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Who Do We Think We Are?

S3E9 (Not so) safe routes

15 Feb 2024

Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to season three of Who do we think we are? The podcast debunking taken for granted understandings of migration and citizenship in Britain today. In this season, we'll be considering the role of migration in the making of Global Britain, as the UK redefines its borders and seeks to reposition itself on the world stage following Brexit. I'm Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship and migration and your host. For this season, I'll also be joined by co-host Nando Sigona, whose research expertise includes international migration and forced displacement. Join us as we challenge public and political narratives of migration to and from Britain today, and encourage you to think differently about some of the most pressing issues of our times, charting a new understanding of Britain's migration story after Brexit.

Fizza Qureshi [FQ]: The government just picks and chooses really who it wants come to the UK, and I'm very cynical around why they would want to offer these roots.

Nando Sigona [NS]: We need to be reflecting on the consequences of adopting this humanitarian scheme on the broader, the bigger picture of international protection, but also being critical and reflexive of the impact on the people on the ground of this pick and choose and the sort of stratification of rights and entitlement that these schemes are embedding in our legal framework in Britain.

MB: You have heard that from Nando, and our guest Fizza Qureshi, who is the CEO of Migrant Rights Network. They were both reflecting on the UK government's recent offer of humanitarian visas. As you'll hear later in this episode, these visas which include those offered to the Hong Kongers, and Ukrainians, are the bedrock of the UK's so-called safe and legal routes. But as both Fizza and Nando stress, we need to understand these protections in the context of ongoing shifts in how the UK approaches migration and asylum, including its approach to international protections. We're going to be exploring these visas in greater depth over the course of the episode, questioning what their characterization as safe and legal routes might be shielding from view. We'll consider their relationship to international humanitarian and refugee protections, but also turn to consider how beneficiaries experience them drawing from our research with Hong Kongers and Ukrainians for the 'Rebordering Britain and Britain's after Brexit' project. Here's what we've got in store for you today. Elena will reflect on what we mean by asylum from its status as a form of international protection, the laws that enshrine these provisions and states' responsibilities to uphold them through to ongoing challenges to their core definition. We'll hear more from Fizzaabout the mainstreaming of anti-immigrant and asylum sentiments in the context of the UK as a hostile environment. And how this has found form in migration policies from who is allowed to come to the UK to the increasing restrictions on migrants rights. And Nando and I consider the 'refugee' as more than a legal status, considering it as a contested category. Framed this way, the introduction of new humanitarian protections is part of what we understand as an ongoing resignification of asylum, where governments seek greater control over who they offer protections to, and we send to the voices of Hong Kongers and Ukrainians taking part in our research to show how these provisions as they've been rolled out in the UK, are not a suitable alternative to those offered through the asylum regime. But first, let's hear more from Elena.

Elena Zambelli [EZ]: Asylum is a form of international protection granted by a country to foreign nationals who have fled their country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.   People claiming asylum in a foreign country are called ‘asylum seekers.’ A successful application for refugee status relies on them demonstrating that they are at risk of persecution if they return to their country of origin. The difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee is a matter of legal status and stage in the asylum process.  The historical roots of the establishment of the right to asylum lie in World War I. Millions of people all over Europe were forcibly displaced as they sought to escape persecution, conflict and violence plaguing their home countries.   Faced with the shared challenge of meeting these vulnerable populations’ needs, some nation states came together to develop a concerted and comprehensive international response to their plight. In 1948, the possibility to claim and enjoy asylum was enshrined in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   Just a few short years later, in 1951 states adopted the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (often referred to as the Refugee Convention, or the Geneva Convention). Initially, the Refugee Convention focused primarily on refugees in Europe displaced before January 1, 1951. However, it soon became clear that the scope of this instrument should be expanded to protect refugees worldwide, regardless of their region of origin. This led, in 1967, to the adoption of the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.  People can claim asylum one or more of the following five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership in a particular social group.  It is notable that neither gender nor sexual orientation constitute ground for claiming asylum. Nevertheless, the last criterion, ‘membership in a particular social group’ offers some room for manoeuvre. For example, some European states, such as Sweden and Denmark, have recently announced that they will grant asylum to all Afghani women and girls ‘solely based on their gender’, in light of the worsening conditions in their country following its return under Taliban rule.  The international system of refugee protection is based on the principle of ‘non-refoulement’, which prohibits states from sending individuals back to a country where they are likely to being subjected to persecution, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or any other human rights violation.  Whilst waiting for a decision on their case, asylum seekers are granted temporary permission to stay in the country where they applied for international protection, and enjoy certain rights and protections.  Once recognized as a refugee, individuals are eligible for protection, including the right to remain in the host country, access to essential services, and, in some cases, resettlement to a third country.  In October 2023, UNHCR estimated that worldwide there were 36.4 million refugees, and 6.1 million asylum seekers. Sadly, with several conflicts raging or looming, these numbers are likely to register a further increase in 2024. Whilst recognized as a fundamental human right, the right to asylum is neither universally nor equally recognized.   Firstly, some states are not party to the Convention and/or to the Protocol. This creates challenges in guaranteeing equal protection to refugees irrespective of their country of origin or nationality.  Secondly, some population groups are dealt through ad hoc measures. This is notably the case of Palestinian refugees who were forcibly displaced from Palestine following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. For them, and for their descendants, it is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) that provides humanitarian assistance and welfare services. While the UN Refugee Agency, established in 1950, has the mandate to provide protection to refugees, UNRWA does not have such the mandate. Moreover, Palestinian refugees falling outside of UNRWA’s geographical range often fall through the cracks.  Three quarters of a century on, as this podcast is aired, new and compelling questions arise in respect to what Palestinians who risk being forcibly displaced from their homeland due to the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel may expect when it comes to international protection from United Nation Member States. As well as the long-term implications that resettlement may have for Palestinians’ right to self-determination.  In recent years, and particularly since the so-called 2015 ‘refugee crisis’, the right to asylum has been increasingly under attack around the world. Right-wing politicians have scapegoated refugees for any social evil – from crime, to unemployment, to sexual violence. At a global scale this has triggered the process of reform of the global governance of refugees and migrants: the Global Compact on Refugees. Such ideas have also had increasing influence on how governments seek to approach asylum, from new bilateral agreements for offshoring their asylum obligations, which we discussed with Fiona Adamson in our episode on ‘Migration, diaspora and diplomacy’ and the increased use of temporary, rather than permanent, humanitarian protection measures. This has become particularly evident as a response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, of which we’ll talk more in-depth in the rest of this episode.

