Natasha Walter, Director of Women for Refugee Women, writes about the gendered cost of Brexit in July 2016.
At Women for Refugee Women, we have seen anxiety levels rise among the women with whom we work since the result of the referendum. Many women tell us that they are worried that British people no longer want foreigners in this country, and many women, already confused by an incredibly complicated asylum process, are worried about what changes to law and policy around migration will mean for them.
On the first point, we reassure the women that most British people still welcome refugees. We also reassure them that we do not believe that the rise in xenophobia and racism that has been seen since the referendum is really characteristic of our open and diverse society. We emphasise to them that if they see or experience any racism themselves, it’s important to report this.
And we also reassure them that nothing has changed in the asylum process. While the result of the referendum will almost certainly have implications for EU nationals who would like to come and live here or who are already living here, or for UK nationals living in EU countries, asylum policy is set by British law and international conventions and is not, by and large, dependent on our membership of the EU.
However, the new Prime Minister may be emboldened by the result of the referendum and the boost it gives to those who want a reduction in immigration, to push for a more punitive asylum process in the longer term. As Home Secretary, Theresa May floated the idea of a more target-driven asylum process last year. However, this is not on the table yet and if this happens it will have to be taken forward independently of negotiations around Brexit; Women for Refugee Women and many other organisations and individuals will strongly resist any move to dilute the UK’s commitment to protect those who need asylum.
There are some aspects of asylum law that may be affected by our withdrawal from the EU. For instance, the Dublin regulations which stipulate that people should claim asylum in the first safe European country they enter rather than travelling through Europe before doing so, are part of EU law. So a paradoxical result of Brexit might be that it may become harder for the UK to deport refugees who have passed through other safe European countries back to those countries.
At the moment, some civil society organisations, including Citizens UK and Women for Refugee Women, are trying to find ways in which vulnerable refugees in Europe – particularly children or women travelling with children – can cross safely to the UK. This requires real will by the British government and other European governments to co-operate for the sake of vulnerable people, and our fear is that even before Brexit is actually triggered, such co-operation may now become more difficult.
There is also some discussion about the effect of Brexit on the border between Britain and France; at the moment French police work with the UK in trying to detect and turn back those who are trying to get into the UK on French soil. This treaty was struck independently of EU regulations, but it has been suggested that this has now become unsustainable. Women for Refugee Women is currently working on a project with women in northern France and we would welcome any moves that begin to improve the difficult situation in which many refugees find themselves in Calais and Dunkirk, but this needs to happen through co-operation between France and the UK. The current fear is that the Calais jungle may now be cleared without any provision being made to protect the most vulnerable who are living there.
We would urge all those politicians and campaigners who are looking at how to develop policy in the wake of this referendum not to forget that we and our country are strengthened by commitments to create a safe and diverse society. Hate crime must be challenged, and those seeking asylum should be given a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives. In these uncertain times, let us hold on to what brings us together rather than what threatens to drive us apart.
Natasha Walter is a British feminist writer and human rights activist. She is director of Women for Refugee Women and author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism.