Voices: Grenfell and Rwanda have something terrible in common – they highlight how we treat refugees in Britain

·4-min read
The politics of racism has meant ministers have become too focused on keeping people out, not keeping people safe (REUTERS)
The politics of racism has meant ministers have become too focused on keeping people out, not keeping people safe (REUTERS)

Mohammed Alhaj Ali fled Daraa in southern Syria in 2014 as the civil war in his homeland grew ever more violent.

Along with his brothers Omar and Hashem, Mohammed, 23, came to the UK as a refugee to rebuild his life in a country that protects human right and aides by the rule of law. He studied civil engineering at the University of West London and was an active member of the Syrian community in the capital.

On June 14, 2017, Mohammed was killed when the flat he shared with his brother on the 14th floor of the Grenfell Tower housing block in West London was engulfed by smoke and then destroyed by fire.

He died alongside 71 others, mostly immigrants, people of colour and people seeking asylum.

Some years later, another young man – Khaled fled Syria. Rather than face forced conscription into Assad’s army, the 20-year-old survived jail and abuse in Libya before risking boat journeys across the Mediterranean and the Channel to reach the UK to ask for protection. Like Mohammed, Khaled wanted to come to Britain to be with his two brothers who live near London. He thought the UK was the safest country in the world.

On June 14, 2022, five years to the day after Mohammed was killed at Grenfell, the government is planning to march Khaled against his will from a jail cell and forced onto a Home Office chartered plane to be flown 5,000 miles to Rwanda.

With 129 other refugees who sought asylum in the UK, he faces a future he didn’t ask for, without family, connections, or a desire to be there.

Though their circumstances are different, Mohammed and Khaled are victims of the same problem. It’s no coincidence that most, if not all, people earmarked for deportation to Rwanda are racialised citizens of one of Europe’s former colonies – just like it’s no coincidence that most of those who died at Grenfell were from a racialised minority.

Our treatment of people fleeing war and persecution is what colonialism and systemic racism look like in real time.

These structures keep most refugees and people seeking asylum in poverty and living in dangerous, decrepit housing. As one of Mohammed’s friends wrote after his death: “He survived Assad, he survived the war, only to be killed in a tower block in London.” Grenfell was covered in cheap, flammable cladding in an effort to make the building more palatable for the affluent residents who lived near – but, in reality, in a different world to – the tower’s inhabitants.

People seeking asylum whose papers burned in the fire kept their heads down due to fears for being punished and detained because of their status, a direct consequence of the government’s hostile environment. If Grenfell is an example of “cover them up”, then Rwanda is “kick them out”.

Khaled is witnessing up front the UK government repeat the horrors it unfolded on the Windrush generation – until now the most flagrant example of the hostile environment. He will be deported along with Afghans who escaped the Taliban, Eritreans who’ve fled persecution, and Sudanese who have run from horrendous violence, among others.

These refugees, like other victims of systemic racism, have been repeatedly dehumanised, their experiences questioned and denied to make their mistreatment politically palatable.

The home secretary has done her level best to portray refugees fleeing violent wars and torture as chancers, opportunists, able-bodied men (as if men cannot be refugees) or economic migrants. Yet figures from her own department show 91 per cent of Afghans, 97 percent of Eritreans, and 95 per cent of Sudanese will get refugee status.

The politics of racism has meant ministers have become too focused on keeping people out, not keeping people safe. This has led to a policy of punishing refugees rather than protecting them.

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There is no greater argument against the Rwanda plan than its inhumanity. It’s the bottom line. Yes it’s illegal, yes it’s expensive, and yes it won’t do what ministers want it to do. This grubby deal is just so grossly unethical. It’s “send ’em all back” as public policy.

This hasn’t been lost on the Government’s own party. Conservative MP Jesse Norman called it “ugly”, former Tory Cabinet Minister Andrew Mitchell said it was “immoral”. David Davis accused the Johnson Government of “moral delinquency”.

Stripped down to its bare bones, the Rwanda plan is taxpayer-funded trade in human lives. It’s human trafficking. The only difference between the government and the criminal people smugglers in Calais is the government can afford planes.

Money is exchanged between London and Kigali and people are moved – possibly wearing restraints – against their will between continents at a terrible price to their humanity.

The echoes of history should send a shiver down our spines. There must be change. A refugee protection system should be based on justice and compassion. To get there, the structural racism that underpins the current regime must be called out and torn down.

Tim Naor Hilton is the CEO of Refugee Action

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