Changing Political Landscape For Refugees In Brexit Britain

The UK government recently avoided a Commons defeat of an amendment which would have forced councils to state how many child refugees they were capable of taking in. The amendment, which was defeated by 287 votes to 267 marks the most recent attempt to restart the UK Dubs scheme – a government scheme aimed to bring 3,000 lone refugee children to the UK. The scheme was abolished in February of this year. When the scheme was ended, only 350 children had been brought to the UK, well below the target.

While there remains a desire to reinstate the program across NGOs and political parties, the move is at the deadly expense of child refugees. Lily Caprani, deputy executive director at Unicef UK, remarked that the loss of the legal scheme made children more vulnerable to traffickers and said “This crisis is not going away. This country must not turn away from doing its bit to help the most vulnerable.”

This week Prime minister Theresa May triggered article 50, initiating the process of removing the UK from the European Union. While Brexit itself is not thought to have much effect on policies and agreements with regards to refugees and asylum seekers, it could mark a negative change in the political landscape. The UK government is still committed to take in 20,000 refugees by 2020. Though this is considerably less than most European countries.

While toxic messages like UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s billboards, depicting refugees with a bold red text that read ‘Breaking Point’, are not representative of the whole pro-Brexit campaign, the vote does symbolize a shift towards isolationism and the right wing. It is this political shift more than the political act of Brexit that will have the greatest impact on refugees in Europe. Andrew Geddes, co-director of the Social Sciences Migration Research Group at Sheffield University, commented that “The UK has been marginal to many of the key EU developments [on refugees], but I think there will be implications for [the] rights of asylum seekers inside the UK.”

Theresa May’s desire to leave the European Convention of Human Rights, for example, could signify an attempt to pull back the rights of refugee and asylum seekers. The decision to end the Dubs scheme was coloured by public opinion shaped by media images of large quantities of refugees arriving in Europe.  Equally, if the predictions of a weakened economy after Brexit are true, Paul Dillane, director of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, worries “that when a country’s economy suffers, minorities suffer as well. Tolerance and inclusivity are undermined.” For example, The Observer recently reported that Syrian refugees were found working in construction for as little as £10 a day.

As the UK enters the new and arguably unsure waters of Brexit Britain, the conditions for refugees may be at risk if right-wing populism expands further as seen in the growth of UKIP. Equally, with Marion Le Pen and other right-wing sentiments in Europe gaining popularity, Europe could become a less tolerant place for refugees and asylum seekers.