MB: My takeaway point from what Elena has just explained to us is that we're witnessing a political struggle around the world shaped by the tension between international and domestic approaches to offering protection to those in humanitarian needs. Nando and I will, we'll be turning to the UK to explore this in further detail shortly. But first, it's over to Fizza to hear more about the work of Migrants Rights Network on the topic of rights, the hostile environment, and why particularly in these times, utopian thinking is vital in thinking about the future of immigration policy.

FQ: The changes over the 10 years in migration policy have been quite horrific, I would say. Every year, it feels like there's been a further assault on migrants' rights and we can go back to let's say 2012, a bit over 10 years, with the introduction of the hostile environment policies, as we call them, and Theresa May's decision that she's going to focus in on undocumented migrants. And what we've just seen is year on year, it gets progressively worse, more restrictions, more individuals or groups that come forward and say 'we've been discriminated against, we are finding issues' that you wouldn't necessarily, hasn't kind of been brought forward because of a specific legislation, it's just decision-making in the Home Office has changed, and they've decided this group of people are going to be the next target. We obviously saw just before the Brexit vote, how migration was really the focal point of getting the UK out of the EU. And then post Brexit, you haven't really seen a massive change in that kind of idea that migration is being manufactured as this threat to the UK, it's a threat to our resources, it's a threat to our culture, it is a threat to you name it, someone in the right wing has got an excuse for why migration is a threat. Unfortunately, with that the language and the conversations and rhetoric around migration have obviously taken a huge nosedive. And we are seeing and you know, the fact that we got to a point where ministers, government ministers will so easily talk about migration, migrants, including refugees, as an invasion, or talk about them in really dehumanising ways without any repercussion is just indicative of where we are now with our migration policies. There are a number of challenges that migrants experience when they make the UK their home, depending on again, what route they take to get to the UK so if we talk about people who are coming here for sanctuary, people who have to navigate that asylum system, an asylum system that's very unjust it is, it takes a long time, people are retraumatised through that process, they have a lot of insecurity and uncertainty about their futures, they can't build their lives during that waiting, limbo period. And now we've seen further the threats to, 'well we can place you in this kind of accommodation and that kind of accommodation', again, affecting their mental well-being and then you have people coming for labour migration. I think in the past, there's been an assumption that people coming for labour migration, well, you have more control over your rights, your workers' rights, your kind of immigration situation. And actually, the care workers who've been coming to the UK more recently has really demonstrated the precarity that comes with having a sponsorship system and how exploitation and trafficking ends up being like essential to these migration routes and systems. And so not only are they navigating a really complex immigration system that's constantly changing, rules are changing every five minutes it feels, and then they have to navigate the other systems, so employment, housing, health, all because they are interconnected now with your immigration status. So this is a huge amount for migrants to have to navigate, understand all the while you're trying to survive, you're trying to settle yourself, or you're trying to work out how you're going to get the next meal on the table for yourself or your family. So it's, it's, it's a lot of challenges. There's amazing resilience in the migrant communities, although we shouldn't need, they shouldn't need to have that, they will find communities, they will find people, they will find organisations and allies to support them through that process. And, and then, you know, when they come out the other side, there's that relief, they are able to move on and do what they want to do when they first arrived in the UK. So I think the other challenge is, and this will be controversial to some in the migrant and refugee sectors, is the reforming of policies. So some migrants will be seen as the deserving group and therefore policies will be, you know, heavily campaigned for change. But those changes tend to be minor changes, they're tweaks around the policy to make it less harmful. But you will find certain migrants still excluded from those changes, because their, you know, campaigning groups and organisations are trying to demonstrate impact for funders, they're trying to say, we can make a win. And so they will go to what might be the easiest low-hanging fruit, as we call it, it's easier to campaign for women and children than it is for maybe that single man, who also is navigating a very complex and difficult and horrible system. So I think there is a challenge around yeah, how certain migrants are perceived in terms of their vulnerabilities. And I mean, that is in the systems and making them vulnerable, not they come with vulnerabilities, and then how they are supported through that system. There are, I think now we are finding all the different challenges that are based on where people arrived from, what their ethnic backgrounds are, what their race, religion, gender, as, as well, what we have been talking about at the Migrant Rights Network is who is welcomed to the UK. So at the moment, we have seen Ukrainians, white Ukrainians are very welcome to the UK. And it's great, we are offering them refuge at a very difficult time. But then who has been excluded, and