Monday 29 November 2021

Refugees: A few useful facts

Did you know … ?

There is no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum. People must be physically present in the UK to claim asylum. (There is no such thing as a ‘refugee visa’ and UK embassies cannot process asylum applications.)

International refugee law does not require that people claim asylum in the first safe country they enter. Anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.

Article 31 of the Convention says that recognised refugees should not be penalised for illegal entry or presence in a host country if they are fleeing persecution in another country. 

86% of the world’s refugees are in countries that neighbour their own country of origin. In Turkey, for example, there are an estimated 3.7 million refugees from Syria. In Pakistan, there are an estimated 1.4 million from Afghanistan.

In 2002, 84,132 people applied for asylum in the UK. In the year ending September 2021, the number was 37,562. 

In 2020, there were around 6 asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in the UK. Across the EU, there were 11 applications for every 10,000 people. When compared with EU countries, the UK ranked 14th in terms of asylum applications per head of population.

All these facts are easily accessible online, most of them in briefing papers prepared by the House of Commons Library. 

The home secretary, Priti Patel, is well aware of them. She chooses to ignore them. Perhaps you should make sure that your MP is aware of them as well.

Thursday 13 May 2021

The roots of Palestinian anger

Why have Palestinians erupted into violence yet again?

Let us count the ways:

Because Palestinian families in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which has been under Israeli occupation for more than 50 years, are facing forcible eviction to make way for Jewish settlers.

Because Israeli security forces prevented Palestinian worshippers from gathering at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem to mark the final days of the holy month of Ramadan.

Because during the coronavirus pandemic, they have seen Israel praised around the world for its stunning vaccine successes, while they waited in vain.

Because the Trump administration moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, a city whose status is still to be resolved, and helped to negotiate so-called peace accords, over the heads of the Palestinians, between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.  

In other words, because they feel forgotten and ignored. For more than half a century, they have lived under military occupation and the world has moved on. Even their own leaders treat them with contempt: elections scheduled for later this month have now been ‘suspended indefinitely’. They would have been the first such elections for fifteen years; President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah group were widely expected to be defeated if the polls had gone ahead.

As for Hamas, the Iranian-backed Islamist group which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, the rising tensions could not have come at a more opportune moment. President Abbas is now 85 years old and widely regarded as presiding over a grotesquely ineffective and corrupt Palestinian administration, and Hamas’s sponsors in Tehran are keen to flex their muscles during difficult negotiations over reinstating the nuclear non-proliferation deal that was ripped up by President Trump.

Hamas’s heartless cynicism matches that of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It knows that the only way it can capture the world’s attention is by unleashing barrages of largely ineffective rockets into Israel in the full knowledge that it will provoke a fearsome Israeli military response and TV images of Gaza under bombardment yet again.

For decades, the official Israeli mindset regarding Palestinian resistance to its military occupation has been that of a heavyweight boxer raining punches against an opponent already on the ropes. It is convinced that when the punishment becomes too much to bear, the opponent will surrender.

It didn’t work for the French in Algeria or the Americans in Vietnam. The Russians in Chechnya and the Chinese in Tibet and Xinjiang have tried the same tactic; perhaps it has worked better for them.

Many Israelis, probably most Israelis, have been happy to live with the status quo. They can go about their daily lives untroubled by the festering sore that is the unresolved conflict with their neighbours. Now, after years of a steady slide to the extreme right in the Israeli parliament, gangs of Jewish lynch mobs are reported to be on the rampage against Arab targets, smashing shop windows and pulling drivers from their cars. (Twenty per cent of Israeli citizens are Arabs.)

It is as ugly as it has ever been.

I have been following the Israel-Palestinian conflict for more than 35 years, ever since I was based in Jerusalem as Middle East correspondent for The Observer in the mid-1980s. I used to live less than a five-minute drive away from Sheikh Jarrah and returned frequently during the 1990s and 2000s to report for the BBC.

