Refugees have criticised the Government’s proposed changes to asylum policy on the 70th anniversary of the UK signing the UN Refugee Convention.
The proposed Nationality and Borders Bill, which would tighten restrictions on asylum seekers based on whether they enter the UK through a UN-backed resettlement programme, was described as “disgusting” by attendees at a Refugee Council event in London.
The convention sets out the standards of treatment for those seeking refuge from war and persecution, stating no person should be returned to a country if they face a serious threat to their life or freedom.
Refugees who left their countries across all seven decades of the convention’s existence came together at Friends House, London, to celebrate the anniversary and recreate a photo from the signing of the convention on July 28 1951.
The picture shows the refugees signing an orange heart, the colour of which is a nod to the refugee flag created for the Refugee Olympic Team which competed at Rio 2016.
Gillian Slovo, 69, a South African refugee from London who fled the country of her birth with her parents as a child in 1964 after being persecuted for active opposition to apartheid, said: “It’s disgusting what they’re doing. I think they’re only doing it for a soundbite.
“I’m not even sure it’s going to stop people coming here, but I think the attitudes that these people are somehow coming here because they want something of ours is completely wrong and completely against what Britain once stood for.
“I think the way that our current Government speaks about refugees is pretty disgusting. There’s not an understanding that people actually do not like to leave the country of their birth.”
Gillian attended the event with a school friend, Julia Granville, 69.
The pair struck up a friendship in the 1960s after Gillian arrived in the UK and Julia made her feel welcome at school, and their daughters are now also good friends.
Saad Maida, 37, a Syrian NHS gynaecologist from Leamington Spa, gained refugee status after being unable to return home from his medical training in the UK without undertaking mandatory military service during the Syrian civil war, to which he conscientiously objects.
Dr Maida said: “In Europe, the UK has been doing much less than their peers like Germany, other forgiving Scandinavian nations or the Netherlands with its small size.
“The conditions of the refugees once they earn refugee status is much better than other places but in terms of quantity, given the size of the UK and its position as an imperialist nation or as a world-leading nation, is less number-wise than it should be.
“Things like processing asylum seekers abroad or not allowing child refugees to be reunited and the lengthy process, the human brain is not designed to deal with the uncertainty.
“Without (the UN Refugee Convention), I would not have had the chance to practise (gynaecology). It is one thing to tell you that you have rights, it is another thing to put it on paper.”
Dr Maida was one of many refugee doctors who were on the front lines fighting Covid in the NHS, something he says made him feel proud to work for the health service.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “I am fearful that the Government is turning its back on our proud history of giving people safety.
“It’s imperative that we don’t discriminate against people based on how they’ve managed to reach our country.”
Chris Philp, Minister for Immigration Compliance and Justice said: “We have a proud history of welcoming those genuinely fleeing persecution and have helped tens of thousands of refugees build a new life in the UK.
“Since 2015, our resettlement schemes have welcomed more than 25,000 men, women and children seeking refuge, more than any EU country.
“Our New Plan for Immigration is the most significant overhaul of our asylum system in decades.
“It will allow us to continue to welcome people through safe and legal routes and prioritise the most vulnerable, whilst preventing illegal and dangerous crossings and the criminality associated with them.”
The Nationality and Borders Bill passed its second reading in June and is expected to reach committee stage in September 2021.