Forced migration and Britain’s deliberately “hostile environment” towards refugees

Four local Quakers took part in a Birmingham workshop on Forced Migration. They learned how instead of welcoming and caring for people whose suffering we in part helped cause Britain adopts a deliberate “hostile environment” policy towards refugees.

Ali Morgan writes:

I was one of four members of West Wilts and East Somerset Area Meeting attending the Forced Migration Workshop. It was amazing to find ourselves part of an event involving around 120 Quakers, from every part of the UK plus participants from Dublin.

The weekend was packed with information and breakout workshops covering every aspect of the issue. Representatives from the Quaker UN Office QUNO and the Quaker Council for European Affairs QCEA set the scene with what was happening in Europe and in Geneva, and the findings of a Meeting for Sufferings survey of Quaker involvement in refugee issues. We were treated to an excellent explanation of UK policy by Gina Clayton, chair of South Yorkshire Refugee Law and Justice, who described Theresa May’s deliberate creation of a “hostile environment” (see eg here, here), designed to make it virtually impossible for people to navigate the system; and what happens to people – often very vulnerable people with real reasons to fear being returned, whose applications are refused.

Our fellow Bath resident Ken Loach spoke this week of “a callous brutality that is disgraceful…a brutality that extends to keeping out refugee children” (photo: The Big Issue)

This reminded me of a young Zimbabwean man I had met at an Amnesty International conference a few years ago, whose horrifying story shocked me to tears. The British immigration authorities had accepted that his life would be at risk if he returned to Zimbabwe, so they did not deport him, but they still rejected his application for asylum, forcing him into a limbo world waiting years to see if his next application would be accepted. And meanwhile, with no right to work or claim benefits he would have been reduced to vagrancy had it not been for the compassion of a church community in Nottingham who provided for him.

We were introduced to Tim Gee, newly appointed to Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) staff to lead activities in support of Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network. In a dinner-time conversation about the UK’s responsibility for the current situation, Tim told me that his research has shown that over 50% of the current global refugee population is from countries formerly colonized by Britain; this figure rises to about 75% if you include those from countries bombed by Britain in the last couple of decades.

Why was the weekend entitled “Forced Migration” rather than “Refugees and Asylum Seekers”? We learned that there were many causes driving people to abandon their homes and undertake the perilous journeys in search of sanctuary. Conflict is of course, a major driver. We also heard about the significance of gender-based violence, sexuality and other issues. Environmental degradation and climate change is an increasingly important issue as I know from my own experience working in Mongolia a few years ago. In that single winter, 8m livestock starved leaving thousands of nomadic herders without livelihoods – the latest in an increasingly frequent cycle of animal famines. This was partly the result of climate change but most significantly it was the result of political change since the end of communism in 1990, when the World Bank had introduced its shock therapy and rapid transition to a free-market economy resulting in catastrophic damage to Mongolia’s grasslands and its previously sustainable ways of life.


The QARN web site has moving and disturbing stories from refugees.

I have noticed how the media language has changed in recent years from ‘refugee’ to the consistent use of ‘migrant’, the unspoken implication being that these are not people with legitimate reasons to flee, but people who are coming to steal our jobs and abuse our welfare system. But the term ‘forced migration’ was chosen to avoid false differentiations, in recognition that poverty and environmental crisis are just as real threats to life as bombs and bullets, and that our wealthy and powerful governments who decide on the fate of immigrants need to acknowledge responsibility and address these complex causes of migration.

I attended Diana Francis’ breakout workshop on ‘Rethinking Security’ inspiring us to think about what would make us all secure – surely not more walls and weapons, but respecting others’ equal need and right to security and a good life – understanding that conflict is a normal and natural aspect of human relationships, but violence is not an appropriate way to resolve it.

Tim Gee’s workshop on “Movement Building’ taught us a way of creating the kind of change in thinking and policy that is needed, creating multi-directional interactions to spread our spheres of influence.

On Saturday afternoon we were treated to the first showing of The Bundle, a new production by the Journeyman Theatre Company. It’s an absolutely gripping play based on the true story of a highly vulnerable woman and her children forced to flee gender violence, only to come up against the “hostile environment” of Britain’s immigration system. We must get the play to Bath!

During the weekend there were many conversations about what special role we as Quakers in Britain could play regarding forced migration. We discussed a range of actions that Friends are already involved in and new initiatives we could instigate, such as an EAPPI-like accompaniment programme to support migrants arriving in Britain. It seemed to me that we should not get too hung up about a distinct Quaker niche. One of our particular qualities and responsibilities as Quakers is to work together with others in pursuit of common goals (Advices & Queries #6).

  • Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship.

We are not alone or unique in our concern for migrants and many Friends are already working in interfaith and secular group activities, so no need to reinvent a Quaker wheel.

In all the discussions about meeting the humanitarian needs of migrants, I, and others attending, felt we were perhaps overlooking our need to address the root causes as well as the symptoms. We must vigorously, but constructively, challenge those in power and influence them to rethink the policies of violent intervention and unjust economics and recognise that those do not offer the solution to our security needs.

We discussed the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme, set up by David Cameron’s government to limit the number of Syrian refugees Britain accepts. The programme is an example of Britain’s failure to take responsibility for its actions in the world. Not only does it limit the number of Syrians accepted to 20,000 over five years, but it ignores the plight of those already destitute in Europe, punishing them further for the desperation of their situation.

A further issue particularly close to my personal concern is the ongoing plight of the Palestinian refugees. As Tim Gee pointed out, Palestinians remain the largest single refugee population in the world, seven decades since their original forced displacement by Zionist militias, that was a direct result of Britain’s unjust and catastrophic actions. Many of the million Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948 and 1967 sought sanctuary in Syria. Until recently, three or four generations on, there were over half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria, like those living in the terrible conditions of Yamouk refugee camp near Damascus, besieged, bombed and starved by all sides throughout the last few years of the Syrian war. By 2016 the UN reported that over half of these Palestinian refugees had been displaced for a second (or third) time, some having made the perilous journey to Europe, whilst others find themselves stuck in Lebanese refugee camps. Their situation is particularly tragic. Even though they too are fleeing the war in Syria, they are not Syrian, so not eligible for David Cameron’s mean VPR scheme. And as they are not Syrian they will have no automatic right to return to Syria when the war ends. We must do our best to ensure that they do not again become the forgotten refugees.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.