How would you feel if you were given a one-way ticket to another continent and forced to move after surviving the journey to seek refuge? It’s the question that One Strong Voice asked asked Conservative politicians and members. In an act of solidarity and activism, the UK’s first coalition of refugee and migrant campaigners dressed up as airline staff and presented Tory members with ‘one-way tickets’ to Rwanda. Three of the group members spoke to us about their hopes for the Rwanda Policy, the rights of refugees and the future of immigration detention.
On 4 October, party members, MPs and politicians gathered in Birmingham for the annual Tory party conference. The conference, which was led by the then prime minister Liz Truss, made headlines not only for outrageous speeches but when an MP was sacked over ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and people were removed over the use of LGBTQI+ slurs.
But it seems the members were more focused on the goings-on inside the conference rather than who was greeting them outside. To show solidarity with refugees, Jonathan, Mimi and Ana from One Strong Voice presented attendees with one-way tickets to Rwanda in protest of the government’s potentially ‘unlawful’ policy, to send asylum seekers to the African country.
So far no refugees have been sent there, as the first flights to Rwanda were stopped with the help of dedicated asylum lawyers and later by the European Court of Human Rights, which stated that the removal of one claimant should be halted.
The UK government wants to send people like us on a one-way ticket to Rwanda.
So we've printed them their own one-way tickets & handed them out at the Tory Party Conference.
Like & RT to spread our message. pic.twitter.com/9yvzP3xSGo
— One Strong Voice 🧡 (@1StrongVoice) October 4, 2022
Jonathan, the One Strong Voice activist who played the part of the pilot, said: “For me, that [day] was the first time I ever got to be a pilot and I believe that I could fly because I had so much power within myself to be able to talk. You could tell even the people around us that were competing on other issues joined us just by looking at us. It was welcoming, and as if everybody was saying, we are with you, we are standing with you against this cruel policy.”
The High Court recently highlighted that there are “serious triable issues” in the case. It also took note of evidence from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees that those transferred to Rwanda will not have access to fair and efficient procedures for determining refugee status.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that individuals should not be removed until domestic courts have decided whether or not the policy is lawful.
“I think everybody got the message and the message is clear: this policy is cruel. I want it to be scrapped because it’s not going to work,” he said.
‘It was the opportunity to look them in the eye and ask, how would they feel if they were offshored’?
The government has said that “anyone entering the UK illegally” can be deported to Rwanda under the UK-Rwanda migration partnership. This includes people seeking asylum, whose claim will be decided in Rwanda. The UN Refugee Agency has said this undermines the 1951 Refugee Convention.
During the party conference, the home secretary Suella Braverman said: “I would love to have a front page of The Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream, it’s my obsession.”
Braverman acted as home secretary for 43 days, before her resignation was forced after she was found to have caused a national data breach. The circumstances make her the shortest-serving UK home secretary in nearly 200 years. Braverman was reappointed a week later by the current prime minister Rishi Sunak, who entered Number 10 by default.
One Strong Voice is the UK’s first coalition of refugee and migrant campaigners, and feel it is imperative the government listens to the experiences of people who have navigated the immigration system to build a fairer system and more welcoming country.
Ana spoke to us about the importance of being able to stand in front of members of the Conservative party and ask them if they would like to be offshored under the policy.
Ana said: “This was my opportunity, as a person, as a refugee, to meet and speak to the decision-makers – to look them in the eye and ask, how they would feel if they were to be offshored. With a one-way ticket, without knowing a route to come back to the UK and stay in Rwanda. From that, I found out that none of them was really happy about it.”
Detention is an administrative tool
In the UK, thousands of people are held in immigration detention every year under immigration powers in ‘prison-like’ conditions. At the end of June 2022, there were 2,038 people in immigration detention, including those detained under immigration powers in prison, close to three times more than at the end of June 2020.
Mimi said: “Over the years, detention has become an administrative tool just to hold people, and not that they are going to be deported or sent back to their countries. And they’re just held there for months and even years. The reality is that most of these people end up being released back into the community, completely traumatised, and it has a huge impact on their general life.”
The majority of people seeking asylum in the UK are refugees
Mimi said: “When you understand that, about 85% of people are released back into the community, you begin to ask yourself, why are people being detained in the first place?”
Mimi was detained in immigration detention for over 750 days. After years of living in detention, the authorities tried to deport her to not only three different countries, but to three different continents. She states that at no point prior did the authorities make any attempts to deport her, but continued to review her case every 28 days.
She states: “And that basically was just a way of them letting me know if they were going to let me go or keep me in detention. Because there was basically nowhere that they could send me to, at that point, you know. After years of detention, they tried to deport me to three different countries, continents, and it reached the point where it was quite obvious that there was something not quite right with the system.”
Detention is criminalising people
The government has recently announced plans to build new immigration detention centres, which they describe as ‘accommodation’ centres. The news came just a week before a processing facility in Dover was petrol bombed in an act motivated by extreme right-wing terrorist ideology. As a result, hundreds of people were moved to the ‘inhumane’ centre Manston in Thanet.
We rebranded the refugee "processing centre" in Manston so everybody knows who's responsible for it. pic.twitter.com/lsz6tcDzVd
— Freedom from Torture🧡 (@FreefromTorture) November 6, 2022
Almost 4,000 asylum seekers, including children, are being held at the Manston processing centre, which has a capacity of just 1,600. Overcrowding and poor conditions there have led to recent outbreaks of MRSA, diphtheria and scabies. The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Neal, told the home affairs select committee he was left speechless by the centre’s “wretched” conditions.
However, building new immigration detention centres might not be the answer. Mimi said: “Building a new immigration detention centre is not going to fix anything. It’s just going to be a way of imprisoning people because that’s what it is, it is imprisoning people who have done nothing wrong but to seek safety in this country.”
Mimi explained how alternatives to immigration detention need to be put into place to ensure that people arriving in the UK seeking safety have the support and treatment they need.
“When people are fleeing, they’re not thinking about the problems they’re going to have when they arrive here, ie they’re going to arrive here and being mistreated. In a way, we can welcome people and treat them with compassion and give them the protection they need. It’s important because once you do that it makes for a richer society. The United Kingdom is built on the backs of immigrants, we are all immigrants in the UK,” she said.
As a result of the campaigning work by the charity Freedom From Torture and its community groups including One Strong Voice, Privilege Style – the airline that was set to fly people to Rwanda in June – has confirmed that it will not play a role in the Rwanda agreement.
Privilege Style’s refusal to help offshore people to Rwanda is proof that together voices can be heard and make a direct impact on people’s lives now and in the future. But the fight isn’t over yet.
Ana said: “Now I would like to see the Rwanda policy scrapped. I would like people to be allowed to work and find their way out of poverty. I would like, to put it simply, people seeking asylum to be part of society, and not be treated like aliens.”