On a cold night over a year ago, on the eve of the first lockdown, Tomi Reichental spoke to a small crowd in a hall in County Down. Tomi -- a child born into dark times in a dark place -- explained how he was sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the age of nine. He described how he survived, as 35 members of his extended family did not, grew up, and eventually made his way to Ireland. He became a successful businessman and, he said, told strictly no one of his childhood experiences -- not even his Irish wife, who spent a lifetime at his side and died without ever hearing the story of his past.
It was only recently that he began to speak about what he lived through, he said, and only as a necessary response to what he felt to be deeply disturbing changes in the world, including a growing intolerance. These shifts and his own firsthand knowledge of what was at stake prompted him not just to end his silence, but to try to tell his truth as widely as possible.
Tomi Reichental spoke that night about what it is to be a child in need of refuge. Over the past year the changes he alluded to may have been obscured somewhat by the pandemic, but they haven't gone away.
One face of these changes, here in the UK, can be seen in the Home Office's quiet, steady, incremental dismantling of basic asylum protections -- shutting down avenues for family reunification and resettlement of unaccompanied child refugees, moving asylum seekers into disused barracks deemed unfit for use by the army, announcing a militarised 'Threat Commander' tasked with 'combatting' the problem posed by impoverished and desperate people trying to cross the Channel, to name a few examples. Some of these changes are outworkings of Brexit and the UK's departure from the EU, but many more are discrete, deliberate efforts to make this country ever more hostile and inhospitable to new arrivals.
The Home Office's proposed 'New Plan for Immigration' goes further. With breath-taking arrogance, it not only overrides the very definition -- accepted across the world in the decades since the Second World War -- of what a refugee is, but it claims to do so in the name of "fairness". In place of a universal right to seek international protection, the Home Office proposes -- without any basis in law or any moral authority – a “refined approach” in which individuals deemed most able to "achieve better integration outcomes in the UK" be cherrypicked from a tiny subset of the world's desperate, targeted people -- namely those who are actually able to reach and successfully navigate the Home Office's pre-approved administrative application procedures.
The intent behind the policy, it seems, is to keep as many people genuinely in need of protection away from these shores as possible -- and, if a token few must be given access, then for them to be as small and select a group as can be contrived.
It's possible that a child like Tomi Reichental could have undertaken such a “refined” process -- after, of course, having submitted to proposed new "scientific age assessment methods". It's possible that he might even have been approved for admission. In that case he might, once arrived, have managed to cope with the increasingly toxic environment created and stimulated by Home Office policies -- one recent rule, for instance, allows even foreign nationals with full legal 'leave to remain' status to be deported if they are found sleeping rough.
Or is the 'New Plan for Immigration' an absolute shredding of the net that has saved so many children bereaved by conflict, and allowed them to build a new life?
The languages that today's refugees speak are different from Tomi's, as are the names of the places they have been forced to flee - but the pain and the loss are the same. The need is the same. It's the response that has changed.
PPR joined eighteen other organisations to endorse the Refugee & Asylum Forum's response to the Home Office consultation on the 'New Plan for Immigration'. The submission can be found here.
Paige Jennings is a policy officer for PPR. She has worked in human rights and development roles in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, for a range of local, international and United Nations organisations. She has been an Amnesty International researcher and has written for Minority Rights Group, Child Soldiers International, UNDP and UNHCR.