A Radical New Policy: Humanitarian Visas: a life-line for refugees

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With ever increasingly dangerous journeys, and increasingly restrictive measures against refugees to prevent them accessing asylum, the Liberal Democrats have taken the lead in adopting a radical new proposal: humanitarian visas for refugees to travel safely and legally to find the safety they deserve in the UK.

‘Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries freedom from persecution’, says Article 14 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. There is no such thing as an illegal asylum-seeker: only asylum seekers lacking legal routes to safety. But how can you get safely and legally to other countries?  Well, if you are British, your passport gives you visa-free access on arrival to 132 countries, and nearly all others will grant you a visa on application. But if you are Afghani, Iraqi, Iranian, or Syrian there is no such possibility.

In the year to March 2020, 35,000 people applied for asylum in the UK: virtually all of them had to enter irregularly – smuggled in lorries, crossing the channel in small boats, or using forged documentation. Ask yourself: why would a Darfuri escaping war-torn Sudan have to forge their passport to get on a plane from Khartoum to London? Why would an Eritrean in Calais pay thousands of pounds to traffickers, risking their lives by travelling in unseaworthy boats to reunite with their family in the UK, rather than board a Eurostar for £50? The answer is clear: if either of them attempted to use their national documents, they will be denied boarding.

Less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees are resettled. Most refugees are forced to risk their life and limb on perilous journeys, enduring extensive human rights violations on the way, to claim their human right to asylum. Many of those who made it to Calais have gone to dangerous lengths to reach adequate safety, running from Turkish border guards with a shoot to kill policy, walking the channel tunnel for 30 miles avoiding the speeding trains, suffering abuse and violence from police and border officials, cramming onto small unsafe dinghies to cross the channel, and losing their loved ones on the way, all to try and find safety.

On top of this, at present, governments including the UK are not only failing to help these refugees in their journeys, but are actively making the situation worse by using numerous practices, including building razor wire fences, walls, detention centres, funding riot police, and forcibly containing refugees in dangerous regions, all to deter and prevent refugees from arriving and to push them back. These practices make refugees’ journeys even more difficult and more dangerous.

What if, instead of this nightmarish situation we describe above, refugees could approach a UK consulate in their country of origin, or in neighbouring countries, or at a border post at a channel crossing, and apply for a Humanitarian Visa which would enable them to come to the UK safely and legally, where their asylum application would be fully assessed?

Humanitarian Visas would provide nothing less than a lifeline for refugees, enabling them to safely and legally travel to the UK, and get the protection they deserve, avoiding the dangerous journeys, exploitative traffickers, human rights violations, and ultimately the needless and avoidable loss of life. For refugees, these visas are required to uphold the fundamental principle to seek and claim asylum.

We are proud that the Liberal Democrats, at spring conference, became the first UK party to adopt a policy motion calling for the creation of humanitarian visas for refugees, as a vital component of a comprehensive policy for ‘safe and legal routes to save lives’. It is high time for other UK parties and for liberally minded parties across the Global North to follow suit, and provide this essential lifeline for refugees in the 21st century.

* Dr Ruvi Ziegler is Associate Professor in International Refugee Law, University of Reading. Dr Bradley Hiller-Smith, PhD in The Ethics of State Responses to Refugees, University of Reading. They are joint authors of the Humanitarian Visa amendment and other amendments to the Safe and Legal Routes to Save Lives Motion 2021.

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  • There is no such thing as an illegal asylum-seeker: only asylum seekers lacking legal routes to safety.

    True, but there are such things as people who are not asylum-seekers but who falsely claim to be asylum seekers to get into or remain in the country, aren’t there? Isn’t the difficult question how to tell them apart from genuine asylum-seekers?

    What if, instead of this nightmarish situation we describe above, refugees could approach a UK consulate in their country of origin, or in neighbouring countries, or at a border post at a channel crossing, and apply for a Humanitarian Visa which would enable them to come to the UK safely and legally, where their asylum application would be fully assessed?

    Isn’t that exactly the policy the government announced last week, giving priority to those who apply for asylum from their countries of origin over those who illegally enter the country, and which the Lib Dems condemned?

  • Richard Underhill.., 31st Mar '21 - 7:15pm

    Please see Sunday Times of last Sunday. Even Sweden is getting hardline and refusing compassionate cases three times, the only country in the world to refuse this religious minority

  • John Marriott 1st Apr '21 - 8:04am

    “There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker”. Why not rephrase that remark by adding “but there IS such a thing as a bogus asylum seeker”?

