Benedict Rogers: Leaders have 24 hours to send a clear message to the CCP on its human rights abuses

28 Oct

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, an adviser to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.

Over the next 24 hours in Rome, as G20 world leaders gather for their summit, an unprecedented meeting of legislators and campaigners from around the world is taking place, focused on the biggest challenge the world faces: China.

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) was only formed just over a year ago, and yet already includes over 200 Parliamentarians in 21 legislatures across five continents.

Crucially, it is one of the most global and cross-party coalitions ever, drawing together politicians such as Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former leader of the British Conservative Party, and Senator Marco Rubio, former US Republican Presidential candidate, with Robert Menendez, senior Democrat Senator, Reinhard Butikofer, the leader of the German Greens in the European Parliament, Kimberley Kitching, Australia’s Labour Senator, Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former Attorney-General and parliamentarians from countries as diverse as Norway, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Japan, Uganda and beyond.

Many of IPAC’s members arrive in Rome today for a gathering that will hear from Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, the ‘Sikyong’ Penpa Tsering, Tibet’s political leader, Nathan Law, Hong Kong’s exiled former legislator and political prisoner, and Rahima Mahmut, the Uyghur campaigner – all the voices Beijing tries relentlessly to discredit and silence.

The reason this alternative summit is so important is that it is designed to send a clear message to the G20: the Chinese Communist Party regime must not be given a free pass, its human rights atrocity crimes cannot be allowed to go unchallenged and the international community must set out clear consequences for Beijing’s flagrant breaches of international treaties. Kowtowing must end, the climate of impunity must cease and Xi Jinping’s regime must be held to account.

The IPAC gathering will make clear that the genocide of the Uyghurs, the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms – happening before our very eyes – as well as the persecution of Christians, Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, human rights defenders, citizen journalists and civil society activists – must not be forgotten.

Already, even despite Amnesty International’s closure of its Hong Kong office on Monday and the statement by 43 countries at the United Nations last week about the plight of the Uyghurs, these issues are being sidelined.

As COP26 begins this Sunday in Glasgow, the message should be clear: climate change is a big challenge of our time, but human rights should not be sacrificed on the greenwashing line.

Indeed, climate change and human rights should go together, for what good is freedom if our planet is dying, yet at the same time what good are blue skies if humanity is in chains? And, one might add, how trustworthy anyway is the world’s biggest polluter, China, when its regime lies and breaks its international treaty promises?

And then there’s Taiwan. Xi Jinping has ratcheted up not only the rhetoric but the fighter jets, plunging the region into the most dangerous period in decades. The free world – indeed the entire international community – needs to be clear about what it will do if China invades Taiwan: and it must spell it out unambiguously to Beijing as a deterrent.

The mood in the free world is clearly shifting. President Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have already indicated that concerns over the Chinese Communist Party’s repression and aggression is a bipartisan matter, perhaps the only topic that unites Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The European Union shows some signs of shift, with Josep Borrell, its policy chief, defending closer ties with Taiwan. And Liz Truss, Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, has given multiple messages that while trade with China could continue, we must reduce strategic dependency, diversify supply chains and cement an alliance for democracy around the world.

The direction of travel for the free world is clear. It is simply a matter now of accelerating the pace. IPAC’s gathering in Rome is designed to urge the G20 on.

Let’s not wait for an invasion of Taiwan. Let’s act now to stop Beijing’s genocide against the Uyghurs, dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms, repression in Tibet, persecution of all its critics and aggression towards freedom itself, including our own. And Britain, together with our allies, should lead this fight.

Enver Solomon and Sunder Katwala: Refugees mark 70 years of UK sanctuary

28 Jul

Enver Solomon is chief executive of the Refugee Council and Sunder Katwala is director of British Future.

Seventy years ago today, after the horrors of World War Two, the UK signed the Refugee Convention. We gave our commitment to protect people fleeing war and persecution.

For the refugees from those seven decades who gathered in London this week to mark the anniversary, that history was very personal. This Treaty was the reason that they had been able to rebuild their lives in our country.

Having arrived across each of the last seven decades the refugees had many different stories of why they had made the journey to Britain – fleeing Hungary in the 1950s, apartheid South Africa in the 1960s, being expelled from Uganda in the 1970s.

Whether escaping Vietnam on a fishing boat, finding sanctuary from the collapse of Yugoslavia or the Syrian civil war, their experiences captured the story of the last century. Each had their experiences of arriving in a new country, and of learning how to settle. What the refugees shared was gratitude for the opportunity to rebuild their lives in Britain – and a desire to mark the anniversary by speaking up for why this should now be considered an important national tradition to protect in the future too.

