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Refugees and Human Rights

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:06 pm on 24th January 2018.

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Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West 4:06 pm, 24th January 2018

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker; I am glad to see you back in the Chair.

I will start by sharing with the House the case brought to me by the Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network, a charity that works tirelessly to support asylum seekers in Leeds and for which I used to be a short-stop host for asylum seekers who were destitute. Network staff told me about a freezing cold Friday afternoon in December when they were phoned anonymously by a member of Home Office staff, tipping them off that the Home Office had just sent a woman on to the streets of Leeds, where she was wandering around crying. When they arrived they found a woman named Akifa holding a piece of paper in her hand with a map of Croydon, which was some 230 miles away.

After some effort by LASSN and other charities, they managed to locate an interpreter and they heard her story. Akifa did not know where she was. She spoke of looking for a maternal aunt in the Netherlands, but the person who had brought her to the UK was no longer around. This was a story that LASSN had heard many times before—a textbook case of trafficking. Because of her unclear immigration status, no social or homelessness services could take her and keep her safe. Some hours and 20 phone calls later, the police arrived. To their great credit, they did not arrest Akifa for illegal entry to the UK, but instead took her to a place of safety, which was a great relief as arrest was a very real possibility.

Akifa was Eritrean. She was trafficked into the United Kingdom, where she did the right thing and reported to the Home Office. She was then turfed out on to the street and left to fend for herself. How did we get here? How do we end up in a situation where a vulnerable person is abandoned first by her own nation and then, sadly, by ours?

Eritrea, like so many other countries across Africa and Asia, has experienced a sharp increase in the number of people attempting to flee in recent years. Despite there being no ongoing war in Eritrea, huge numbers of men and women trying to escape national service in the country resort to routes that take them through war-torn countries and deserts and across deadly sea crossings. That is because, unlike military conscription, boys and girls aged 16-plus are often expected to serve indefinitely, with many refugees equating conscription to a life sentence of forced labour.

Physical abuse, including torture, occurs frequently, as does forced domestic servitude and sexual violence by commanders against female conscripts. There is no redress mechanism for conscripts. Attempts to flee are sternly punished. On 3 April 2017, new conscripts trying to escape from a convoy in Asmara were shot at by guards, killing several. President Isaias rules without institutional restraint. There have been no elections since 1991 and no legislature since 2002. The judiciary is subject to Executive control and the constitution is unimplemented.

UNHCR reported 475,000 Eritreans globally to be refugees and asylum seekers—that is 12% of the population—yet the UK policy has been to pass the buck to countries already facing problems of their own, shirking our own responsibility under international law. As The Guardian reported last year, Home Office documents obtained by the Public Law Project detail efforts by the Government to seek more favourable descriptions of human rights conditions in Eritrea. The notes relate to a high-level meeting that took place in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, in December 2015 between senior Eritrean Government officials and a UK Government delegation. A diplomatic telegram, written by the then UK ambassador to Eritrea, said that a meeting was held to “discuss reducing Eritrean migration”, and sought to find evidence on human rights

“to evaluate whether we should amend our country guidance”.

We should be ashamed of those actions. It took a tribunal case to overturn that guidance.

We accept that there is a problem, yet we have failed to provide a solution. The case of Akifa and Eritrea presents a broad problem with British refugee policy. Akifa should never have been left at the mercy of dangerous traffickers. She should never have been able to escape death only to risk her life. Akifa should not have been abandoned in Leeds—she should have been able to reach the UK through safe and legal means. The UK needs to stand up, not just for Eritreans but for all those fleeing conflict and oppression. The refugee crisis is bigger than Britain, but we can work with the UNHCR and other organisations to fulfil our moral, legal and human obligations. Let history remember our country not as the one that chose to look away but as the one that worked hard to create a better alternative and encouraged other countries to follow suit.