  • Helen Dudden 1st Apr '21 - 9:07am

    People traffickers make a vast amount of money out of selling vulnerable people. Very recently , a brothel was discovered in London.
    That’s what needs to be controlled, the selling of people. It was thought that there was going to be exploited uses, of those coming across the channel.
    Of course, if you are not in a country legally, how can anyone access medical care?

  • Dr. Ruvi Ziegler 1st Apr '21 - 9:45am

    Dear all, thanks for engaging with our article. A few succinct responses:

    To Dav – of course not every person seeking asylum meets the criteria, which is why there is a refugee status determination process in place, including a right of appeal. The challenge is to get to the point where one can have their application assessed without having to endanger one’s life and/or have to enter a country irregularly – this is where humanitarian visas become critical. The government plan is to perhaps renew resettlement of those who have already left their countries on dangerous journeys and are languishing in camps / are particularly vulnerable – though unlike the Lib Dems (which call for 10,000 persons resettled each year plus 1,000 unaccompanied minors) they do not commit to numbers. But even if resettlement is restarted after a year’s hiatus, it does not prevent dangerous and irregular journeys for those still in their country or origin, or who cannot risk being in camps waiting for a resettlement scheme to operate.

  • Dr. Ruvi Ziegler 1st Apr '21 - 9:45am

    [responses – part 2]

    To Richard – there are worse and better examples of adherence to international refugee law, and populist pressures may/could affect many countries in the global north (the UK is not alone in suffering from that trend), so it is not inconceivable they do so in Sweden as well. I am not familiar with the specifics of the case to be able to comment more thoroughly.

    To John – an asylum-seeker is someone seeking recognition as a refugee (or, where other grounds for protection exist e.g. through the EU Qualification Directive – which has been retained as part of UK law). Whether they are successful in their application should depend on whether they meet the definition(s) – though in reality it would often depend on whether they have access to legal aid, interpretations, documents etc. The point about illegality pertains to the mistaken notion that the methods of seeking asylum can render someone ‘illegal’ – whereas as we demonstrated it is recognised that there is a right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries. Other than being unnecessary inflammatory, I don’t see how using the term ‘bogus’ helps anyone.

    To Helen: you raise an incredibly important point about the human cost of travelling irregularly (exploitation) and of entering and residing irregularly (lack of access to services). That is the essence of our proposal – to drain the traffickers’ exploitative business model by providing legal and safe routes to asylum, and to ensure those who arrive do not have to live in the shadows and can enjoy access to services.

  • Many fleeing conflict zones don’t have passports,.The existence of a humanitarian visa would not be of much help to them.

  • I don’t understand why Liberal Democrats are so keen to bring people in from illiberal undemocratic cultures.

  • Matt (Bristol) 1st Apr '21 - 11:47am

    Andrew — a) Your sweeping generalisation is unhelpful and b) Ideology. Same reason the UK Conservatives are dedicated to maintaining the presence in the UK of nations they disparage and whose political leanings they by-and-large oppose. They just think its the right thing to do.

    Liberalism is for the rights of conservatives as well as liberals. Democracy involves giving a voice to those who distrust democracy. Effective nation states rely on the presence and citizenship in the nation of those who don’t necessarily define as having that nationhood.

    Binarism is killing politics and culture.

  • Bradley Hillier-Smit 1st Apr '21 - 11:48am

    To Ian, you are right! Yet the lack of passport and other relevant documentation is exactly what the humanitarian visas address. They provide official documentation for refugees to travel safely and legally.

    To Andrew, we believe that all those who have been forced to flee their homes have a human right to apply for asylum. It is precisely because certain states are illiberal and undemocratic that some people are forced to flee. And to take a historical example, Jewish refugees were fleeing an illiberal undemocratic state, but surely you agree that they were entitled to safety from persecution, an it was right for the UK to accept Jewish refugees?

  • Matt (Bristol): I think your answer is quite paradoxical. You seem to be saying liberalism = tolerance of illiberalism and democracy = giving people who don’t want democracy a vote.
    The countries of the Middle East are almost without exception undemocratic. I believe this is no coincidence.

  • Bradley Hillier-Smit 1st Apr '21 - 12:45pm

    Hi Andrew, I don’t think there is anything paradoxical in protecting the human rights of those fleeing illiberal undemocratic regimes? Offering safety and freedom to people suffering persecution and human rights violations isn’t tolerating illiberalism, but is rather a statement of liberalism.

  • John Marriott 1st Apr '21 - 12:49pm

    Sorry you don’t understand what I mean, because many people do and they are often the kind you need to persuade to give you their vote. There are clearly people fleeing persecution, as there have been since time immemorial. However, there have always been those who have taken advantage of the generosity of other nations to seek what they consider to be a better life. It’s these bogus asylum seekers who are giving genuine asylum seekers a bad name. It can’t can’t accept that then you need to add naivety to the list of your personal ‘qualities’.