In October 2000, at the start of what became known as the Second Intifada, I was in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city, when 13 Arab Israeli civilians were shot dead by Israeli police. I wrote a piece at the time in which I reported that what worried me most then was ‘what seems to be a total loss of confidence on both sides in the idea that problems can be solved by negotiation.’

Since then, things have got much, much worse. We can argue for ever over who fired the first shot or the first rocket, and who retaliated for what. It will do no good, and Palestinians and Israelis – far more of the former than the latter – will continue to die.

Many years ago, a senior Israeli peace negotiator – in the days when such people still existed – told me that the conflict would not end until both sides had tired of killing each other’s children.

I would put it another way: the conflict will not end until Israelis accept that they cannot continue to oppress Palestinians indefinitely. 

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Meghan and Harry: my tuppenceworth


Henry VIII learnt it the hard way. So did the Duke of Windsor. And Princess Margaret. And Prince Charles. And now, so have Harry and Meghan.

You can't be royal and have what you want. It's written in the job spec: 'You will have riches galore, a life of immense privilege, people bowing and scraping wherever you go -- and you will be miserable.'

In fact, there is a way out if you don't want to sign on the dotted line: you keep your head down and get on with your life. Peter Phillips and Zara Tyndall, the children of Princess Anne, and therefore, like Harry, the Queen's grandchildren, are a good example.

Meghan Markle's big mistake was to imagine that she could bend the Firm to her wishes. Harry, who should have known better, seems to have agreed, despite his older brother's apparent warnings. Their mother, Diana, had no idea what she was getting into when she married Charles; Meghan had no such excuse.

It is difficult to imagine two cultures less likely to be able to coexist than California and Clarence House, the official residence of Harry's Dad, the future King.

California: the cult of the individual, wear your heart on your sleeve, happiness is a basic human right.

Clarence House: duty and tradition, first and last. Stiff upper lip, never apologise, emotions to be kept firmly behind closed doors.

As for struggles with mental health, this, remember, is a family which institutionalised two of the Queen's first cousins and airbrushed them from history. Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon were the daughters of the Queen's uncle, the Queen Mother's brother, and -- as viewers of The Crown will recall -- they both suffered from profound learning difficulties and were in effect abandoned by the royal family. (Nerissa died in 1986 and Katherine in 2014.)

No wonder Meghan, like Diana before her, found that her pleas for help fell on deaf ears. No one who knows anything about the history of the family she married into should have been surprised.

As for racism, well, hello? Where have you been? Yes, it is shocking that an as yet unidentified family member should have regarded it as perfectly appropriate to speculate in Harry's presence about the likely skin colour of the couple's unborn child. But surprising? Not at all.

Which brings us to the nauseating hypocrisy of the tabloid newspapers. It is Meghan's great misfortune to have been cast as their latest royal target du choix, following in the unhappy footsteps of Princess Anne, who was pilloried in her youth as 'her royal rudeness'; Sarah Ferguson ('her royal idleness' and 'freeloading Fergie') and Princess Diana, whose brother described her after her death as 'the most hunted person of the modern age.'

The royal family, their many failings and their unerring inability to understand modern Britain, are grist to the tabloid mill. Whoever expressed misgivings about the unborn Archie's likely skin colour clearly has yet to come to terms with living in a racially diverse society. Tabloid editors know that, but prefer to aim their guns at Meghan for 'disgracefully smearing' the entire Firm.

Not that Meghan and Harry can escape without taking their share of responsibility for the way their relationship with the Firm has disintegrated. Judging by her remarks to Oprah Winfrey, Meghan made little effort to understand the rules governing which titles are granted to which royal offspring, or when the taxpayer can be expected to pick up the tab for their personal security.

Perhaps they thought that in a country where the prime minister believes in having his cake and eating it, they should be similarly entitled.

The historian David Olusoga put it well in The Guardian: 'Trapped in denial -- about everyday racism, structural racism, slavery and empire -- there are parts of British society that appear incapable not just of change but even of its necessary precursor: honest self-reflection.'

No one would ever accuse either the tabloids or the royal family of an excessive propensity for honest self-reflection. And two unhappy young people, each of them the product of a seriously dysfunctional family, are paying the price.