So, what lessons might we take from hearing of the human meaning of this 70th anniversary?

The anniversary should remind us of the importance of protecting an asylum system that is humane, fair and effective so Britain can uphold our responsibility to offer refugee protection to those who need it. For Gillian Slovo, who arrived in the UK in the 1960s on her 12th birthday, after her parents were persecuted over their leading role in opposing apartheid, “The best thing about starting a new life in Britain was that I didn’t have to worry when there was a knock at the door. In South Africa, there had been the constant fear that my parents could disappear at any time”.

That feeling of personal safety was felt as powerfully across the decades later by Aloysius Ssali, who had studied in Britain before being imprisoned and tortured back in Uganda because of his sexuality. He recalled the help and solidarity he had from LGBT people in the UK when securing his refugee status in 2010: “They told me ‘you can stay here. It is safe. Nobody can scare you anymore.’ That was so important.”

That we have had seven decades of refugee protection in the UK shows that this international treaty commitment has been upheld by governments across party lines. Adopted at the UN in the final months of the Attlee post-war Labour government, the Convention went on to be ratified in the UK during Winston Churchill’s final term as premier. Conservative and Labour governments were responsible for giving sanctuary to those fleeing the Soviet crackdowns in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s, refugees fleeing the wars arising from the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and those fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in this century.

Across those decades, refugee protection has often been contested and controversial. Ted Heath’s courageous decision to give sanctuary to the Ugandan Asians in 1972 came at the height of the fierce arguments about immigration in the wake of the Powellite ‘Rivers of Blood’ argument.

Mukund Nathwani, who had been a 23-year-old teacher in Uganda when Idi Amin expelled the Asian population, is certain that decision saved his life. Arriving at Stansted airport, he says “What we thought was ‘we’ve got a new life’. People were welcoming to us – and we thought, well, we’ve come to the right place”.

Today, as in the 1970s and the 1990s, political arguments rage over asylum and refugee protection, with government proposals for asylum reform that rewrite and resile from some of the key obligations for convention signatories.

So, it is worth recalling that there have been many occasions when there has been public pressure on governments for Britain to do more – as with the Vietnamese boat people, or the Syrian resettlement scheme which arose from public dismay at the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi in 2015.

Yet the principle of refugee protection does command broad public consent – new polling from ICM for the anniversary shows that six out of 10 people believe Britain’s tradition of refugee protection is something to be proud of.

Arguments about asylum can often see the ideas of control and compassion presented as polar opposites in political and media debates. But that is not how the public see it. The idea that we need an asylum system that is effective, fair and humane, so the UK can uphold our responsibility to offer refugee protection to those who need it, secures an overwhelmingly broad public consensus – with 70% in support and just 11% opposed.

The refugees who gathered this week told the story not only of their contributions to British society, and also of the importance of the relationships between the welcomers and the welcomed, between those coming to Britain and the people who helped them to make a new life as they settled here.

Hong Dam, a child when her family fled Vietnam for Hong Kong in an overcrowded fishing boat, is grateful to be among 10,000 Vietnamese boat people resettled in in Britain. It later transpired that there had been a considerable argument inside government over whether Britain would accept its UN resettlement quota.

Now living in Brighton, her abiding memory is of how much her teachers helped her. “I came to England knowing no more than a few words in English – just ‘apple’, ‘pear’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They were very patient and there was no judgment. My teachers really shaped me into who I am today.”

This personal testimony reminds us of the lives that could be rebuilt even as the political arguments over immigration and asylum have raged.

Saad Maida, a 37-year-old doctor from Syria, now living in Leamington Spa and working for the NHS, secured his refugee status in 2014. “I’ve felt pride in being able to serve the public by working for the NHS. That has been accentuated by the pandemic – being able to be on the frontline. By being able to work and pay back to society, I feel I can complete my cycle of integration”.

George Szirtes, given sanctuary from Hungary as an eight-year-old after Soviet tanks rolled in to quash the 1956 revolution, makes a clear case: “Refugees are people without a home who need help. If you have the ability to help, I do think it’s a moral obligation to do so,” he says. Seven decades of refugee protection is something that we should take pride in. To do so, it is a principle we must uphold in the future too.