  • Bradley Hillier-Smit: But we’ve already established that many of those people leaving illiberal undemocratic regimes are themselves illiberal and undemocratic. So the Middle East will remain as it is and we will head that way too. I feel you are paving the road with good intentions.

  • Peter Watson 1st Apr '21 - 1:19pm

    @Martin “What could be ‘bogus’ though are the grounds for a rejection, hence the many (75% apparently) successful appeals.”
    I’m not sure about that 75% figure. it seems to reflect the number of appeals, not the number of successful appeals, which would be around 33% (i.e. about 25% of refused applications):
    “In the period from 2004 to 2019, around three-quarters of applicants refused asylum at initial decision lodged an appeal and almost one third of those appeals were allowed.” (https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn01403/)

  • Matt (Bristol) 1st Apr '21 - 2:06pm

    Andrew, clearly your version of liberalism involves judging people by their birthplace or (possibly) religion and junking any link to Voltaire’s maxim about defending to the death another person’s right to say things we disagree with.

    Ergo, its not liberalism, its authoritarianism, where whomever is in charge gets to set impose their morality and ethics on the whole nation. Obviously there needs to be an ongoing democratic debate around how we balance rights and responsibilities (but I don’t accept that any government with roughly 40% of the vote is in a position to maturely initiate that debate and say it has identified a consensus on any issue.)

    I don’t disagree that some liberals seem to heading in your direction (maybe not on this issue), imposing their views and beliefs on others, catching bad habits off other political ideologies, but in all circumstances might (of all kinds) is not right and racial- and nationality- based profiling resulting in curtailment of civil liberties is wrong.

  • suzanne Fletcher 1st Apr '21 - 3:48pm

    @Andrew says “But we’ve already established that many of those people leaving illiberal undemocratic regimes are themselves illiberal and undemocratic. ”
    just how would we feel if we were in another country, especially one where we thought was democratic and place where we could be safe, judges us as being like our rulers – Boris, Priti Patel and co?

  • Matt (Bristol): No, you have entirely misrepresented my position on liberalism. I agree with what seems to be your definition: your liberalism tolerates everything, even illiberalism. I believe the more illiberal people we have in the country, the more illiberal the country will become. In fact that is self evident. You seem to be arguing the opposite.

  • AFAIK existing laws on refugees are based on the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, itself based in part on earlier traditions.

    The context was helping WW2 refugees. Many borders shifted substantially at the end of the war, displacing huge numbers. By 1951 most had probably found somewhere reasonably safe; the Convention gave them certainty and security.

    (If this is materially wrong, could the authors please set the record straight.)

    The authors of the Convention could not have imagined how far and how fast the world would change in the ensuing 70 years; travel is much, much easier and, in real terms, vastly cheaper while TV, radio and Internet have gone global. Masai tribesmen now do their banking by smartphone.

    So, third world awareness of the first has soared as has the ability to travel from one to the other making the UN Convention no longer fit for purpose. A key problem is that officialdom cannot effectively distinguish refugees from economic migrants.

    An example: a friend who lives in a mid-sized city volunteers for a charity that provides practical help for people. The city has a modest migrant population, so she was surprised to find that +90% of her ‘clients’ are economic migrants, none have been bona fide refugees. E.g., one assignment was to help a man write his CV. She says he was very clear that he came to the UK looking for better pay than in his home country – then produced Home Office documents recording him as a refugee.

    She says a high proportion of her cases have costs to taxpayers that are off scale; one family she helped might have racked up costs to UK taxpayers of £250k in the year she dealt with them – indirectly down to the fallout from discovering the streets turned out not to be paved with gold as they had imagined.

    So, yes, let’s have humanitarian visas but they should be issued as near as reasonably possible to the source country to minimise traffickers’ involvement including their rosy sales pitches and the misery and deaths they cause.

    But let’s also distinguish economic migrants and refugees in law. Both should apply from near their home country (to restrict gang involvement). Refugees status should offer safety but otherwise restricted rights – no path to permanent residence for example – so applicants must show their hand.

  • Suzanne Fletcher: I’m not judging people by their leaders, but by the people’s own attitudes. Surely you have noticed by now a lot of these immigrants are not very liberal.

  • Bradley Hillier-Smit 1st Apr '21 - 4:09pm

    Hi Andrew

    I not sure where you are getting your assumption that refugees are themselves illiberal, rather than fleeing illiberal regimes. Are you able to provide some evidence? All comprehensive analyses show that refugees can and do integrate well into western societies and contribute immensely economically and culturally.

