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By Hugh Mcdonnell 

Both here in the UK and internationally, 2015 has been a turbulent year with regard to migration issues. As such, we thought it worthwhile to reflect on some of the year’s events and developments in media coverage, government policy, and challenges to the status quo as it impacts on refugees and asylum seekers.

Increased Public Attention

The topic of asylum seekers and refugees became more prominent in 2015, in part due to a series of high profile tragic accidents. According to the UNHCR, some 3716 migrants died or went missing trying to cross the Mediterranean this year. April was a particularly deadly month, when some 400 and then around 800 migrants died on two ill-fated voyages from Libya on course for Italy on 13 and 19 April respectively. The dangers of the land route for migrants were also propelled into the public eye when 71 migrants were found dead in an abandoned lorry on the side of an Austrian motorway in August.

The congregation of migrants on the northern French coast, above all in Calais, was also a recurring source of news here throughout the year. A study in October found conditions in the main ‘Jungle’ camp to be ‘diabolical’, with cramped makeshift tent dwellings plagued by rats, water sources contaminated, and inhabitants suffering from tuberculosis, scabies, and post-traumatic stress.

Media Coverage

In January New Statesman reported an academic study of media framing of immigration; published in the journal Politics, the article concluded that over the last decade the UK press ‘appears to have been complicit in the narrowing of a discussion that is now characterised by an increasingly negative tone.’ This was certainly borne out by reactions by much of the British press to the presence of migrants in Calais, particularly as the the issue became more prominent in July because of disruption to cross-channel traffic. A typical response to their plight was to urge beefing up security or even sending in the army. This tone was, however, partly and temporarily mitigated when in September the shocking photo of the washed-up body of a three year-old Syrian-Kurdish boy, Alan Kurdi quickly spread around the world.
UK Government Action

Besides occasioning regrettable rhetoric – most notably David Cameron’s reference to migrants trying to reach Britain as a ‘swarm’ in July – the surge in global population movements during the year impacted conspicuously on British Government policy. While the UK upped its contribution of humanitarian aid for the Syrian crisis to £800 million in February, in May and June the Government rejected the EU refugee quota system to help alleviate the crisis.

Provision for asylum seekers within the UK was also set back in July when the Home Office announced significant reductions in support payments, alongside plans for further limits on the right to seek asylum laid out by Home Secretary Theresa May in October. Similarly, the 2015 Immigration Bill announced in the Queen’s May opening of parliament, further curtails migrants’ access to work, housing, and legal recourse.

Detention

The Home Office also came under public scrutiny this year over the issue of detention of asylum seekers. In January it was revealed that more than 600 children, most under 12 years of age, have been put in detention under immigration rules in the four years since the Government claimed to have ended the practice. Following earlier reports that female detainees at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre are routinely humiliated by male staff, an undercover Channel 4 report in March revealed the extent of the despondency of detainees – often manifesting itself in serious self-harm – as well as abusive staff behaviour at the Bedfordshire facility. The campaign against Yarl’s Wood is ongoing, with demonstrations converging on the detention centre every three months. Those who would like to participate in the next demonstration in March can find details here.

Also in March, detainees at Britain’s largest immigration removal centre at Harmondsworth launched a hunger strike after a weekend of protest against poor conditions and to demand an end to ‘indefinite deprivation of liberty and human rights.

Legal Developments

In January the Court of Appeal upheld the deportation of end-stage kidney disease patients reliant on dialysis to stay alive despite the obvious immediate threat to their lives. In April a charter flight due to depart with dozens of Afghan asylum seekers who were to be removed was cancelled on the orders of an appeal judge in the wake of warnings that 80 percent of the country is not safe to send people back to. In June the High Court found the fast-track immigration appeals system to be unlawful. Affecting thousands of asylum seekers each year, applicants were detained and given only seven days to appeal decisions. Consequently, it was announced in July that 100 asylum seekers were set to be released from detention and an additional 800 to have their cases reviewed. In a landmark case the same month, it emerged that hundreds of asylum seeking survivors of torture may sue the Government’s failure to have identified them as vulnerable asylum seekers unsuitable for the Detained Fast Track system. 

Fighting Back 

Encouragingly, the greater focus on asylum seekers and refugees this year also translated into significant manifestations of supports, both here and internationally.

One unlikely and very unintentional supporter in January and February was the Daily Mail, whose  £1 P&O Ferries special offer was used by activists to transport humanitarian aid to those left in appalling conditions in camps in Calais. Likewise, Katie Hopkins’s notorious article in The Sun in April – suggesting the use of gunships against boats transporting migrants, whom she likened to cockroaches – triggered a JustGiving page in response, which raised £30,000 for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

The same month, Brighton beach was covered by 200 body bags by Amnesty International volunteers who sought to raise awareness of the mounting death toll of migrants in the Mediterranean. In June the largest demonstration thus far took place at Yarl’s Wood by campaigners calling for its closure. After the discovery of the abandoned dead 71 refugees in a lorry in Austria, 20,000 protesters converged on the Westbahnhof train station in Vienna on 31 August. A couple of weeks later, thousands across the UK attended demonstrations and rallies on 12 September in support of refugees and asylum seekers. 

Organised by Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers, a demonstration on 16 June in Liverpool protested the Home Office decision that Eritrea is a safe place for asylum seekers to return to, contrary to the view of the UNHCR, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Independent Advisory Group on Country Information.

Several multi-disciplinary social media campaigns stood out during the year as well, notably #Time4aTimeLimit campaign on immigration detention, and its Unlock the Debate and Alternative Debate initiatives to parallel the parliamentary debate on the detention inquiry report in September, which recommended drastic changes to current policy on the detention of migrants. 

In many ways, then, 2015 has been a mixed year. It has been marred by a series of tragedies that are only the most publicised and visible instances of a continuous global refugee crisis. Media reaction and government policy have often left much to be desired. Yet, there have been encouraging signs of public empathy and engagement; and progress, however qualified, has been made in securing the rights and recognition owed to asylum seekers and refugees.

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