it's largely brown and black migrants, people from countries where the UK has been complicit in manufacturing and creating refugees, you know, we've created conflict in those countries. So Afghanistan, Syria, etc. And there is also this idea that men, single men, are not seen as vulnerable, and they therefore don't need as much support, and we don't advocate in the same manner for them. So there's a massive challenge there for the sector, as well as for policymakers as to how do you help them understand that it's not about picking the ideal group to support and campaigne for, but actually, it's about creating systems and policies, that that support an individual to thrive once they do arrive on our shores, and that they give them the protections that they need. The UK opening its visa routes or humanitarian schemes, I think it likes to call them for people from Hong Kong and people fleeing Ukraine, I think was a was a step in demonstrating that the UK has this ability, this function and this drive to support certain people from certain countries to get to the UK and offer them a kind of sanctuary or support. What has been quite stark is the manner in which they've done it, the criteria that's behind these schemes. So I have mentioned this before, for Hong Kongers it is called a humanitarian scheme, and it's really like a visa scheme, it's something you have to pay to access, something you have to demonstrate a certain degree of wealth and income to access. So is it really a humanitarian scheme, if you are asking people to pay for protection? And then when you arrive here, there's certain criteria, it's just, you'd have 'no recourse to public funds' conditions attached to you. So you will not get any further support from the government. But they then to that scheme, they've added some certainty. You could get citizenship much more quickly, after I think five years of being in the UK. And then for Ukrainians, they've got more support when they arrive, so they have access to public funds, they have access to housing, they've been able to navigate a little bit more easily, it's not been perfect, the scheme to get to the UK. But then uncertainty after the three-year period ends, what will happen to them? And especially if they've built connections and communities, fallen in love, built families in the UK? What do they do next? Once the government decides, well, the conflict in, or the war in Ukraine, Russia is over, or it's safe enough for you to return? What happens to those people? And so I think the government just picks and chooses really who it wants to come to the UK, and I'm very cynical around why they would want to offer these routes. And the cynic in me thinks about our labour shortage. Is it to drive people into those? Is it because we've had a financial crisis, and they want wealthier Hong Kongers to come in and bring bring their wealth with them to the UK? Really, I would question the motives behind, always the motives behind these schemes. Why, what for, what geopolitical agendas are behind it as well. We would like the UK immigration system to be just an equitable, more than fair. And the reason why we don't talk about fairness is because it's so subjective, and the current government uses the language of fairness, we are being you know, 'it's unfair to, and therefore, we have created X Y, Zed restrictive immigration policy.' And so we want it to be, if we have to have a system, and this is if, you know, we're talking about that utopia, that everyone is treated, like equally on equal footing, that people are treated with dignity, and respect, for whatever reason they might be coming to the UK. But we've also had freedom of movement. And it worked for that time period that we were in the EU, and why can't we have something similar where we don't have to worry about systems and policy, if we weren't looking at the root causes for why people needed or had to, felt they had to migrate? There might not be as much movement around the globe, people don't necessarily want to come to the UK and leave their homes and their cultures and everything that's familiar to them. But they're forced to do so because of poverty, conflict, etc. And so I think, you know, really utopian idea would be that you don't need these systems and policies, and that we start to welcome people because they want to make the UK their home.

MB: You're listening to Who do we think we are? presents Global Britain, a podcast all about migration and citizenship in the UK after Brexit hosted by me, Michaela Benson and my co-host Nando Sigona. If you like what you've heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. This means that you'll be the first to hear when our episodes drop, and it also helps more people to discover the podcast. It was great to hear from Fizza about this idea that since Brexit, what we've seen is the direction of travel for UK immigration policy that really embeds this idea that the government is picking and choosing which people they want to move to and settle in the UK, whether that's through standard immigration routes, or indeed through these new humanitarian protections. I really liked how she ended by calling for justice and equal treatment within the immigration system as a way of speaking back to that narrative from the UK government, which focuses on the immigration regime as somehow fair and generous. And for me, really, everything she said resonated quite clearly with what we've been arguing through the research that we've been doing on the project. But I think that there's something that we need to do before we get into the research here, Nando, which is to step back and think about who is defined as in need of humanitarian protections and how that definition then relates to the construction of the imagined community. And I'm thinking here of the work of Liisa Malkki on refugees and exiles, and particularly her understanding of the refugee as a construction in process. So I wondered if you wanted to start by explaining that a bit more Nando.

