Three Cheers for Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

The Daily Mail and the Daily Express are  angry  with the Jordanian United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.   No one will be surprised by this. Neither newspaper is a fan of  the United Nations.  They don’t like ‘human rights’ – a spurious PC concept that foreigners are always trying to foist upon us.  And they especially don’t like it  whenever some jumped-up Johnny Foreigner whose name doesn’t even sound like John Smith has the temerity to criticize the xenophobia, racism and bigotry that sticks to the fingers of anyone who opens the pages of Britain’s grubby tabloid press.

The reason for their anger  was an interview with the Guardian yesterday, in which Al Hussein accused some European politicians of descending into ‘xenophobia and outright racism’ in their treatment of refugees.   Al Hussein compared the current rhetoric used by many European governments and the media towards refugees  to  the 1938 League of Nations Conference at Evian-les-Bains, when various governments refused to take in Jewish refugees from the Nazi Reich on the grounds that they would destabilise their societies and put pressure on their economies.

The UN High Commissioner argued, as many historians have done before him,   that this reluctance inadvertently facilitated the Holocaust, when Hitler opted for extermination rather than expulsion.  These comparisons have sparked ‘outrage’, according to the Daily Express and the Daily Mail.    The Express quotes Tory MP Bill Cash, who says that  ‘  Britain took in a huge number of Jews and stood against Hitler. It is not appropriate to use that kind of analogy against those who saved Europe from the kind of abominations that were being perpetrated by Germany.’

The Daily Mail quotes Tory MP Andrew Percy, who is indignant at the notion ‘that the debate around the Syrian issue could in any way be similar to Nazi persecution of the Jews is offensive. This kind of comparison is so overblown and so disgusting it undermines a sensible debate on how to address the migration crisis.’

And Immigration minister James Brokenshire similarly rejects ‘ any characterisation that this country does not have a proud record of welcoming refugees or showing compassion in these circumstances.’

All this indignation wilfully misses the point.       Al Hussein did not accuse the governments at Evian of direct complicity with a genocidal project that had not yet been designed, nor did he argue that refugees coming to Europe were threatened by a new Holocaust.

He pointed out  that the dehumanising language and rhetoric used by some participants at the Evian conference  regarding the dangers of ‘saturation’ by Jewish refugees was not that different to contemporary politicians in response to the current refugee crisis, ‘ who can use the excuse of even the smallest community as a threat to the sort of national purity of the state.’

Al Hussein singled out Theresa May’s conference speech as an example of these tendencies.   He also criticized David Cameron’s reference to ‘swarms’ of refugees this summer and  described Katie Hopkins’s ‘cockroach’ comments as ‘straight out of the language of Julius Streicher in the 1920s – and of course Radio Milles Collines in Rwanda in 1994.’

Al Hussein is not the first person to make such comparisons, but his reference to Evian raises an important issue that is rarely acknowledged in the sour debate on how Europe should respond to its current ‘refugee crisis’.

It was not until the first half of the twentieth century that refugees fleeing war and persecution began to acquire political traction as a category of stateless person with a unique hold on the world’s conscience – a development that was formally codified in the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees.

In theory governments recognized that refugees, unlike ‘economic migrants’ might have exceptional rights to  cross international borders without documentation.  But these moral obligations were never universally accepted and were always contingent on immediate circumstances and state priorities.  Sometimes governments have accepted refugees without questions, such as Belgians during World War I, or Hungarians after the 1956 uprising.

At other times governments have tried to evade their moral and legal responsibilities by denigrating and dehumanising refugees to the point when they would no longer have any any obligations towards them.

As Al-Hussein argued, these tendencies were never clearer than in the international response to Jewish refugees in the 1930s.  Most  of the 38 delegates at Evian-les-Bains recognized that Jews were being persecuted in Hitler’s Germany and in need of protection, but almost all of them refused to accept any more Jewish refugees.  Some argued that they would undermine their economies; others that too many refugees would foment antisemitism or export  a European ‘racial problem’ to their own countries, as the Australian delegate put it.

