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Asia Bibi: We must stop wringing our hands and start acting

Asia Bibi: We must stop wringing our hands and start acting

Dr Sophie Cartwright argues that Asia Bibi’s current situation reveals deeper flaws in Britain’s provision for refugees. 19/11/2018

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The appalling case of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian accused of blasphemy and in fear for her life, continues to receive much attention. In it, we see human lives torn apart by unjust laws; and as the legal threat recedes, we see the vulnerability of a woman from the poorest of backgrounds before an angry mob. This follows years of suffering. Her young children, already living in poverty, were forced to grow up without their mother, while she was held largely in isolation for eight years – with a death sentence hanging over her head – the anxiety and uncertainty must have been excruciating. Imagine, as a young child, knowing that about your mother. Imagine the courage required for Asia and her family to keep going. One can only hope the prayers of the Christian community were a comfort during those years, and that God’s presence was felt in those darkest moments.

Now Asia’s conviction has been overturned, she ought to have a chance to rebuild her life. Instead she remains in grave danger, and her lawyer has fled for his own life. She is seeking asylum, but it’s reported the UK government is proving deaf to those appeals citing security concerns. Is the worry about security genuine, or could it be a fig leaf for something else? It is hard to know what information the government received. What we do know is that the UK government rarely grants asylum to anyone outside the country in advance of travel. In fact, it goes to great lengths to avoid doing so – and Asia’s situation demonstrates the consequences of this. She isn’t the only one who has experienced the cold shoulder of a country which claims the moral high ground on the rule of law and respect for the person.

Asia’s case illustrates with horrifying vividness how refugees who must overcome huge barriers erected by the states or communities they flee also face the barrier of our borders. There is no mechanism by which one can safely and legally travel to the UK to claim asylum. Each year, a small number of people already recognised as refugees are resettled from extremely poor countries to the UK, but this option is not available to most. One must arrive under one’s own steam, either on an unrelated visa – say, for work or study – or clandestinely. One must then claim asylum, and face hostility and uncertainty in the gruelling asylum determination process. Those who are able to obtain a visa often find this is held against them in the UK asylum system; it counts against a person’s credibility in the eyes of the Home Office to arrive on a visa and not claim asylum immediately.

Those who cannot obtain some unrelated kind of visa are forced to make extremely dangerous journeys. Oddly, when governments lament the danger of these journeys, they often turn to eradicating “pull factors” as a solution. In the process, Fortress Europe is recast as a humanitarian move: the then Home Secretary justified the closure of the Dubs scheme for unaccompanied refugee children on the grounds that its continuation would “incentivise” children to make the dangerous journey to Europe. Efforts to rescue desperate people in trouble at sea are abandoned, ostensibly on the grounds that they encourage others to make similarly treacherous journeys. This discourse ignores the sheer fact of forced migration. Those embarking on these journeys are not safe where they are. They have no choice but to move, and if they cannot do so in safety, they must do so in danger. If large numbers of people are putting their children in boats, it’s because the water is safer than the land.

Measures to deter asylum seekers force larger numbers to make their journeys precariously, off the grid. Recent research from the Jesuit Refugee Service shows that more people were forced to make dangerous journeys when, in the wake of the 2015 crisis, European countries sought to dissuade refugees from coming to Europe at all. On the basis of this research, JRS advocates for the creation of safe and legal pathways for those fleeing danger – including a humanitarian visa. This resonates with Pope Francis’ call for safe and legal pathways as an integral part of extending welcome and protection to the forcibly displaced. Such a vision stands in stark contrast to Fortress Britain.

We have a choice to make, and we must be clear about the moral implications of that choice. If we want to live in a world where Asia Bibi and those like her can find safety, we must help them reach it. If we are serious about protecting the vulnerable, we need a world in which sanctuary seekers find bridges, not walls.

Image from World Watch Monitor.

Sophie Cartwright

Sophie Cartwright

Dr Sophie Cartwright is Policy Officer for the Jesuit Refugee Service UK. 

Watch, listen to or read more from Sophie Cartwright

Posted 19 November 2018

Christianity, Ethics, Freedom of Religion, Global Politics, Society


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