According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is defined as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Over 140 countries, including the United Kingdom (UK), are signatories to this Convention.
There are two main pathways to be recognised as refugees. In both cases, the process if often long and arduous. The first path to refugee status is to seek asylum in a host country. To claim asylum, and thus request to become recognised refugees, applicants have to be physically present in the host country – the application cannot be made from abroad. Those who have applied for such recognition known as asylum seekers. They remain asylum seekers as long as their application is pending. Once their application is accepted, they become recognised refugees. If it is refused, they are not recognised refugees. They may then appeal the decision (in the UK, almost half of the cases challenged after a refusal are overturned on appeal), they may seek another way to stay in their host country, or they may be returned to their home country.
Most refugees, however, are not able to travel far beyond the borders of their home countries, if they manage to leave the country at all. Often, they get stranded in refugee camps in bordering countries, where they often remain stuck for years. Some of these individuals who are highly vulnerable (e.g. due to their age, high risk of harm, exploitation, or health conditions) are selected by the UN for resettlement. This means that the UN identifies them as refugees abroad, and then transfers them to their new host country through bilateral agreements with those countries. This is the second way in which refugees can become recognised refugees and start new lives in host countries.
The UK is currently setting up a refugee resettlement scheme for the thousands of Afghans fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the country. The Taliban’s rule is likely to rule Afghanistan with an iron fist, with a risk of returning to the human rights abuses and repression that led to a stream of Afghans leaving the country when the Taliban was last in power in the 1990s. Broadly, the government promises to resettle 5,000 Afghan refugees during the scheme’s first year, with more to follow, up to a total of 20,000. This seems to be along the lines of the Syrian resettlement scheme which was implemented in 2014. Under that Scheme, the UK resettled close to 20,000 refugees between 2016 and 2020, most of which fled Syria at the height of conflict in 2014 and thereafter. 20,000 people represent only a fraction of those who, at the time, were in need of relocation. In fact, just 0.6% of Syrians (or 80,000 out of 13 million people) who fled their homes found refuge through resettlement schemes worldwide after being referred by the UN. The Home Office has not devolved all the details of the Afghan resettlement scheme yet, but Home Secretary Priti Patel has hailed it as “one of the most generous” schemes in the UK’s history.
Calling the UK “generous” to asylum seekers and refugees fleeing war-torn countries on that basis alone is, in all senses of the word, a stretch. This is especially the case in light of government efforts to criminalise asylum seekers who enter the UK irregularly, and making their life in the UK more difficult after they arrive. Additionally, the UK does not receive that many asylum applications in the first place. In 2015 and 2016, Germany received and accepted over ten times as many asylum applications (the vast majority from Syrians) as the UK, even though they are countries with roughly the same population size. This relatively low number is partly explained by the UK’s geography - as an island, the UK is harder to reach than European mainland, and as we have seen, asylum applications can only be made from within the host country. Refugee resettlement schemes are one way to balance out the unequal reception of refugees. Proposing to take in 20,000 people, however, is merely a drop in the ocean.
The resettlement scheme for Afghan refugees is necessary, but it is not enough. The thousands of Afghans currently navigating their way through the UK asylum system need their status to be guaranteed. The same is true for the tens of thousands who will undoubtedly follow in the months and years to come.
On 6 August 2021, the Home Office announced that EU citizens and their family members who apply late to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) will have their rights protected whilst their application is being considered.
This is a change in position from the initial government policy, which stated that those who applied late would not be able to rent, work or access benefits whilst they awaited their application outcome. Those initial government plans were controversial from the very beginning. Grassroot organisations repeatedly warned that such an approach was in breach of the Withdrawal Agreement agreed upon between the EU and the UK, which guaranteed continued protection for EU citizens living in the UK before 31 December 2020 until their status is resolved – no matter the date of their application to the EUSS. The European Commission had also raised concerns about the lack of temporary protection for those who missed the application deadline, or those who do not apply to upgrade their pre-settled to settled status in time.
Now, the government has finally followed their advice, stating that “the Home Office continues to support those wanting to stay in the UK” and therefore is granting temporary protection to EU citizens and their family members whilst they await their application outcome, irrespective of when the application was submitted.
With more than six million applications made to the Scheme before the 30 June 2021 deadline, and more than 5 million grants of status already, the uptake has been bigger than expected when the Scheme was initially rolled out. It is thought that thousands of eligible EU citizens and their family members have not applied yet – for all of them, this announcement should come as a relief. It is not, however, the end of the story.