NS: What Liisa Malkki did in a way was to bring back the refugees within this debate around imagined communities, within and engaging it with the construction of the national state as an homogeneous and coherent whole. As other people have pointed out, the refugees are the west of the world, this is from Zygmunt Bauman, they said that they are those who are left out or within the containers in which the population is being organised. So the refugee in a way, it helps you as a kind of, as a counter to this imagining that in the same time helps you to create this idea that we are who we are really opposing to them, but also create a problem to the nation state, are those that don't fit in within, this way, they become also challenged with this understanding of the imagined community as a bounded one. What Malkki notices is that this construction of the refugee is very much rooted in the world that was emerging after the end of the Second World War. In a way it started, even before, at the end of the First World War, where there was all the problem of solving where people had to fill in, you know, the boundaries of the world were changing. And so there was this idea of the refugee that started to be established within the international community, and the need for putting order, that was it, because a refugee was a threat to this world that was being created of the nation states. But what we see now, especially since the end of the Cold War, is the emergence of forms of contestation about who the others are, you know, the sense of who is a refugee is for someone is a terrorist for someone else. And there is an ongoing contestation about the definition of these groups. But it also there is an undermining of the legal framework, the international framework that emerged from the Second World War. I mean, this way, we may be discuss later but in a sense, the Geneva Convention on refugees, the refugees whose definition is enshrined in the in the, in the international legal framework, is less and less relevant in the contemporary conversations.

MB: I think that's really interesting, because what you've described there, is the way in which that figure of the refugee is reconstituted over time. And it also reminds us that although there is a legal definition of who counts as a refugee, that that is not necessarily the only way in which refugees are referred to or in which refugees are mobilised, and the kind of the work that they do, in those contexts of creating that sense of an us and them is really significant. But I suppose I was thinking a little bit about kind of zooming in on the UK and thinking about what's happening to that kind of public definition of who is a refugee at this point in time, or what a refugee is, particularly in the context of this emerging suite of humanitarian protections. And what's really interesting about it, to me, is actually when you go to those government documents, talking about launching the Ukraine visa scheme, or talking about the Hong Kong BN(O) visa scheme, they are being described as people in need of humanitarian protection. And quite often, they're being described as refugees, even though in law, they're not refugees, as per the Geneva Convention. So I was thinking to myself about what work that's actually doing, and how that might make us think differently, I suppose about those safe and legal routes, I think differently to the way in which they're being presented.

NS: I think we need to understand how this, the refugee as figure, can be located in the present. The fact that a lot of countries, including the Britain, in a sense, are opting to provide humanitarian support for people in need outside the frame of the Refugee Convention, is interesting, because in a sense, is creating a new figure in contemporary society, no forms of membership, we are seeing countries, which were at the core of the international communities, they were among the strongest supporters of the Refugee Convention, and they started to sort of withdraw their support and in a sense, even undermining the framework by creating more and more alternative ways to provide support to the people in need.

MB: There's a tension going on between humanitarian protections, which I think people do think of in terms of refugee status and actual refugee status, because those two things are now doing quite different things. Or at least they might be doing different things as a possibility of them doing different things, which is one of the things that we have been exploring through this work with Ukrainians and Hong Kongers.

NS: I think, in the British context, what we have seen now is for a number of years, that the sort of criminalization of the asylum seekers, the bogus refugees, the bogus asylum seekers, and all the expressions that we have seen in the tabloids, in the media repeating continuously, which have created in a sense the idea of the, the figure of the refugees as someone who is sort of a burden on the welfare state, etc, etc. So the process of distancing ourselves from sort of our obligation vis-a-vis the people in need of international protection started a few years ago, but clearly since, since Brexit and more recently, after the pandemic, we've seen the criminalization of asylum to become really part of the legal framework in many ways, you know, the measure that were introduced following the New Plan for Immigration, by Priti Patel, and measures that we've seen more recently through Suella Braverman and then through the government of Rishi Sunak to 'stop the boats,' have in a sense embedded in the legislation the criminalization of undocumented entry for those who were then claiming asylum, so making entry without papers enough for disqualifying you from claiming asylum or previously to receive the full asylum protection. So we have seen a process going in this direction, and on the other end, we see this ad hoc approach to, 'we pick and choose,' you know, cherry-picking the people that we like to protect. And then I guess our research is very much located at the point of understanding why we are choosing someone, why we like that fruit and not that other fruit, why we like the Ukrainians or why we like the Hong Kongers and try to unpack that.

