The Cotton Tree is appalled by the Government’s New Plan for Immigration. If implemented, it will intensify hostility towards the vulnerable people it claims to protect and obstruct justice for many who legitimately seek sanctuary in the UK. The Cotton Tree is calling for the government to apply basic principles of decency and law to those who are denied essential protections by their own states.

At the Cotton Tree we work closely with asylum seekers and refugees. We know what they suffer by way of accommodation, diet, living allowances, waiting times and numerous indignities. We also know how much they have to offer the UK, and we regularly invite our members to do paid or voluntary work so that others can be enriched by their skills and creativity.

Many of our members have experienced devastating miscarriages of justice that kept them in limbo for years. The New Plan for Immigration threatens to make things a great deal worse. It fudges basic principles of decency and law at a time when the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers (shamefully tolerated by the government in the name of deterrence) is at a peak. (See https://www.cottontreetrust.org.uk/blog/an-apology;https://www.cottontreetrust.org.uk/blog/good-morning-ms-patel)

What does the Plan aim to achieve? Its first two objectives are to be ‘fair and efficient in order to protect those in genuine need of protection’, and to ‘deter illegal entry into the UK’. But are these compatible? Imagine that a man with Covid-19 arrives at A&E and is turned away because he travelled to the hospital without paying his bus fare. He is gasping for breath and will die if he doesn’t receive intensive care. What kind of health policy would recommend turning him away?

The Plan treats trying to save one’s life by unofficial means as a kind of queue-jumping. It describes itself as ‘fair’, but fairness has a radically different meaning when life is at stake from when it is not. The UN Refugee Convention 1951 says that refugees must not be penalised for entering a country illegally if they come from a territory where their “life or freedom was threatened.” There’s no such thing as an illegal migrant who crosses borders in search of safety and survival.

The Plan boasts a ‘proud history’ of protecting people in ‘genuine need of asylum’, but its obsession with smuggler rings and failure to promise significantly more legal routes belie this worthy goal.

Architects of the Plan would no doubt say that morality must be balanced with realism. However, practical detail, a robust evidence-base, legal accuracy and basic human understanding are conspicuously absent. In an extraordinary piece of disingenuity, the Plan proposes to tighten standards for determining ‘who people are’ and whether they have a ‘genuine fear of persecution’. It calls for a ‘one-stop process’ that will improve efficiency, but this ignores the essential task that needs to be foregrounded in immigration policy: to discriminate justly between those who should and should not receive sanctuary. Justice is one thing, efficiency another. The ‘one-stop process’, if implemented, will intensify the culture of disbelief that already prevails in the Home Office.

At the Cotton Tree, we learn a great deal by offering what we call relaxed time to our members. We know how hard it can be to speak accurately about one’s history. We understand why asylum seekers sometimes say what they think officials want to hear, and we see how trauma can obliterate memory. Inaccurate or semi-accurate storytelling doesn’t mean a person’s life wouldn’t be in danger if she were to return to her country.

In some cultures, we have discovered, the word ‘I’ brings a sense of commonality that it lacks for most Westerners. ‘My story’ includes the story of my parents, my grandparents, my aunties etc, even when they are far away. Across this cultural threshold, fact and interpretation, justice and injustice, require careful deciphering.

We would like to offer Priti Patel a work placement at the Cotton Tree. We’d like to draw a fine cord of humanity around our asylum seekers and one of the most powerful second-generation immigrants in the UK. On such encounters, true justice may be built.