We recently marked the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This event should be met with pride (Britain was one of the original signatories of the convention), but also sadness that the situation of refugees throughout the world is more precarious than ever.
This UN treaty, adopted by more than 145 countries, defines who is a refugee, the responsibility of nations to grant asylum and the rights of those who have been granted asylum. It sets out the status of people not granted asylum and of those who do not qualify as refugees. One of the most important principles of this treaty is that a refugee cannot be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.
So, how should we, in the Jewish community, mark this anniversary? Two points stand out.
The first is that this law, like other human rights conventions, came about in the shadow of the Holocaust, a monstrous period that resulted not only in millions of deaths, but in an unprecedented number of refugees. The second is that prominent Jews were involved in creating human rights legislation and fostering an atmosphere where human rights, such as the right to claim asylum, became part of the international community’s DNA. Jewish lawyers are disproportionately prominent in their involvement and engagement in championing human rights law today – of which we should be proud.
Refugees are ordinary people, just like you and me, who have survived extraordinary circumstances just because of where they happen to be born, what they or family members believe, and under what kind of political regimes they live. Let me tell you about two such people.
In 2006, Gulwali Passarlay was a 12-year-old boy in rural Afghanistan, caught in a war zone. After his father was killed, his mother paid a smuggler to take him and his brother to safety in Europe. Separated from his brother, he endured a dangerous 12,000-mile journey through 10 countries. He survived imprisonment in Iran, being thrown off a moving train in Bulgaria and almost drowning on an overcrowded boat, where they were without food and water for 50 hours. He somehow made it to the notorious “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais and, after many failed attempts finally reached Britain, hidden in an unrefrigerated lorry carrying bananas.
After years navigating through Britain’s asylum and care systems, he was granted the right to stay. He was selected to carry the Olympic torch on its journey to the London 2012 Games. Gulwali, a Manchester University graduate, uses his experience as an author and TEDx speaker to campaign for fairer asylum laws.
The second is Dr Waheed Arian. Fleeing civil war in Afghanistan, he was smuggled to Britain arriving alone as a traumatised 15-year-old. Within a few years, he earned a place to study medicine at Cambridge. In addition to being an A&E doctor, he spent the past year working on the front line fighting Covid and created a charity to use telemedicine to help in conflict zones.
Not all refugees will be as professionally successful as Gulwali and Waheed, but many contribute to the UK’s social and economic infrastructure and all deserve the opportunity and the right to claim asylum in the UK.
Parliament has before it the draconian Immigration and Borders Bill, which makes the right to claim asylum dependent on how a person has arrived in the UK, rather than the reason for seeking asylum. The government says it is doing this to stop the dangerous journeys too many asylum seekers make over the Channel.
People desperate to escape persecution do not have the luxury of being able to take legal routes to find refuge, especially when there are very few safe routes. For so many people fleeing for their lives, risking all to cross the Channel may be their only option. Many of us in the Jewish community will have family who fled to the UK by whatever means they could.
The most honourable way to commemorate the 70th anniversary is to ensure the UK has in place fair, humane and workable procedures to deal with today’s refugees. JCORE will reach out to individuals and organisations within the community to campaign against these proposals and ask the government to give us an asylum system that is fit for purpose.
We hope you join us.