MB: Yeah, I think that's a really good point to transition to into talking about those two sets of provisions. And obviously, I've been working very, very closely on the Hong Kong BN(O) visa, and I'm not going to go into the entire backstory of the Hong Kong BN(O) visa or rather, the relationship between the Hong Kongers and the British state. And for those of you who are interested, there's an episode in Season One, where I speak to the lawyer, John Vassiliou, all about that. But basically, what we have is a situation where people who were formerly citizens of the UK and colonies are now being welcomed to the UK as migrants. And there's a whole gap in-between where they were not welcome to the UK even when they were citizens. But it's kind of interesting that, at this point in time, these people are explicitly being offered humanitarian protections, or at least that's what their visa is called. It's called a form of humanitarian protection. What this means, essentially, is that it's been a flagship of those safe and legal routes, this new set of provisions that the UK Government have been expanding from 2015 until today, and when the UK government reports on what they're doing in respect to providing people in humanitarian need with aid, the Hong Kongers, who number somewhere in the region of 180 to 190,000 people who are living in the UK today, are counted within that number of people they've provided humanitarian support to. So it's very, very clear that within that category that the UK Government are using now, which does also include people who are claiming asylum, that the Hong Kongers coming through these humanitarian routes are part of that reconstitution of people who are being provided humanitarian protections. And as I have already said, what's very, very clear is that on occasions, there's massive slippage between referring to them as Hong Kongers and referring to them as refugees. So I think that's really, really important. But there's, there's more going on here. And just a little reminder, because I haven't already said it, it's very interesting to me that one of the biggest routes that has been offered to people through that suite of safe and legal protections, is to people who were formerly colonised. So I think that's really important. And definitely, that's become part of the narrative, too. When you listen to Robert Jenrick talk about the Hong Kong BN(O) visa scheme, he talks about delivering on a historic obligation, a historic commitment. And I think for me, that's always really significant in terms of thinking about why they might be choosing the Hong Kongers for this route. I mean, obviously, there are all sorts of things also going on in Hong Kong, that the British government have been very, very critical of. But there's something else here that I just want to draw attention to. And we'll probably talk through this a little bit more later. The terms on which Hong Kong has come to the UK do not look like humanitarian protections. It's very obvious they pay a fee, they have to pay their immigration surcharge. They have to pay international student fees, those of them who come to the UK and want to study here, they have no recourse to public funds, they have to demonstrate some degree of an ability to support themselves not as extreme as, as you might have to do if you are coming through other routes, then that's other immigration routes, not other humanitarian protection schemes. But that's led some people to say that the terms are much more similar to what we've seen with the ancestry visas and of course, the ancestry visas too are visas which are offered to people who have a colonial connection to the UK. So I think there again, we're starting to see what some of the contours are of the decision making around who they're going to offer protection to at this point in time. So, so yeah. So I think, I think my kind of, my takeaway from this is that that visa doesn't really resemble other humanitarian visas or other forms of protection that the UK Government offers. And I think that's quite a contrast to what's happening to the Ukrainians.

NS: We're moving to the Ukraine and I have got a sort of a question for you, I mean, I found the reference to Jenrick and the historical obligation really interesting. But I was wondering that the sense of historical obligation didn't seem to be that strong for example in, at the point in which Hong Kong was returned to China, because at that stage, there was also a lot of Hong Kongers that left the country, but they didn't seem to come to Britain, they end up going mostly to North America, to Australia and New Zealand. Why now? Why now we have this historic obligation and not 10 years ago, is it something to do with Brexit?

MB: I mean, this is the thing that I have always asked, which is why now, because it's very, very clear that when you went back to the discussions about what to do with the Hong Kongers when those agreements were going on between Britain and China, that the British government was not keen to encourage Hong Kongers to come and settle in the UK. And in fact, they unanimously opposed the idea that Hong Kongers should be able to come and settle in the UK. So I think that, why now? I think there's a range of different things going on here. I think, you know, the point about where Britain has positioned itself in respect to China, and ongoing human rights abuses, the things that were happening on the ground in Hong Kong, which happened to coincide with that moment, that the UK left the European Union, I think, is significant.

NS: I think, I mean, when I mentioned Brexit, early on, I was also thinking about this idea, obviously, of the construction of Global Britain, of reconnecting with parts of the world that we felt in a way we had left behind as a result of our membership in the European Union. But I think there is another element, which emerged in our report, but also in conversation I've had with students from Hong Kong and this idea is the relationship with the historical ties with the country. This idea of generosity of the British state towards the Hong Kongers, and also of gratitude, so in a sense, you have written, we have written, we are writing about it, that this idea of the good migrant, the Hongkonger as the good migrant, the one that basically fills the gaps in the labour market, but also has a stronger attachment to what we can call in some way what is still the mother country to some extent. Do you think this makes sense?

