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Asylum, refugees and immigration: avoiding a race to the bottom

Immigration is once more high on the political agenda as the Home Office seek to ‘get tough’ with ‘illegal immigrants’. Vans urging illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest” and spot checks at railway stations across the country have ignited the debate, raising concerns that these actions risk marginalising communities and stigmatising asylum seekers and immigrants.

It could be argued that the merits of globalisation have been settled in many western liberal democracies. The main political parties appear to agree that the free movement of capital, trade and open markets are to be welcomed.

However, freedom of movement starts to become a major problem for some politicians once it involves people. Add to this the movement of people fleeing conflict, poverty and human rights abuses and you have a potentially toxic political cocktail that can be stirred with a dash of cynicism and served up by any politician seeking some cheap votes.

Recent events in Australia have brought this into sharp contrast. Australia - one of the wealthiest countries in the world has stooped to a new low in how it deals with those seeking sanctuary there. On 19 July Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that any asylum seekers arriving by boat would be sent to Papua New Guinea, and if assessed as refugees would be permanently resettled in Papua New Guinea, with complete disregard to Australia’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.  Asylum seekers are being subjected to mandatory indefinite detention and a number have already been deported from Australia to Papua New Guinea.

It came as no surprise to me when I woke up this Sunday to see that Rudd has just called a general election for the 7 September, he is clearly hoping to exploit the misinformed fears and prejudices of an electorate who have been led to believe that asylum seekers and immigrants are the root cause of all of Australia’s social and economic problems. He’s playing ‘lowest common denominator’ politics and rather than challenge and confront these misconceptions he is feeding them, reinforcing prejudices and perpetuating the discrimination of asylum seekers and immigrants.

My colleagues in Amnesty International Australia have been busy campaigning to get Rudd to drop this policy, to let him know that all people seeking asylum in Australia should be treated with fairness and compassion. I’d urge everyone to help us send a strong message to Rudd that his actions are not only inhumane, but could reverberate globally setting a dangerous precedent.

Unfortunately, Australia is not alone in employing its ill-treatment of these vulnerable people. Amnesty have recently reported how men, women and children fleeing war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan trying to reach the EU via Greece are being illegally ‘pushed back’ to Turkey. My colleague Naomi Westland recently wrote of how Greek border guards are picking these people up in Greek waters, attacking them, destroying their boats and leaving them stranded on the Turkish side of the border. This practice is not only illegal, it is incredibly dangerous. 

Whilst governments clearly do have a right to control migration into their countries, it must be done so in a humane and compassionate manner, in line with international and regional obligations. What we are seeing in Australia and the EU on the Greek border falls far short of these standards.

Back in the UK the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said that it is going to investigate the way in which immigration spot checks at railway stations across the country were carried out following reports that people were targeted because if their ethnicity. This is to be welcomed as it’s critical that the politicians of all parties avoid a race to the bottom and instead engage in a sensible and informed debate that does not seek cheap political capital at the cost of people’s human rights.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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