The Human Cost of War – Christine Majid

Refugee Girl

Zaatari Refugee Camp Jordan:  One of a million Syrian Children who have become refugees.(1) (UNCHR Report 2014)

UNCHR’s annual Global Trends report, which is based on data compiled by governments and non-government partner organizations and the organizations own records, show 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of 2013, 6 million more than the 45.2 million reported in 2012more.(1)

Why has there been such a massive increase?  On -going wars, (especially in Syria) terrorism,  major displacement in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, overall the largest refugee populations under UNHCR care are from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, accounting   for more than half of the global refugee total.(2)  By regions Asia and the Pacific have the largest refugee population overall at 3.5 million. Sub-Saharan Africa had 2.9 million people while the Middle East and North Africa had 2.6 million ( UNHCR -2013) and Pakistan, Iran  and Lebanon, hosted more refugees than any other countries in the world.

As more and more potential   migrants   are emerging ( mostly from the third world), they  are under compulsion to move, as economic, socio- political and environmental collapse threatens basic security in many regions, but where do they go?  As Europe closes its borders and has become a gated continent, we see the human tragedies  of  Lampedusa.   In February of this year 300 migrants were feared   to have drowned in the  Mediterranean(3), due to Europe’s decision to downsize maritime rescue operations last Autumn. This raises huge concerns regarding  the EU’s  moral and political values. (Guardian February 2015)

Does it not appear ironic that the very same states which were the authors who wrote the key principles of the Geneva Convention in 1951 are now attempting to re-write it?

Compulsion, Exclusion and the Denial of Dignity

As the EU was intent on institutionalizing policies that undermined Article 31 of the Geneva Convention by criminalizing illegal entry; it was only a matter of time before the UK was to follow the rest of Europe.  Boateng (1989) (4)comments on the boundaries of Europe being constantly fortified, and the concern with ‘legitimizing measures’ to keep out the alien flood.

This was clearly illustrated by Margaret Thatcher in 1989 who stated that:

“We joined Europe to have free movements of goods …..I did not join Europe to have free movement of terrorists, criminals, drugs, plant and animal diseases and illegal immigrants ‘. (1989).

There appears to be, amongst politicians, a fascination with the numbers and statistics of asylum flows, with displaced people being described as masses, hordes, influx, and swarms which ultimately dehumanizes asylum seekers.

It appears that global migrations at a time of austerity in Europe have not only been perceived as a threat to economic security, but also to national identity. Increasingly in the British and European Press the vision of being swamped with huge numbers of immigrants has been constructed both in exclusionary and discriminatory terms. This, in turn, has sown the seeds of a new nationalism and racism  fuelled by  New Right Ideologies, as well as giving a platform to the extreme right.

‘ Both the UK and other European Government’s  are using the welfare state as a lever to force asylum seekers to give up their fight  for asylum and leave the country “ voluntarily” ‘. ( Fekete. L 2009)5 . One must ask the question how voluntary is a return if a destitute asylum seeker is starved out of the country?

The New Labour Government of 1997 put in place internal mechanisms, which reflected the EU view of asylum seekers, (as a criminals in need of constant surveillance). The 1998 White paper ‘Fairer, Faster and Firmer’,(6)  made  it crystal clear that deterring ‘abusive’ asylum seekers from  entering the country was a primary aim.

Under the previous Conservative Government the costs of asylum seekers welfare was  borne by local authorities. Prior to the 1996 Immigration and Asylum Act , asylum seekers were entitled to the same welfare benefits as UK citizens, but at 90% of the normal rate.They could also claim housing benefit to cover rent. However, the 1996 Act removed all rights to housing and financial support from asylum seekers who failed to claim asylum at a UK port of entry, or who received a negative decision on their asylum claim. This meant that the local authorities, under the National Assistance Act 1945, and the Children’s Act 1989, were compelled to provide accommodation and food for those left destitute.