    See for example: d’Albis, Boubtane, and Coulibaly, “Macroeconomic Evidence Suggests That Asylum Seekers Are Not a ‘Burden’ for Western European Countries”; Legrain, “Refugees Work.”
    See further case studies in “UNHCR – Global Trends 2019,” 52.
    See for example, “Comparative Study on the Best Practices for the Integration of Resettled Refugees in EU Member States | European Resettlement Network.”
    and “UNHCR – Global Trends 2019,” 51–53.

  • Peter Hirst 1st Apr '21 - 4:22pm

    It’s an excellent idea that would only be enhanced by more countries embracing it. It would be like passports in reverse granting the right of unimpeded access to the UK with perhaps a deadline. As you say the threshold would be lower as their application would be processed in more detail, once here. It should be free.

  • Bradley Hillier-Smit Those UN reports are about the economic aspect rather than cultural, as far as I can see. In any case, the UN never says anything bad about migration (neither do the Liberal Democrats though!).
    Here is a bit of evidence about Muslim attitudes in general:

    I would like to draw your attention to one paragraph: “Extensive polling conducted by ICM suggests that in most cases attitudes held by the British Muslim population do not broadly differ from those held by the population at large, but there are significant differences when it comes to some issues such as homosexuality and women’s rights.”

  • Bradley Hillier-Smit: Here is a paragraph from a Guardian article about general attitudes among UK Muslim population:
    “Extensive polling conducted by ICM suggests that in most cases attitudes held by the British Muslim population do not broadly differ from those held by the population at large, but there are significant differences when it comes to some issues such as homosexuality and women’s rights.”

    Regarding the UN documents you mentioned, I think these focus on the economic impact, rather than the cultural.

  • The humanitarian visa sounds like a positive initiative. Whatever, is done here in the UK, however, is only addressing the problems of those that reach these shores, legally or not.
    Amnesty International report that there are 26 million refugees globally. Half of the world’s refugees are children and 85% of refugees are being hosted in developing countries. Over one million people reached Europe in 2015 in fragile, overcrowded boats.
    In 2019, more than two-thirds of all refugees came from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. Syria has been the main country of origin for refugees since 2014 and at the end of 2019, there were 6.6 million Syrian refugees hosted by 126 countries worldwide.

    In 2019, only half a per cent of the world’s refugees were resettled. Over the past decade, just over 1 million refugees were resettled, compared to 3.9 million refugees who returned to their country.

    Amnesty International’s I Welcome global campaign is pushing for countries to agree a global and fairer system for protecting refugees and other people in need of international protection https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/i-welcome/

  • Margaret Lally 1st Apr '21 - 9:39pm

    Very much welcome the proposal of humanitarian visas whilst agreeing with Joe that they are part of a solution to a complex issue which requires a global multi-faceted approach to both assist asylum seekers reach a country where their case will be heard fairly but also addresses the fact that most people seeking refugee will only get as far as another country in the same region which won’t have the resources to support them.

  • Bradley Hillier-Smit
    No passport no visa.
    Most refugees go to neigboring countries. They just cross the border. Often they languish in camps for years,few get resettled in third countries. This article doesn’t reflect the realities on the ground

  • Bradley Hillier-Smit 2nd Apr '21 - 10:50am

    Hi Ian

    I’m aware of the situation on the ground. Humanitarian visas to travel safely and legally, provide an alternative to the squalid camps and destitution in urban areas in states that border refugees’ states of origin, and also an alternative to the life-threatening journeys to access asylum.

  • Bradley Hillier-Smit 2nd Apr '21 - 10:53am

    Hi Andrew

    That quote is regarding British muslims, not refugees. So again are you able to provide any evidence to support the view that refugees are illiberal.

    Further, even if refugees did have illberal views, what would do you think the appropriate response should be, refuse to help and thus allow them to suffer and die at the hands of their persecutors, or integration and education?

  • Bradley Hillier-Smit: From extensive reading and experience I very much doubt that Muslim refugees will have a substantially different version of Islam to the rest of the UK Muslim population.
    The liberal solution is to let everyone in who is being persecuted.
    Would that include ISIS supporters who are being “persecuted” by the Syrian government? Would it include a radical Islamist facing imprisonment for his beliefs in Egypt?
    This is what I think is the liberal paradox. You aim to save everyone but will end up spreading illiberalism around the world.

  • Bradley Hillier-Smit
    Without a valid passport the visa idea is no go.

  • Antony Watts 9th Apr '21 - 12:02pm

    And if I request asylum in the EU, away from this British government, will they give it to me?

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