Kindertransport to the Hostile Environment: Britain’s Immigration System Then and Now

25 Jun, 2019 | Events, Latest, Stop the hostile environment

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by Sandy Paul

Speakers, from left to right:
Baroness Lister, Michael Darko, Ruth Barnett, Sam Grant, Kate Green MP, Stuart McDonald MP, Rabbi Aaron Goldstein

A packed Committee Room 6 in Parliament this week was powerfully reminded by Ruth Barnett, who arrived in the UK 80 years ago on the Kindertransport as a four-year-old Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, that “we are all temporary tenants on this planet. No human is illegal.”

Our focus on this year’s Refugee Week was launched in Parliament on Monday 17 June by a powerful roundtable event organised in partnership with Detention Action, aimed at showing the urgent need to end the inhumane practice of detaining asylum seekers and migrants for indefinite periods in the UK.

The injustice of this practice of indefinite detention was highlighted by hearing and contrasting the lived experiences of Ruth, who was welcomed to the UK as a Kindertransport child, and the more negative, contemporary experience of Michael Darko of Freed Voices, who arrived in the UK at the age of 12 and experienced a total of two years of living in immigration detention centres.

Ruth reminded the audience that everyone who is compelled to leave their home deserves kindness – but unfortunately this does not happen in the UK under the government’s current “hostile environment” policy. It is only by treating others with kindness that we enable them to make a lasting contribution to society, Ruth emphasised.

Michael described the profoundly negative impact of the hostile environment on his family. He decried the policies which criminalise asylum seekers, denying them the right to work and the opportunity to make the contribution described by Ruth. A 28-day time limit on immigration detention is not a radical idea, he argued, and politicians must ask themselves if they are doing what is right for the communities they are meant to represent. He called for alternatives to detention and for a focus on engagement, not enforcement, as we need to build a society that is welcome to all and allows everyone to thrive.

The stark reality is that the UK is the only country in Europe that has no limit on immigration detention. Sam Grant, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Liberty and chair of the event, spoke of the cross-party support for limiting immigration detention to 28 days. Stuart McDonald MP, a member of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee and the Scottish National Party’s spokesperson on immigration, asylum and border control, described the immigration detention system as “costly, ineffective and inhumane” and an affront to the rule of law.  Baroness Ruth Lister recounted the power of hearing experts-by-experience during the Parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention, and stated it was this testimony which led to the recommendations made by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. Kate Green, MP for Stretford and Urmston, highlighted the importance of the campaign to ensure those seeking asylum are granted the right to work.

From left to right:
Ruth Barnett, Sam Grant, Kate Green MP, Stuart McDonald MP, Rabbi Aaron Goldstein

The ethical imperatives underpinning the urgent need to take action to end indefinite immigration detention were powerfully summed up by Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, the Senior Rabbi of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue. He reminded the audience of the commandment in Deuteronomy 22:3: “You must not remain indifferent”. As Jews, he said, we are the people who have always needed safe sanctuary and appreciated the care that others have shown.  And justice is a key pillar of Judaism, which underpins the importance for the Jewish community of standing up for the human rights of all, especially the most vulnerable in society.

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