The details of temporary protection still need to be put into law. It is unclear whether this will happen through Parliament, or through secondary legislation pushed through by the Johnson government. Additionally, such policy U-turns undermine trust in government, complicating the ever-changing immigration rules even further. It is only understandable that landlords and employers, who are penalised should they work with individuals without legal status in the UK, confused on what rules they are meant to apply. After months of being told that the deadline for application was 30 June 2021, and anyone who failed to apply were unlawful residents, they may remain wary of late applicants for the simple reason that the rules are unclear. Finally, the Home Office Announcement talks only about temporary protection for those who have submitted an application to the EU Settlement Scheme. It says nothing about the thousands of EU citizens who may not have applied to the Scheme yet at all, who are often not aware of the need to apply, or unable to do so. These individuals are some of the most vulnerable in society such as those with weak English language skills, without access to the internet, or those at risk of homelessness.
The Home Office stated that their policy change is “generous” to EU citizens. In reality, this announcement is simply a reflection of legal agreements that have been in force for months. It is a welcome change in discourse for those EU citizens who are applying to the Scheme late, but it does nothing for those who have not been able to access benefits for the past six weeks (since the 30 June deadline passed) or those who are not aware they need to apply at all.
If you need legal assistance with the EU Settlement Scheme, or have any other questions, you can contact us here, call us on 020 8142 8211, or send us a question on WhatsApp.
As the UK government rushes to pass its new Nationality and Borders Bill (which includes measures to penalise certain entry routes to the UK in breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention), refugees and asylum seekers are pushed further to the margins of British society. By keeping migrants and asylum seekers physically as far removed from the public as possible, the government’s hope seems to be that the migrants might actually disappear, or at least that the Home Office will receive less attention when the system fails, asylum seekers’ waiting times soar, their living circumstances worsen, and their death tolls rise. Off-shore detention centres for asylum seekers awaiting a decision, another one of Ms. Patel’s proposals, are meant to complete that mission of pushing migrants out of sight and out of mind to let the Home Office do its business uninterrupted.
But refugees refuse to go into hiding, to make themselves invisible. At the 2020 summer Olympics, Yusra Mardini, who fled Syria in 2015 after her house was destroyed, was shining as she walked down the opening ceremony carrying the Olympic flag, representing not her own nation but the Olympics themselves as part of the Refugee Olympic Team.
The Refugee Olympic Team was created by the IOC for the 2016 Olympics, to include athletes in competition after having been forced to leave their home countries due to circumstances beyond their control. In 2016, the team comprised of 10 athletes. This summer, it has 29 representatives in Tokyo. These 29 athletes represent a population of 20.7 million refugees and 82m displaced people across the world: their struggles, their stories and their place in their adopted home countries after being forcefully displaced, often thousands of miles away from home.
Mardini is a symbol of hope for all of them. She and her sister left Damascus in August 2015. Once they arrived in Turkey, they embarked on the dangerous journey to Greece in an overcrowded inflatable lifeboat. When the boat started taking on water, they were forced to stay afloat swimming for hours on end before the boat started working again, and they were able to continue their journey to Lesbos. From Lesbos, they walked through Europe until they reached Germany, where Mardini now lives and trains for her swimming races. In 2016, she became the first Refugee Athlete to participate in the Olympics, using the same swimming skills which saved her life a year prior to swim the 100 metres freestyle and the 100 metres butterfly at the Rio Olympic Games.
The Refugee Olympic Team is ground-breaking for many reasons. It disrupts the traditional patriotic nationalist make-up of the Olympics, allowing for an independent team of different nationalities to participate under the same flag whilst representing a diverse, multinational population of refugees across the world. This sends an encouraging message; in sports, everyone can compete. There is no difference to be made based on where you are from or how you got there. It also shows a sign of solidarity and hope for refugees and those forced to leave their home, giving them role models who have been through similar experiences, pushing the boundaries of what they can imagine to one day achieve.
Yusra Mardini and her co-athletes represent the potential and possibility of a society where refugees are included and empowered to be a part of their adopted homes. It shows how they can transcend their traumatic past and boasts of the potential they can fulfil if given the opportunity to do so. Such initiatives could be mirrored at a national level. Shamefully, that is not the case in individual states like the UK, where hostile environment policies and increasingly harsher measures against asylum seekers slim their chances for a fulfilled life and contribution in British society.