Recently, Conservative MPs wrote to the Prime Minister to urge him to alter so-called ‘quirks’ in modern slavery laws. The signatories argued that the provision in current laws prevent someone who says they are a victim of modern slavery from being deported on the basis that “if they have really been taken against their will, then they could not reasonably object to being returned to their own homes”. The architects of this statement, and people who share their sympathies, often make reference to the “safe country”, like Albania.
Statements like this are both cruel and terrifying, particularly when they are made by people at the heart of power. They also raise questions about what safety actually means, specifically in relation to immigration and asylum.
Firstly, we think it’s important to dissect the idea of the “safe and legal route”. This term is used a lot by those in favour of and against immigration. The availability, or even existence, of these routes for asylum seekers to come to the UK is incredibly limited, and for particular nationalities non-existent.
The idea of “legal routes” is often pushed by advocates and opponents of migration, however we believe this concept is problematic. The “legal route” narrative means that any other route by which someone may arrive in the UK without permission is ultimately “illegal” by default. The idea of “legal routes” reinforces the idea that some people are committing illegal acts, and are here “illegally”.
We already know the focus around “safe and legal” routes and consequently the concept of “illegal entry” is inherently twisted. Rather than questioning why so few routes are available, and indeed who these routes are available to, criticism is aimed at those forced into dangerous situations in the hope of seeking safety or a new life. It is governments that create the unsafe route or construct the idea of the “illegal” immigrant. They force them into situations which put them at risk of exploitation by networks of traffickers or smugglers.
What constitutes a “safe country”, and safe for who?
We constantly hear Albania referred to as a “safe country”. But who is it safe for? There are numerous human rights issues in the country including for LGBTQ+ people, journalists and women and girls, along with violations of the right to privacy and freedom of expression.
The idea of a “safe country” is used to turn down asylum seekers and prevent them from making the UK their refuge. The notion that asylum seekers must remain in the first “safe country” they enter is just untrue under international law. Furthermore, it obscures the reason why many would choose to make the UK their home: familial connections, language ties or legacies of colonialism.
We must also think about safety beyond the physical. Those who come from a place of civil unrest may be escaping physical violence, but psychological trauma can and does persist. In the absence of adequate psychological support systems, how can a place truly be safe?
Also, the idea of a “safe country” also prevents us from thinking about how this country is a deeply unsafe place for many people, who have to navigate racist structures and oppressive systems on a daily basis. Safety is not just the absence of internal political instability, unrest, conflict or war: it is the absence of structures of oppression anywhere you call home.
These structures unfortunately persist everywhere. The concept of a “safe country” is also often used in conjunction with countries in Europe, such as France. Policymakers and commentators often circle back to the narrative that asylum seekers should remain in the “safe country”, without acknowledging the many push factors compelling them to make the dangerous crossing across the Channel. Many have reported poor or sometimes violent treatment by French authorities, which rests amongst the widespread and violent resistance to refugees across continental Europe. Nowhere is truly safe: it’s all relative.