What will Brexit mean for the work with refugees?

A reflection by David Bradwell

What will Brexit mean for the work with refugees?

The Scottish Refugee Council has said:

“Leaving the EU does not mean leaving behind our legal and moral responsibilities to people in need. The UK remains a founding signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, the main international treaty that protects the rights of people in need of safety. We need to remember this.

“Last year Scotland led the way in responding to the humanitarian crisis facing refugees. All walks of Scottish society stood and continue to stand in solidarity in welcoming other human beings who have lost everything and who are now trying their best to rebuild their and their children’s lives here in Scotland. We need to continue to be a beacon for how we treat those in need of protection and safeguard their rights.

“On a day of such uncertainty we welcome the First Minister’s words of reassurance that EU migrants living in Scotland are welcome, their contribution valued and that Scotland is their home. Scotland, where the majority voted to remain, is home to refugees who have fled in fear from hatred and persecution. We echo the First Minister’s call for unity and the imperative for solidarity across and amongst all communities at this time.”

The campaign and its aftermath have been dominated by questions of migration. Although internal EU migration for social or economic reasons is legally different from the humanitarian protection offered to refugees and those seeking asylum, the popular narrative about the referendum victory has been that now something needs to be done to make it harder for people to come to the UK.  This hardening of attitudes coupled with a worrying reported increase in racist incidents means that the work of faith groups, wider civil society and political leadership to ensure that public discourse returns to civility and that the human rights and human dignity of every person, regardless of race, faith, nationality or immigration status is fully respected.

We can expect a period of uncertainty in political leadership followed by months or years of negotiation and considerable legislative effort to implement the decision to leave the EU.  With the question of making Brexit happen, and what this means for the UK and for Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU, is set to become the pre-eminent issue in politics for the foreseeable future.  How groups and individuals advocating for issues relating to justice and peace maintain the clarity and urgency of their message – whether relating to refugees, climate change, homelessness, or poverty – will be critical.

It remains to be seen if the EU will be weakened by the UK decision or if it may now have more freedom to pursue a new course without necessarily having to be reined in by the British.  The role of Germany, which has made important humanitarian strides with regard to refugees, may be relatively more important in influencing other EU member states with the UK (and its very different approach to refugee protection) on the way out.  The circumstances facing people in refugee centres in Calais, Greece, Italy, Malta etc. should remain at the forefront of decision-makers’ minds.

A future challenge will be with regard to the status of the European Convention of Human Rights – an international legal framework which is separate from the EU, but which the UK is currently fully-signed up to.  However, some senior politicians would want the UK to withdraw from the Convention and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.  The Convention and the Court have proved over decades their importance in offering all of us – but especially the most vulnerable – important freedoms and rights.  If a change from the European Convention to a British Bill of Rights were to happen, the engagement of people who care for the common good will be vital to make sure any new provisions are at least as strong in protecting the weak as they existing framework.

The Scottish (and Northern Irish) situation might develop differently from England and Wales, but our work is already cross-border, trans-national – reflecting the sad reality of the global refugee crisis. In conversations since Friday with colleagues south of the border, attention is beginning to turn to imagining how do we make the decision to leave work best for the people we serve.

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