The role of lawyers in the battle for the rights of migrants – Frances Webber book review

Don Flynn has written an article for the Migrants’ Rights Network this week, in which he appraises Frances Webber’s new book, Borderline Justice: The Fight for Refugee and Migrant Rights (Pluto, 2012). He summarises it as ‘[doing] us the great service of providing a thoroughly readable history of these battles, drawing out their larger significance for civil liberties, human rights, and the way Britain is coming to be governed.’

We reproduce some of the review below, but for the entire piece, go to the Migrants’ Rights Network, here.

To buy a copy of Frances’ book, simply click on the cover image.

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Borderline JusticeFor most of the past four decades the main arena in which the fight for the rights of migrants has been waged has been through the immigration appeal system and the law courts.  Frances Webber’s new book, Borderline Justice – The Fights for Refugee and Migrant Rights, does us the great service of providing a thoroughly readable history of these battles, drawing out their larger significance for civil liberties, human rights, and the way Britain is coming to be governed.

The author has been a frontline participant in these legal battles for thirty years, working as a barrister from the leading immigration and human rights chambers, Garden Court.  The recall of the arguments that were put to the tribunals and courts, covering such issues as asylum and refugee status, family reunification and the internal controls now bound up in the workplace and in university regulations, are penetratingly exact – no doubt having the advantage of both her own and her colleague’s case notes to draw on.

But Webber writes primarily for a non-legal audience, attempting to indicate the direction which is being taken in the political and state administration life in the UK, increasingly intolerant of arguments that a duty of welfare is owed to its populations, and very least of all to those who, though they might have lived, laboured and paid taxes for years, are still marked by the stigma of having once been a migrant.

Attacking asylum rights

Her discussion of the way asylum law, and the duty to provide for the needs of vulnerable people who have fled from persecution, provides a strong case supporting the points she seeks to make.  During the years after the UN Convention on Refugees had been adopted, in 1951, the UK had acknowledged the humanitarian intent behind the measure and operated a system which, in the main, took the facts and realities of refugee flight into account and granted protection accordingly.

This began to change from the late 1980s onwards as refugee movements were increasingly configured by the post-Cold War world of collapsing authoritarian regimes and the new phenomenon of failed states.  Despite the fact that suffering, persecution, victimisation, murder and mayhem were rife in these situations, the political line taken by the UK state that they did not constitute the sort of circumstances in which refugee protection was required to be granted.  The general turmoil which provoked forced migration did not generate the element of ‘special groups’ singled out for persecution which the UK government argued was necessary to qualify as a refugee.

The UK state authorities originally sought to deal with the new situation by the introduction of harsh reception procedures intended to ‘send the message’ to people considering flight to the UK that they would not be made welcome.  The Conservative government in the 1990s ended asylum seeker entitlement to mainstream welfare benefits; Labour following up after 1997 with the instruction of compulsory dispersal and a cashless system of supermarket vouchers.

The propensity to detain refugees was also extended during this time, with the immigration prison estate expanding to a capacity of 4000 places at any time.  Webber describes how lawyers increasingly found themselves dealing with the evidence of appalling levels of destitution amongst their clients, alongside all the battles to get people out of removal centres who were there for no better reason that it being convenient to the immigration authorities.  Yet the fact that legal activity was increasingly moving onto the terrain of welfare concerns and the right to liberty had the effect of moving the law on the rights of migrants onto the terrain of basic human rights.

Human rights law has proven to be both fruitful as far as challenges to executive power is concerned, but also politically controversial.  As judges found themselves being obliged to rule against the Home Office on issues like indefinite detention and the obligation on public bodies to act to relieve the direst forms of destitution, government ministers opened up a new front which was to be waged in the headlines of the tabloid press, condemning the judiciary for challenging the authority of Parliamentary democracy.  All the talk of hope for a new ‘human rights culture’ emerging from the much-lauded 1998 Human Rights Act was dropped during the course of the following years as Home Secretaries and Justice Ministers opening speculated that things had gone too far in the direction of human rights.

To read the rest of this article, click here.

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