MB: Yeah, I mean, I think that we've seen very, very clearly in the interviews that we've done that people do draw on that narrative of kinship. So they do draw on this idea that the UK is some kind of parent to them, it's not their only parents, as becomes clear that. But that they also have that connection through having lived in a British colony. And I think that there is a sense of, and I've seen it, not just in our interviews, but also more broadly in talking to Hong Kongers, is they really do operate very often with that idea of the good migrant, that you do see, you know, playing out through the discussions about, you know, what the Hong Kongers will do, whether here, if you look in their political documents, and all of that kind of thing. But there is another part side to this, when you go deeper into those interviews, what you also start to see is really that that narrative is tempered, precisely by that historic relationship, which can be a little bit, 'you left us in this mess, now you need to deal with it.' And I think that there are calls for that, you know, to say, actually, you have this responsibility to us, you left us alone, you abandoned us. I mean, that sense of abandonment is very, very strong in some of the interviews. Now, basically, sort it out. And here's a quotation from one of our interviewees, that will explain that precisely.

Voiceover – Hongkonger in UK 1: I will perceive the UK is kind of the mother to Hong Kong. We inherit so much from the British, like the traffic system, like the way we, the way we need to learn two languages. But now, I feel like we are, we are left behind, like the mother abandoned us somehow.

MB: But I suppose the other side of this is the work that we've done with Ukrainians. And I wondered Nando, if you could start by just telling us about the terms on which the Ukrainians are arriving in the UK and how it differs, I suppose from what's going on with the Hong Kongers.

NS: I guess there are two keywords to understand the way that the Britain is providing protection and support for the Ukrainians. One is temporary protection, and the other one is community sponsorship. So these are two terms. In a way they've got a different genealogy from the ancestry visa, you have explained to us in relation to the Hongkonger visa. On one end, we've seen already, especially in response to war, a conflict occurring in the neighbourhoods of the European Union. I'm thinking, for example, at the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, that when you have a mass influx of people escaping war and persecution, in a way, the idea of providing protection to everyone rather than on individual base is something that starts to be developed. So the idea is, it is very hard to deal with the individual cases, processing them, and there is the urgency in the case of a conflict to give some kind of humanitarian protection, and that's the best way to do it by basically providing it to everyone coming from that territory. We have seen in the case of the Ukrainians at the beginning, some discrepancy between providing protection to every Ukrainian national, and providing protection to everyone who was living in Ukraine, which created issues with accusations of racism or discrimination vis-a-vis the migrants, for example, that were affected by the conflict. The other term, and which in a way shapes the approach that Britain in particular has used to providing support to the Ukrainian is this idea of the community sponsorship. So we have different schemes that have been put in place for the Ukrainians. Initially, we decided to provide protection to people who had already established family connections within the UK. At the second stage, particularly because of the opposition protest coming from the civil society organisations, are basically accusing government to be too restrictive in their approach, especially compared to other European countries, there was the introduction of a scheme that was much more based on this idea of sponsorship. So a group of people or business or even a school or a university will put together a package of support, an offer to provide hospitality to a Ukrainian refugees or Ukrainian families, and basically, that sponsorship idea will basically replace the role that the state plays in this circumstance. What we see is a kind of a process of privatisation of, of humanitarian protection, something that we have seen emerging in Europe, and also in North America, in Australia, since the European refugee crisis of 2015 and '16, on a kind of large scale. I mean, there were some examples from before, clearly, but the approach, the support, for example, for Syrians that were escaping from Syria, was partly organised through the mechanism of the sponsorship. You will remember that Canada, for example, received hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, through this mechanism, the UK had a much smaller scheme, but in a way that operated and worked as a pilot for the Ukrainian scheme.

MB: So I mean, obviously, you've given a really good account there of what these, what these schemes are, what they look like, but what do you think the challenges are that emerge from them?

NS: The challenges emerge from the very nature of the schemes, from these two keywords I have mentioned before: the temporary protection and the community sponsorship. These shows that, you know, obviously, our sense of hospitality, hospitality is not unbounded, or hospitality is not limitless in terms of time and, you know, put the pressure on the community to provide sponsorship. And so the problem is, with the conflict continuing, there is an issues about how to sustain it, and to what extent this privatisation of international humanitarian protection can last in the long run. The other problem is with the temporary protection side of these schemes, because in a way, at the beginning, having a temporary protection scheme makes sense and people expect the conflict to not last that long, but also is a way in a sense of signalling to the Ukrainians and to the public, that this, this community is here for a short period of time, but it's going to go back to Ukraine. The problem is that when you have a conflict that lasts long, people start to think about the future, to make plans about the future. When you have a country that's been destroyed by the war, it's very hard to say, Okay, I'll just go back. And then what I do there? And but also, after having spent a year or two years in Britain, you start to build connections, you start to anchor yourself, particularly if you have children. And this is something that a number of people we spoke to told us, and maybe we can listen to some of them now.

MB: Yeah, I mean, for example, Kalina described to us this problem of the temporariness of the visa but also about their lack of information about what was going to happen when these expired. So here she is explaining that to us.