Even the Nazis declared it ‘astounding’ that foreign countries criticized Germany’s treatment of Jews, yet refused to accept them.  Britain was no exception.  Politicians like Brokenshire love to refer to Britain’s ‘proud tradition’ of providing sanctuary to refugees, but that tradition has always had limits and contradictions.

During last month’s debate about Syrian refugees the Kindertransport was frequently invoked by politicians as an example of that ‘proud tradition’,  but the parents who were not allowed to enter the UK, or the many other Jews who could not get visas, were rarely mentioned.

The Mail accompanied its article on Al Hussein today with a short column about the Evian Conference on ‘How Britain Abandoned the Jews: Britain Refused to Increase Quota for Refugees.’  That is correct, but one of the reasons why Britain didn’t want more Jewish refugees in the country was because of the coverage of newspapers like the  Daily Express and the    Daily Mail.

In March 1933, Lord Beaverbrook’s Express responded to an attempted boycott of German goods in response to Nazi antisemitism with the headline  “‘Judea declares war on Germany: Jews of all the world unite in action.’

And on August 20, 1938, just over a month after the Evian conference, on August 20, 1938, the Mail reported:

“‘The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage . . .” In these words, Mr Herbert Metcalfe, the Old Street magistrate, yesterday referred to the number of aliens entering the country through the ‘back door’ – a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.’

The Mail might have mentioned that in report on the Tory ‘outrage’ at Al Hussein’s comments.   But it wouldn’t, would it?  Because for the British tabloids and for too many Tory politicians, the only good refugees are the ones who belong to our ‘proud tradition.’

Those in the present are invariably suspect.   And  even if, like Jews in the 1930s or Syrians today,  they are considered ‘genuine’ refugees, there will always be too many of them, and there will always be reasons why they  shouldn’t come.

And there will always be politicians and newspapers that will use the kind of language that Al Hussein rightly condemned, in order to diminish the humanity of refugees, and justify their exclusion.





Offshore asylum screening centres: towards a cordon sanitaire

Europe’s annual migrant ‘boat season’ is getting underway, and already the numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean are already showing a dramatic increase on previous years.     According to the European Border Agency Frontex, 42,000 people have tried to reach Italy this year,   compared with UNHCR figures of 3, 362 arrivals by the end of April last year.

In Morocco   hundreds of migrants have managed to breach the fearsome border fences erected around the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in the last few months.       Now the United Nations refugee agency UNCHR has announced that it is prepared to contemplate the establishment of large-scale asylum ‘screening centres’ in Africa to process migrants trying to reach Europe.

That the world’s most prominent refugee organization should be considering such a possibility is a disturbing development.     Similar centres have been established by Australian governments in the South Pacific, with grim consequences for many of the migrants interned in them.     In Europe, the establishment of screening centres was first presented to a meeting of   EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers by that prominent humanitarian Tony Blair back in March 2003, as part of Blair’s ‘new vision for refugees.’

This ‘new vision’ envisaged the creation of ‘transit centres’ along the migratory routes to   Europe, where migrants could be screened and processed,   and then returned to their countries of origin if they failed to meet the required criteria.   Blair’s proposals also mooted a concept of ‘regional protection’, whereby refused asylum seekers who could not be returned to their countries of origin could be kept in these centres – and outside Europe.

Then, as now, thousands of rejected asylum seekers were living in the UK who could not be returned, but were not considered ‘legal’ – many of whom remained in this state for years.   Under Blair’s proposals, such migrants would have been kept in these ‘regional protection’ centres instead, which would be established in countries such as Morocco, northern Somalia, Ukraine or Turkey.

All this, Blair insisted, would serve to ‘deter those who enter the EU illegally and make unfounded asylum applications.’   At the time these proposals were   widely condemned by refugee organizations as a means of outsourcing Europe’s migration enforcement to countries that had no interest in refugee protection, some of which were not even signatories to the Geneva Convention.

Yet now UNHCR’s European director Vincent Cochetel says that he would be prepared to accept such centres, providing ‘certain safeguards were in place: the right to appeal, fair process, the right to remain while appeals take place.’

