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Refugee Week 2023: Where is the ‘Compassion’?

While Suella Braverman claims her approach to asylum is compassionate, Index on Censorship’s Assistant Editor explores how the reality is very different to the rhetoric

Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/Alamy

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It is Refugee Week. The UK is alive with arts and cultural events created by and for refugee communities, celebrating people’s resilience and creativity, documenting stories and raising awareness about the challenges refugees face. This year’s theme is compassion.

And yet, on Wednesday, the Home Office tweeted a poster with giant letters proclaiming that “more people with no right to be here removed” and announcing the removal of 48 people “with no right to be in the UK”. 

At Index on Censorship, we deal in dissent. It goes without saying that many of those dissidents are also refugees — people who are no longer safe to raise their voices in their home countries, which is not to say that the people who remain are necessarily any safer.

We work with journalists, academics and artists in exile, and others who remain in harm’s way. The theme for the 25th Refugee Week might be compassion, but recently we have seen more and more examples of how hard it is for refugees to find that compassion in the country where most of our team is based, the United Kingdom.

Just this week, it was reported that a protestor from Hong Kong was left fearing she would be deported from her UK home after being wrongly advised by the Home Office. She – a student – took part in pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, until her safety was threatened by someone claiming to be from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) national security department. She says she withdrew her asylum application on the advice of her Home Office case-worker in order to apply for a newly-expanded visa. Her application was rejected.

Democracy movements in Hong Kong and the silencing effect of the CCP are very much on our radar. In Index on Censorship’s upcoming July magazine, we hear how journalists in Hong Kong are having to use blockchain technology to make themselves heard, and how China’s long arm is reaching journalists and academics across the world. Our Banned by Beijing event in London next week hinges on the CCP’s transnational repression. It is with all this in mind, and much more, that we understand what serious a risk this protestor faces if she is deported.

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Since last year’s Refugee Week, the Government’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda have strengthened. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has labelled the plan as “unspeakably cruel”. Rwanda is a country with an atrocious human rights record, a country from which people flee to seek safety elsewhere. In our Index Index – which maps free expression across the globe – the country receives a “significantly restricted” rating. Many refugees arriving in the UK are already dealing with trauma. Where is the compassion in sending them to Rwanda?

In March, we filed a second Council of Europe alert over the exclusion of journalists from Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s trip to Rwanda — GB News, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph were invited, but outlets including the BBC, The Independent and the Guardian were not. At the time, our Editor-at-Large Martin Bright said: “Index on Censorship believes that access to government ministers, both domestically and as part of international visits, should not be treated as a reward for favourable coverage.”

Braverman met representatives of the Rwandan Government and visited facilities destined to hold people who have asked the UK for help, and who have made it to our shores by whatever means necessary while safe routes remain unavailable to them. In a press conference in Rwanda, she called the plan – which is designed to stop people crossing the English Channel – “compassionate”. The Rwanda plan has been heavily criticised and shutting out journalists shrinks the space for proper scrutiny.

Recently, we have been in conversation with several Afghan journalists at risk. For female journalists and those from marginalised backgrounds such as ethnic Hazaras, life has become unbearable. In April, Zan Times Editor-in-Chief Zahra Nader said that the situation is intensifying every day. 

Two journalists, Spozhmai Maani and Rizwan Sharif, described the harsh reality for reporters in the country: “Soon after the Taliban’s coup, they started a crackdown on all journalists. There were raids on the houses of journalists, arrests, detentions, intimidation and harassment.”

We’ve stayed in contact with a network of journalists, some of whom are still at risk in Afghanistan, while others are facing similar challenges in neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan. We have supported them in the only ways we can – by commissioning work from them, by amplifying their voices and by running fundraising events, the next of which will be on 20 July at King’s College London in collaboration with the charity AnotherWay Now

After the withdrawal of forces in 2021, Afghans standing up for democracy and freedom of speech were promised help by the UK Government under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, but journalists have received no such help. To ask for this support to be put into action, we – alongside the National Union of Journalists, PEN International and English PEN – wrote to the Home Secretary in March, highlighting that “without clarification on progress for ACRS, there is little if any support that can be provided and this leaves the journalists vulnerable to threats of disappearance, violence, arrest, imprisonment and assassination”.

Salma Niazi wrote a heart-breaking piece for us, describing how Afghan journalists stuck in Pakistan were willing to sell their kidneys in order to raise funds. She wrote: “All the doors are closed in front of us. I am asking the British Government to open them up. The UK promised to help us and they still can. We once again request that the British Government fulfil the promises it has made to Afghan journalists and other people at risk.”

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Just last week, at our Night for Afghanistan event, Action for Afghanistan’s Zehra Zaidi said that around 11,000 people held in hotels have been given three-month eviction notices.

“This isn’t just about the Taliban in Afghanistan,” she said. “This is now about us, our values. Do we still care about human rights and democracy? We must put pressure on the Government to support the process of people coming out of the hotels.”

One of the journalists in our network, Spozhmai Maani, fled Afghanistan in October 2021 and was forced to live in slums in Pakistan, away from her family and with no income. She’s faced racism and has been unable to access medical care. She narrowly escaped sexual assault and afterwards feared going out alone.

“During this period, I have gone through hell – Pakistan is little different to Afghanistan,” she wrote for us. “Here too there are Taliban sympathisers. There is no safety, no job opportunities, inflation is high. There is much discrimination, racism and prejudice in the society and there is hostility towards Afghan people in general and women in particular.”

Maani ended her piece with a plea: “I am asking for assistance in relocating to any safe country where I could continue my journalism safely, complete my education and work to support myself and my family.”

Despite supporting Afghan journalists however we can, it never feels like enough. And so it was to a collective sigh of relief among the Index on Censorship team, that Maani was welcomed to a new safe home in France. The same was the case for another journalist in our network. We have watched Afghan journalists we’re connected with find compassion in our European neighbour – but only silence from our own country.

Katie Dancey-Downs is the Assistant Editor of Index on Censorship

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