Voiceover – Ukrainian in UK 1: But also, for all the people who stay here, I mean, Ukrainian refugees who stay here in the UK, the government cannot tell what will happen after your visa is expired. Like, I don't know what will happen next, after I stay here for three years with my BRP. It's still, you know, this thought is still being processed. Like, I'm not sure what my options are. But we'll see. Hopefully, in three years. I won't have to stay in another country. I could just go back to Ukraine, but I cannot tell. Nobody can. might be held dangerous. So we will see.

NS: The issue of the temporariness of this scheme, there is there is a broader issue with the temporality of the scheme, that the logic underpinning the sort of the temporary protection is very much dictated by the conflict, by the relationship between Britain and Ukraine, but also on the development of the conflict itself. So what is missing at the moment is a clarity from the British government in particular about what's happened next once in 2025, this temporary protection is going to finish. What is going to happen to these people? And this is something that the people in the report pointed out again, and again, this lack of clarity, this uncertainty, the sense of being unable to think about the future was very much permeating their experience. But, Michaela, if we go back now, and looking at these two schemes together as part of this suite of temporary protection or humanitarian protection that the British government has put forward, so how do they compare? What are the key points that we learned from our research?

MB: Well, I think that that's, those differences between the two schemes are really, really critical. And Hong Kongers, in particular, were very, very well aware of this. So you know, I described how for the Hong Kongers, the visas don't really resemble other humanitarian protections, and they definitely don't resemble the protections that are offered to the Ukrainians. And so for example, Philip talked to us explicitly about this, when he was talking about the absence of recourse to public funds for Hong Kongers.

Voiceover – Hongkonger in UK 2: The problem is, after we got visa, we got a lot of restriction on the visa route. What we are being imposed is no recourse to public funds, unlike the EU settlement scheme citizens, and also the Afghan refugees and also Ukrainian refugees.

MB: Why this is important, is because it's very, very clear that the different terms of the visas shape the challenges that people face when they're in the UK. And we've presented this in a new report that's just come out called 'Humanitarian protections in a hostile environment.' But what we're keen to demonstrate is that there is stratification both of access to humanitarian protections, I, you know, particular nationalities are being chosen and selected to come to the UK through those schemes. But also because the terms are so fundamentally different on those different schemes, there's also a kind of differentiation among people who on the surface of things are all in the UK with humanitarian protections. And I think that's the kind of puzzle here that I've been struggling with. And I wondered Nando, what you thought that this told us about the UK's direction of travel in respect to humanitarian protections?

NS: The UK sort of travelling alone, as part of the post-Brexit reality, geopolitical reality, seems to be looking more and more to migration and its international obligations, vis-a-vis refugees and people seeking protection on a kind of transactional level. Rather than having a clear legal framework for providing or not protection, this choice seems to be going on kind of not just on an ad hoc approach, but also one in which we have always been sort of waiting at the pros and cons of providing protection to specific groups. The government can also tell us 'Oh, yes, but we have schemes to provide safe and legal routes, also, for other countries, like Afghani or Syrians.' Yes, but just look at the numbers, just look at the requirement they have to go through to come here, you will see that there are very, very few people that came through these schemes that on paper are there. So let's be clear, you know, we need to look at the reality of this scheme and also think about the long-term consequences in terms of that this sort of undermining of the international legal framework by countries that are at the core, or the were at the core of it, can produce.

MB: Yeah, I mean, this will claim that they're offering humanitarian protections in a context where they're reducing the number of people who they will accept, for the purposes of asylum or for refugee status doesn't need to be at the core of this. And I should just say like, there's a real commitment by the government laid out in their accounts of what they're going to do around migration and what they're going to do about reducing the numbers of people crossing the Channel in small boats, to use these safe and legal routes as a kind of, as a way of channelling more people into humanitarian protection. So this was laid out in the New Immigration Plan. But as we've already seen, in the case of emerging conflicts, some other emerging conflicts other than Ukraine, there has been no safe and legal route proposed. So all we need to do is think about Sudan, or to think about Palestine and you know, the government hasn't jumped up and offered those provisions to people from those places. So it kind of looks like at the moment, it's very, very clear they their own report says they have no plans in the pipeline to open up any further routes.

NS: And this is actually where these issues about waiting in, not waiting the option and the pros and cons, we've seen that the data on migration has been more and more focused on net migration figures, the huge larger number of people that have come since the new, you know, this the last few years as a result of the post-Brexit arrangement, and the extent to which has become at the centre of the debate, you know, they have to cut the net migration figure, which means to cut the immigration mostly. And they also know that their sort of humanitarian schemes make a quite big chunk of these figures, in a sense. So what we're seeing is the government again, balancing and deciding what is more important: to reconnect with our former colonies, to play a role on the international sort of, in this international conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the rest of Europe, or basically respond to the pressures that come from the anti-migration part of the Conservative Party, from the public opinion, from the tabloids? And this is what we're seeing now. So it's really important that there are firm legal frameworks of reference rather than this approaches that are pick-and-choose.

MB: Throughout this discussion, we've been talking about the tension between asylum provisions and these safe and legal routes. What would be your closing thoughts Nando on humanitarian protections, in that context, what are the dangers around this, I suppose?

