Zena Belhalfaoui, Help Refugees volunteer in Calais.
Namdar Baghaei-Yazdi still remembers the warm welcome he received in the UK when he and his family fled the revolution in Iran forty years ago, in 1979. They were forced to flee after his father was executed by a newly-formed Iranian government.
“We came here and we were very much welcomed”, Namdar says, describing how back then Home Office officials would meet the family at their local refugee centre, rather than make them travel all the way to their official offices.
This welcome couldn’t be more at odds with the Home Office’s now hostile response to people fleeing war and persecution, exemplified in Sajid Javid’s recent labelling of the very small rise in the number of boats crossing the Channel as a ‘major incident’.
Since this declaration, the Home Office has been unlawfully deporting people to Calais without adequately assessing their asylum claims. The aim: to deter asylum seekers attempting or planning to attempt the journey to the UK.
We want to take a moment to debunk the hate-fueled narrative surrounding Iranian refugees coming to the UK from Calais, by explaining why these people flee their homes and why they have a right to claim asylum where they choose.
Why are people fleeing Iran?
The 1979 Iranian Revolution installed a new, ultra conservative dictatorship in the country. Since then, human rights violations there have been well-documented and all too commonplace.
Executions continue to occur frequently, particularly for drugs-related offenses. 273 were reported in 2018, the second-highest in the world last year. Iran’s judiciary is also targeting journalists, online media activists and human rights defenders in an ongoing crackdown on the freedom of speech, in blatant disregard of international and domestic legal standards.
Iran ranks as the 18th worst country in the world for freedom of expression. As a result, scores of human rights defenders and political activists remain behind bars for their peaceful activism, with little idea of when or if they will be freed. Laws surrounding notions of modesty, morality and public decency are also incredibly strict: just this week a young couple was arrested after a video clip of their public marriage proposal went viral. The justification for the arrest provided by Iranian authorities was that the proposal contravened the country’s “religious and cultural values”.
People protest in 2017 in support of Soheil Arabi, a prominent political prisoner.
Why are they claiming asylum in the UK?
In reality, an incredibly small proportion of displaced people from Iran claim asylum in the UK each year. In 2018, 500 people attempted to cross the channel in small vessels. So far in 2019, this figure stands at just over 130.
In the media, people attempting the crossing have been vilified and labelled ‘illegal immigrants’. Their claims to asylum have been rejected before they have even been made.
Sajid Javid publicly questioned whether the people in these boats were genuine asylum seekers, completely ignoring their legal, human right to proper assessment. Before speaking to them, before listening and understanding each of their stories, a decision had been made: one entrenched in hostility and one which contravenes international law.
If we look at recent asylum statistics for the year ended September 2018, 47% of all asylum claims by people from Iran were accepted. Of those rejected, 46% won on appeal. This means that roughly three-quarters of all people from Iran are granted refugee status.
For the reasons listed above, and looking at the acception rate in the UK, it’s clear that the huge majority of people fleeing Iran do so because their lives are at risk.
But why the UK?
Again, a very small minority are trying to claim asylum in the UK. For the most part, people have little choice in where they seek asylum. In the cases where people do have some degree of choice, it is primarily based on language, colonial links between their home country and the new country, having family or friends in the new country, or a belief that the new country is safe, tolerant and democratic.
Refugees are under no obligation to claim asylum in the first country they reach. Given this, the chances are that the large majority of Iranian asylum seekers attempting the crossing would be granted refugee status. The UK is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and must start adhering to it to ensure that these people are given the protection they deserve.
How should the Home Secretary respond?
The Home Office is adamant that asylum seekers entering illegally must be deported quickly in order to deter others from making a similar journey. In so doing, though, we are neglecting our international duty – not to mention our legal and moral responsibility – to protect the rights of those who have been displaced.
The plea to the British Home Secretary is this: give people hope. Respect their human rights and don’t push them further into the margins of society. Don’t use the recent boats crossing the Channel as an excuse to clamp down hard on innocent people. Don’t pander to the divisive rhetoric prevalent in so much of the British press.
We need strong leaders willing to work on real solutions, who are ready to cooperate with groups and governments to protect people from exploitation and abuse. Let’s transform the hostile environment into the hospitable environment and work together to give sanctuary to those in need.