What has caused this transformation?     According to the Guardian, it’s because frontline ‘border countries’ like Greece and Italy have been abandoned by Brussels in the face of a ‘collossal humanitarian crisis.’     There is no doubt that some countries, and some places, have been placed in an invidious position by Europe’s disastrous attempts to ‘manage’ migration, but ‘screening centres’ are not a solution to these problems, and UNCHR should not be supporting such proposals.

From the point of view of European governments, asylum has always constituted the weak link in their ongoing attempt to build physical and paper walls between Europe and the global South.   It has also presented Europe with a challenge: how to stop or at least drastically reduce the numbers of people seeking refugee protection in Europe without overtly rejecting the principle of refugee protection that has generally considered to be the cornerstone of the post-World War II   ‘rights-based’ international order, and which has been enshrined as a key principle of the European Union’s political identity.

European governments have attempted to resolve this problem essentially in two ways;   Firstly,   by preventing asylum seekers from reaching European territory, regardless of whether they are ‘genuine’ or ‘unfounded,’ through a constantly escalating series of barriers and an unacknowledged policy of deterrence that seeks to make migrant journeys as difficult as possible, and which tacitly accepts the enormous suffering and loss of life involved as a form of ‘collateral damage.’

Secondly, EU member states have attempted to quarantine and exclude asylum seekers who succeed in reaching Europe as far as the law allows, in the hope of rendering them more easily deportable.     These priorities are not concerned whether asylum seekers are ‘genuine’ or ‘unfounded’, but on reducing the numbers of asylum claims per se.

The case of Syria is a clear example of this.     This year, according to UNHCR, Syrians became the largest single nationality seeking asylum in industrialized countries.   Last year in the UK, Refugee Council statistics found that the number of Syrians seeking asylum rose by 69 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Just to recall, this is Syria: the country with the largest refugee crisis in the world – a crisis that was, until recently being used by a number of governments as a casus belli. According to what most European governments have said, all Syrian refugees should be considered genuine and therefore deserving of refugee protection.

But Syrians, it seems, are worthy of our bombs,   but not of a helping hand when they make it to our borders.     That is why the French police destroyed migrant camps in Calais last month, scattering a migrant population that consists increasingly of Syrians.   That is why no European government has shown any interest in proposals made by refugee organizations to establish safe routes across the Mediterranean or the Sahara. To do that would be to abandon the principle of deterrence, and neither the EU nor its members are prepared to do that.

Europe is already involved in a long-term attempt to enlist outlying neighbouring states as de facto European border guards, and the prospect of transfering the entire asylum screening process to countries outside the European Union is part of the same process.

Given these priorities UNHCR’s advocacy of ‘safeguards’ is disingenuous and meaningless.     Does UNCHR seriously imagine that appeals against refusals can be successfully mounted in fenced-in screening centres in the Ukraine, Libya or Puntland?   Or that centres like this will reduce the numbers of people trying to reach Europe by other means?   Or that poor countries with few resources will be able to process asylum seekers more effectively than the rich countries they are trying to get to?

It is difficult to imagine how any of this can be assured, and UNHCR would surely do better to stay clear of proposals that have nothing to do with humanitarianism or providing refugee protection, and everything to do with stopping Europe’s unwanted people from getting anywhere near the continent.

The Asylum Seeker Who Learned to Fly

On a day when University College London’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration found that migrants had provided a £25 billion tax boost to the UK economy since 2000, the British tabloids had another story to tell.

It was a story that we have heard many times before, a grim and bitter tale of British taxpayers fleeced of their hard-earned cash by cunning dark-skinned folk, a story calculated and carefully framed to produce head-shaking, hysterical laughter of the ‘lunatics-have-taken-over-the-asylum’ variety.

I’m talking about the case of Yonas Admasu Kebede, the 21-year-old ‘failed asylum seeker’ who has just won a legal case against Newcastle City Council, obligating the local authorities to pay for him to take flying lessons, and for his younger brother to go to Manchester Metropolitan University.

The Kebede brothers originally came to the UK with their father and an older sibling in 2004.     Though their asylum claim was rejected, the family were given discretionary leave to remain until 2014.