Under the new government of 1997, the right to claim asylum became highly politicised and the rights of asylum seekers began to be eroded, the dawn of the deterrence regime .In the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act responsibility for the housing and welfare of destitute asylum seekers was passed from the Department of Social Security to the Home Office. It appeared that now immigration was a matter of numbers  and not an issue of social welfare  and housing. A new administrative  body was set up called  the National Asylum and Support Service (NASS), and was established in the  Home Office ‘s  Immigration and Nationality Department to oversee the new controls.

Among various pieces of legislation incorporated into British asylum policy was the removal of the right to work in 2002, this was followed by, Section 55 of the Nationality and Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, which ruled that anyone who did not claim asylum immediately upon arriving in the country could be denied any access to support. This was challenged in 2003 by the High Court on the basis that it left people with a choice of ‘persecution or destitution’.

In 2004 Dramatic cuts in legal aid funding created a framework in which asylum seekers are frequently inadequately represented.  A new contract specification, devolved powers to self –authorise legal aid were curtailed, and funding for attendance and representation at Home Office interviews  was withdrawn. This was followed in 2005 by a single tier appeals process which altered the way legal aid was implemented for asylum cases. Retrospective funding ensured that Lawyers had to assess the likelihood that that an appeal would succeed [the “merits” test], if not, asylum seekers had to represent themselves. This left more and more asylum seekers, without legal representation for their asylum cases, ending up destitute, with no recourse to public funds, deprived of all civil and social rights, and stripped of human dignity. It could be argued that the only parallel lies within the pre – welfare state and the administration of poor relief, specifically the Poor Law of 1834, when the dreaded ‘workhouse’ was instituted, forcing the poor, to take the “workhouse test” for indoor relief. A regime so unpleasant as to deter the poor seeking shelter and protection in the first place.

As (Fekete, Liz, .2009), points out,  Britain like the rest of Europe is detaining people in detention centres. It makes one wonder how democratic are the European states? How can they justify imprisoning individuals? Why have most EU states created a separate prison regime for asylum seekers detained at the point of arrival? How can Democratic European States justify incarcerating people when they have never appeared before a court for a criminal offence?  What appears to have happened, in European States, is the implementation of a regime of control and surveillance where asylum is linked to security. Many asylum seekers  in detention have their claims fast tracked  and are deported without even setting foot outside the detention centre.(7).

As,(Carr, M.2012) states “  The harsh ‘post-entry’ asylum measures such as detention and destitution adopted by various Governments  over the last two decades have made life much harder for asylum seekers”.(8)

Fekete. L. (2009) draws attention to the racist practises in the Western world towards those seeking asylum, drawing parallels  to the anti – black racism of apartheid, with debate concerning numbers reminiscent of the 1970’s . “The victimisation and interment of asylum seekers  mirrors the treatment of the Jews  during the Second World War”. (9)

If the tragedies of the twentieth century are not to be repeated, a very different approach is needed, one which critically looks at global change, displacement, flight, and the search for safety and sanctuary.

Christine Majid

March 2015



 (1)   UNHCR, Global Report 2013

(2)   UNHCR, Global Report (2013).

(3)  Guardian, 11th February. 2015 Patrick Kinsley “Hundreds of Migrants Feared Dead in Mediterranean this week”

(4) Boateng, P. (1989),” Preface to Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI).  Unequal Migrants: “The European   Community’s Unequal Treatment of Migrants and Refugees”. Hutchinson University Library, London.

(5)  Fekete, L. (2009) ‘A Suitable Enemy’ pub. Pluto Press (2009)

(6)  Home Office (1998) Fairer, Faster and Firmer A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum Policy, CM 4018, London: Home Office, Para.13.3.

(7)  Fekete, L. (2009) ‘A Suitable Enemy’ pub. Pluto Press (2009)

(8) Carr, M. ( 2012). “Fortress Europe”,pub Hurst and Co Ltd


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