NS: I think, one thing we need to make clear is that the humanitarian protection, these schemes that we have been discussing about, are not an alternative to the asylum system, and they're not an alternative to the protection that are enshrined in the international legal framework by the Geneva Convention in 1951. At best, they can be complimentary. But the point is, even as a complementary schemes, we have highlighted how rather than being generous, they also have limits, they have, they really impact on the experiences of the people that benefit from them. So we need to be reflecting on the consequences of adopting this humanitarian scheme on the broader, the bigger picture of the international protection, but also be critical and reflexive of the impact on the people on the ground of this pick-and-choose and the sort of stratification of rights and entitlements that these schemes are embedding in our legal framework in Britain.

MB: Thank you very much. Nando. I think that's a really important point to end on, which is that these humanitarian protections, the bespoke provisions, are not an appropriate alternative to asylum provisions, and we need to keep hold of that, as we continue to see perhaps future schemes being rolled out.

NS: Thank you.

MB: Who do we think we are? Presents Global Britain is a podcast produced and presented by me Michaela Benson and Nando Sigona as part of the research project 'Rebordering Britain and Britain after Brexit', that's funded by the Economic and Social Research Council via their Governance after Brexit initiative. And you can find out more about the project at That's A big thank you to our guests in this episode, Fizza Qureshi and to Eva Li, Terry Au-Yeung, and Anastasiia Lytvyniuk for their voiceovers. A special thanks to Emma Houlton at Brilliant Audio for her production and post production support, to Elena Zambelli for the additional research and to George Kalivis for the cover art. If you head over to you'll find transcripts and enhanced shownotes that include active listening questions, our podcast picks, and where you can go to find out more about the topics we discussed. And just a last call. If you're new to the podcast and like what you've heard, check out our back catalogue. We particularly recommend our episode on the Nationality and Borders act, where Fizza was one of our fantastic guests and the episode of Beyond the Headlines, which I co-host with Ala Sirriyeh, where we spoke with Zrinka Bralo of Migrants Organise. Do get in touch with us via our socials to know what you've learned from listening or what you'd like to hear more about. That's all for now, but we'll be back with another episode very soon.

What are the UK Government’s ‘safe and legal routes’? How do these relate to ‘stop the boats’, the Rwanda Plan, and the curtailment of asylum as laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention? What can we learn from listening to the Hong Kongers and Ukrainians beneficiaries of these humanitarian visas? And what if these routes are not so safe after all?  

In this episode we explore the UK’s safe and legal (humanitarian routes). Elena Zambelli explains what ‘asylum’ is, looking its history, scope and challenges to these international protections since the 2015 ‘refugee crisis.’ Fizza Qureshi, CEO of the Migrants’ Rights Network, board member of Migrants at Work and of the honorary advisory committee for the Black Europeans, joins us to offer a critical overview of the UK’s immigration and asylum reforms over the past decade. Asking what this tells us about migrants’ rights, she highlights how these reforms impact disproportionately on brown and black migrants who try to make the UK their homes. And co-hosts Nando Sigona and Michaela Benson consider the ongoing contestations surrounding the figure of the ‘refugee’ as well as the asylum system as a whole. They reflect on how beneficiaries of the Hong Kong BN(O) and Ukraine visa schemes experience these humanitarian visas, and what we can learn from them about the limits of these.

In this episode we cover …

  • Humanitarian protections and asylum
  • Migrants' rights
  • Hong Kong BN(O) and Ukraine visa schemes

Find more about …

Who and where are refugees, asylum seekers, forcibly displaced people and people in need of international protection today by searching through the UNHCR Refugee Data Finder

Who is welcome today in the UK and who is not in this Al Jazeera interview with Fizza Qureshi, and what should safe routes to the UK look like in this blog by the Migrants’ Rights Network

The role of Islamophobia in migration discourse in this blog by the Migrants’ Rights Network

Liisa Malkii on Refugees and the National Order of things

Ukrainians and Hong Kong BN(O)s experiences with the UK’s new bespoke humanitarian routes in the MIGZEN team’s latest report

Our podcast picks …

From the Who do we think we are? back catalogue our episode about the Nationality and Borders Bill featuring Fizza and on the Hong Kong BN(O) visa with John Vassiliou

The Conversation podcast on Leaving Hong Kong

Migration Oxford’s  Leaving Ukraine

How to cite this episode:

Benson, M., Sigona, N., Qureshi, F. and Zambelli, E. (2024) Who do we think we are? Presents ‘Global Britain’. S3 E9 (Not so) safe routes [Podcast] 15 February 2024. Available at: (Accessed: add date here)

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Active listening questions

  • When and what was the institution of asylum established for?
  • Are there differences between asylum and the UK’s ‘safe and legal (humanitarian) routes’? How would you describe and explain these differences?
  • What does the UK’s preference for ad hoc humanitarian protection routes reveal about its approach to migration governance after Brexit?

View all active listening questions