach and horses through that list.”

“What message does this send?” Ms. Pagliuichi-Lor added, stressing the impact that refusing asylum-seekers’ claims would have on countries in the region and beyond, which host far more refugees.

The Bill “is based on a non existing principle that refugees should seek asylum in the first safe country they encounter. Such a principle doesn’t exist in international law. And indeed, it couldn’t exist in international law because it would undermine the very principle of cooperation on which the system in premised,” she said. Such policies, she added, would dent the UK’s reputation as a global refugee supporter, risking a “race to the bottom” with other countries following the UK. Countries bordering crisis zones already receive some 75% of the world’s refugees and asylum-seekers; 86% of refugees are in low and middle income countries.

Building a fair, compassionate and more efficient system to establish who is a refugee and who is not entitled to asylum, would be more effective in handling claims in the UK. This should be complemented by agreements to determine where claims should be best examined so asylum seekers receive fair hearings and decent standards of reception and integration if recognised – and so that responsibility is fairly shared among countries. UNHCR is already working with the Home Office to help improve asylum procedures.

Kolbassia Haoussou speaks at Refugees Welcome, October 2021. He is a survivor of torture  and came to this country as a refugee. He survived detention and homelessness here and has become a leading advocate for greater rights for refugees and torture survivors.

Kolbassia Haoussou speaks at Refugees Welcome, October 2021. He is a survivor of torture  and came to this country as a refugee. He survived detention and homelessness here and has become a leading advocate for greater rights for refugees and torture survivors.  © UNHCR/Sarah Hayward

Meanwhile outside, former refugee and activist Kolbassia Haoussou, MBE, addressed the crowd. After taking more than six months to reach the UK in 2005 he was detained and then became homeless. Since then, he has been awarded for his success in rebuilding his life in the UK. If the Bill had been in place when he arrived, it is unlikely this would have happened.

“For me, as a refugee, it’s important that this country treats refugees with respect,” he told UNHCR. “I’m here to lend my voice to make sure that people understand what it means to treat people fairly. It’s not numbers, it’s people.”