The two brothers were then abandoned by their father and older brother and taken into care by Newcastle City Council, which paid for their education.     Both of them got GCSEs and A Levels.     And last year Yonas Kebede applied for a student loan to take a pilot’s license with a view to taking an aviation degree, only to discover that he was not eligible because the Coalition changed the law in 2011, preventing asylum seekers on discretionary leave from accessing student loans.

The brothers instructed lawyers to take Newcastle City Council to court under the Childrens’ Act, arguing that it was the council’s duty to complete their education and employment training, and the Court of Appeal ruled in their favour.

This decision has produced an outpouring of orchestrated indignation and outrage, beginning – naturally – with the Daily Mail, and including the Express, the Sun, the Nazi Stormfront website, the BNP, and an organization called the ‘Taxpayer’s Alliance.’

The essential components of the story were drearily familiar.   On the one hand there were heart-tugging references to the plight of ordinary Britons ‘scrimping and saving’ in a period of austerity while asylum seekers are largeing it and getting special privileges.

This narrative of injustice and unfairness was supported with a quote from a Tory politician, in this case North East MEP Martin Callanan, who declared the ruling ‘ totally bizarre. The council are in a difficult position if the Court of Appeal has ordered it but most taxpayers will be appalled that they are funding flying lessons for a refugee, however well intentioned he is. It is absolutely incredible.’

Then there were the inevitable references to ‘ the taxpayer’ who has to ‘cough up’ and ‘fork out’ tens of thousands of hard-earned pounds to provide ‘free flying lessons’ and a ‘free ride’ to ‘failed’ asylum seekers who have already taken advantage of our generosity.

All this was neatly framed with a picture of Yonas Kebede in a leather jacket, looking vaguely pleased with himself, for reasons which probably have nothing to do with the court decision, but which is contextualised to make it look as if he is a wide boy who has just tricked his way into winning the lottery.

The case is unusual and appears to be unprecedented, even though the tabloids are falling over themselves to present it as yet another manifestation of British ‘asylum madness.’

For one thing, the designation of Kebede and his brother as ‘failed’ asylum seekers is meaningless, given that both of them were children when they originally came to the UK, and could not have made appeals on their own behalf.

Secondly, they both applied for student loans originally, and would have been eligible for them, had Lord Snooty and His Pals not changed the law.   Thirdly, they have been in the council’s care for nearly nine years, and if the Court of Appeal has ruled that the council is obliged to fulfill its statutory obligations, then that is that.   Lastly, both brothers intend to apply for permanent residency, and if they get it they will be able to apply for loans and pay most of the money back.

Some of these details were mentioned in passing by the tabloids yesterday.   But the main thrust – and in fact the whole point of the story – was to present yet again a picture of a system that supposedly privileges foreigners over British citizens, and to direct anger and contempt toward the whole concept of asylum.

Never mind that most asylum seekers subsist on £36 a week, or that thousands live in destitution and survive on food parcels provided by charities and NGOs.   Never mind that the £100 million cuts package introduced by Newcastle City Council in March this year was a result of budget priorities and ideological choices dictated by the government, not by asylum seekers and refugees.

Never mind that.   Better to think about the foreigners who always gain when we lose, and the Ethiopian asylum seeker who is taking off at our expense, while the rest of us remain stranded on the ground.

Better to hate one, the easier to hate them all.


Hope and Resilience Conference

I’m giving a workshop next Tuesday at a conference on the theme of Hope and Resilience for Refugees and Asylum Seekers at Leicester University, as part of National Refugee Week.

Here’s a summary of the conference and its objectives

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This event, funded by East Midlands Strategic Health Authority, is planned to mark national Refugee week and is being organised by the clinical psychology department at the University of  Leicester in  conjunction with a range of refugee and voluntary sector organisations  across the East Midlands.

This one day  conference will be held at the University of  Leicester on 19th June 2012. The theme is Hope and Resilience in the refugeecontext and it will explore how hope and resilience can be fostered in the current climate through an emphasis on human rights, approaches to justice in psychological therapy, and through building solidarity in the voluntary and statutory sector.



Further information is available  here  .

Come along if you’re in the area!