In the fictional world of The Handmaid’s Tale (book and TV series) a large part of what we know as the United States of America has been overrun in a violent coup and renamed as the Republic of Gilead. It is a totalitarian state with fiercely patriarchal practices and values. Women are split into clearly defined roles within society, including Handmaids; forced into sexual slavery in high-ranking childless households to increase the chance of reproduction.
In the popular TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, our main character, a Handmaid named June, has been on the run. Having escaped the authorities with fellow Handmaid Janine, the pair have been on a desperate mission to reach a place of safety. June’s family and friends are split between Gilead and Canada (Canada offers asylum to escapees). Watching the programme, which to this point has dealt with the logistics of the Canadian refugee system to only a limited extent, I wonder how the UK would react if refugees from Gilead suddenly arrived at the UK’s door.
This blog post aims to assess whether the UK would offer protection to Handmaids like June and Janine, and how we would treat them while their cases were processed. Importantly, it is timely to consider how the measures being proposed by Priti Patel in the Nationality and Borders Bill 2021 would affect June’s and Janine’s story.
The Nationality and Borders Bill has reached its second reading in the House of Commons. Aspects of it are controversial, but with a significant Conservative majority in parliament, the government is expected to succeed. The Bill has various aims, including a key objective “to deter illegal entry into the UK breaking the business model of criminal trafficking networks and saving lives”. Critics say that criminalising those who seek asylum does nothing to punish people traffickers and instead erodes the rights of those in need of protection.
Let us begin by considering the proposed changes to criminalise asylum seekers. The Bill seeks to re-draft the existing scheme, and re-written laws would mean increased fines or imprisonment (maximum 4 years in prison) for any person knowingly arriving in or entering the UK without the correct permission to do so. This criminalisation is regardless of the person’s intentions, or the legitimacy of their asylum claim once here.
Can June and Janine safely and lawfully travel to the UK to seek asylum but avoid prosecution? Under the new Act, the only legal route would be resettlement, the transfer of refugees from one asylum country to another location. This is managed by UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and the UK government boasts about the UK’s commitments under this scheme, despite averaging only around 4000 resettlements per year over the past 6 years. Given that UNHCR estimates that the world has over 26 million refugees and many more displaced people, the chances of June or Janine being sufficiently lucky to come to the UK under a resettlement programme are extremely slim.
Acknowledging that resettlement is unlikely, if June and Janine are to reach safety in the UK, they have few options. They cannot apply for a visa to travel via commercial flight; like many refugees they are without documents, resources, or both. In any event, such an application would be false as they do not wish to visit the UK; they need to seek sanctuary here, and there is no visa for that. There is therefore no safe legal route for them to use. They perhaps sneak aboard a plane or ship out of Gilead and make their way directly to the UK or via another country that way. It is effective, but this is going to hurt their claim later down the line, starting with potential criminal proceedings simply for coming to the UK at all.
Once here, June and Janine can claim asylum, providing details of their ritualised rape and brutalisation for Home Office assessment (how sensitively that might be handled is a post for another day). What about their reception conditions and the support they might receive while the claim is processed? Well, the Nationality and Borders Bill is relevant here too, providing for differential treatment of refugees depending on their circumstances of arrival in the UK. We have already established that June and Janine are likely to have to resort to clandestine modes of travel (they spent a part of a recent episode hiding in a refrigerated tanker of milk), so we should assess what that will mean for them too.
The differential provisions seek to favour one group of refugees over another. If a refugee has travelled to the UK otherwise than direct from the country where “their life or freedom was threatened”, has delayed claiming asylum after arrival in the UK, or cannot show “good cause” for unlawful entry or presence in the UK, they fall into group 2. This can change how long they are permitted to remain in the UK at first instance, whether or how they qualify for settlement in future, even how they may be housed while the claim is processed (think of the disgraceful conditions at Napier Barracks).
June and Janine may be lucky, travelling to the UK over the Atlantic could mean direct transit from Gilead to the UK. For many real-world asylum seekers, it is rarely that straightforward, and a simple stopover in the Republic of Ireland could cause problems for June’s and Janine’s UK claims.
The Government plan is to create an environment that is more hostile for Group 2 refugees, making their lives harder as they try to integrate with UK society. However, unlike mainland Europe, the UK is an island separated from many war-torn countries by greater distance and obstacles such as the sea. By penalising refugees who do not travel to the UK direct, the UK is seeking to capitalise on its geographical ‘advantage’, encouraging asylum seekers to remain in Italy, Greece, or wherever their first port of call has been. This policy is cynical, shirking the UK’s obligations and undermining any rhetoric of the UK as a protector of human rights.
Other proposed measures in the Nationality and Borders Bill could see June and Janine forcibly returned to any country through which they travelled before arrival in the UK, or even shipped halfway across the world to be held offshore while their claims are processed. Plans have included Ascension Island, Rwanda, and abandoned oil rigs, but at present the UK does not have a single agreement with any country for the return or housing of refugees. Prior agreements with EU nations were sacrificed for Brexit with nothing yet in their place. This is not to stay that future agreements will not be made, and one suspects that Priti Patel would happily house asylum seekers on the moon if it meant keeping them outside UK borders. June and Janine could therefore have a difficult and long journey ahead.
Supporters of the Nationality and Borders Bill claim it is necessary to protect the UK’s interests. The Bill was once called the Sovereign Borders Bill, and the major aim is to dramatically reduce the number of people arriving on the UK’s shores following dangerous crossings from France (around 6000 people so far this year, or 4.7% the number of people who have officially died in the UK due to Covid). There are those who think that asylum seekers are beggars who cannot be choosers; anything must be better than where they have come from, so what does it matter if housing conditions are appalling, or if it is made more difficult for them to thrive in the UK once here? This kind of thinking devalues the lives of those who are most vulnerable. It dances dangerously close to The Handmaid’s Tale itself:
“Waste not, want not. I am not being wasted, why do I want?”
Meeting our obligations under the Refugee Convention is a necessity, not a choice. We should do it with pride and compassion. Not a single viewer of The Handmaid’s Tale would hesitate to extend their own hand to June or Janine; the Nationality and Borders Bill aims to push asylum seekers away, metaphorically and, if Priti Patel has her way, literally.