Nearly 200 organisations have pledged to fight government plans to overhaul the UK’s immigration system describing them as “cruel and potentially unlawful”.
The Home Office is currently analysing feedback from a public consultation about proposals to build a fairer asylum system.
They include deterring “illegal entry into the UK” by cracking down on criminal trafficking networks, making it easier to remove people “with no right to be here” and providing more support to those “in genuine need”.
But 193 refugee and voluntary organisations have joined forces to oppose the changes, saying they would erode protections for people fleeing war or persecution.
Led by Refugee Action, they said in an open letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel: “Instead of fixing a system that’s been failing people for years, these changes take a wrecking ball to the very principle of asylum.
“The ‘New Plan for Immigration’… lays out vague, unworkable, cruel and potentially unlawful plans justified by misleading or simply incorrect evidence, wrapped up in racist and divisive language.”
The charity also criticised the public consultation saying it failed to prioritise the views and experiences of refugees and people seeking asylum.
Abubakr Bashir, 39, who claimed asylum in England in 2019 after arriving on a teacher’s visa, is concerned about the negative language used by politicians towards refugees – particularly branding them “illegal”.
“Usually in any other situation if you go to a country you always expect there will be an individual who will verbally abuse you and the shelter for you will be the authorities and the legal system,” said the Palestinian, now working as a journalist in London.
“But here things are upside down, you get ‘abused’ by the system and the shelter for you is the community who are more understanding.
“All of these refugees come through some many difficulties and some of them die on the way.
“They have gone through things you would never imagine.
“To me they are survivors – that is the proper word for them.”
Zozan Yasar, a journalist from Kurdistan, is used to conflict having grown up in an area fighting an armed battle for independence from Turkey.
But after claiming asylum in the UK when threatened with arrest for writing about women’s rights in her homeland she did not expect settling in the UK would be so challenging.
“In a hospital I was once asked by a nurse ‘are you a refugee’,” said the 30-year-old, who lives in Edinburgh.
“If I said I was a refugee was she going to treat me as a refugee rather than a human being, no?
“If I knew all my experiences were going to be like this then I wouldn’t have come here.”
Among the signatories of the letter to Prit Patel is Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN), which helps refugee children arriving in England.
The charity’s spokesperson Bridget Chapman has previously called out politicians – including Prime Minister Boris Johnson – for using “toxic language” towards asylum seekers.
She accused the government of deliberately blaming refugees and migrants for the state of Britain’s public services to deflect attention away from cuts imposed during austerity.
“It’s very easy to be scared of an amorphous group of people you are told are coming to simultaneously take your job and scrounge off benefits,” Ms Chapman told OvertimeOnline.
“The government has done a really good job in making people angry with the wrong group of people.”
UN Refugee Agency spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh echoed concerns about the language of politicians towards refugees.
“Language has the power to be supportive, compassionate and understanding,” he said.
“It also has the power stigmatise, demonise and alienate people who, through no fault of their own, have had to flee their homes and everything they hold dear.”
Despite the negative framing of refugees, Ms Chapman, 49, says attitudes towards them are improving.
“We couldn’t do the work we do at KRAN without a significant army of volunteers. The numbers vary, but at any one time we are probably working with at least 100,” she said.
“We also couldn’t do the work we do without the huge numbers of donations that come in all the time.”
The Home Office was contacted for comment.
Mike Whiting, a Conservative councillor in Kent who has attended citizenship ceremonies for refugees, defended the government’s reforms saying: “Genuine refugees, as defined by international law, are welcomed into Britain, and many come and settle successfully here every year.
“Some people seek to enter the country illegally, for example, in boats across the English Channel without a passport or other paperwork.
“It is right that all who land on our shores are treated with respect and their asylum claims properly investigated.
“However, where there is no valid claim under international law or on humanitarian grounds, then it right that they are returned to their country of origin.”