Profile: Priti Patel, who promises to stop asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats

8 Jul

On 24th July 2019 Boris Johnson appointed a woman of Indian descent, born in London to parents who had fled Uganda, to one of the great offices of state.

Two years later, Priti Patel remains Home Secretary, and has introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill, intended to deter illegal entry into the UK, the most conspicuous route being by small boat from France.

On Tuesday, Patel told readers of The Daily Mail: “This cannot go on and as Home Secretary I will not allow this to continue.”

By introducing a two-tier system, making those who arrive illegally in the UK far less eligible for asylum and far more liable to be deported, Patel promises she will break the power of the people smugglers.

Henry Hill has examined, for ConHome, how likely these plans are to succeed, but we shall not know for sure until the legislation has been passed, and operated for a reasonable period of time.

Enver Solomon, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, has suggested on this site that trying to send refugees who have arrived illegally in Britain back either to the safe countries through which they have passed, or to their countries of origin, will not work, and will merely increase the already disgraceful backlog of cases.

The Home Office’s administrative record is so poor that one cannot feel much confidence in its ability to clear the backlog. Nor is Patel’s task made easier by the leaking from time to time of implausible proposals said to be under consideration by her department – waves in the Channel, a detention centre in Rwanda or on Ascension Island.

But these obstacles in some ways make Patel’s appointment all the more comprehensible. It is harder for liberal critics to impute racism, or undue severity, to a Home Secretary who herself belongs to an ethnic minority.

And Patel is in any case capable of showing a remarkable imperviousness to argument, as when she defended the death penalty against opposition from Harriet Harman and Ian Hislop in a Question Time debate in 2011, the year after she entered the Commons.

“She’s small and a woman and an Asian – to be heard she has to be quite aggressive,” a parliamentarian who knows her well remarked, and went on:

“She is intolerant of people who disagree with her. I think she does go too far.

“People do like her straight talking. That’s part of her appeal. I’m full of admiration for her. It’s a bloody tough job. She’s still there.”

She might not be there. In February 2020 Sir Philip Rutnam, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, resigned, claimed he had been “the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign”, and accused Patel of bullying staff.

Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister’s Independent Advisor on Ministerial Standards, looked into these allegations, and in November 2020 concluded:

“My advice is that the Home Secretary has not consistently met the high standards
required by the Ministerial Code of treating her civil servants with consideration
and respect. Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be
described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals. To that extent her
behaviour has been in breach of the Ministerial Code, even if unintentionally.
This conclusion needs to be seen in context. There is no evidence that she was
aware of the impact of her behaviour, and no feedback was given to her at the
time. The high pressure and demands of the role, in the Home Office, coupled
with the need for more supportive leadership from top of the department has
clearly been a contributory factor. In particular, I note the finding of different and
more positive behaviour since these issues were raised with her.”

Johnson, as ultimate arbiter of the Ministerial Code, decided to stand by Patel, and Sir Alex resigned.

When Patel was interviewed by ConHome in 2015, she described how her family lost everything in Uganda, and the death of her mother’s father soon afterwards in India:

“He was a businessman. So he had tea factories, cotton plantations, coffee plantations as well. My grandfather was incredibly well known in Uganda. R.U.Patel, a very pious man, so always giving back to the community, very religious, a big Swaminar in the Hindu community.

“I think the trauma, it was just incredible for my entire family, for my Mum’s family in particular. My Dad’s family were shopkeepers as well. Everyone in that era of East African Asians was hugely displaced, hugely displaced, their rights taken away from them, and they were persecuted for what they had.”

They arrived in Britain with nothing, and set out to rebuild the family fortunes:

“And it was from a people point of view just deeply challenging. You know, hostile, immigrants coming in, really, really difficult. I was born [in 1972] in Islington, in Highbury, and my Mum and Dad rented a room off an elderly man in Finsbury Park, and that’s where we lived.

“Typically in Indian culture, if you’re the eldest you bear the burden of everything else in terms of family responsibility. So my Dad, who’s the eldest, he’s got a brother and two sisters, did the right thing, he had to think about looking after his Mum and Dad and his brother and sisters.

“So my Dad dropped out of university to just get a job, basically, to get cash wherever he could, low-skilled work, just to build up pots of money to get some security. So he then helped my grandfather, his Dad, to buy a shop in Tottenham, Number One, White Hart Lane.

“That was a newsagent. That gave my grandparents the footing to get on. My Dad became a shopkeeper as well. My parents have been self-employed like that for over 40 years. So I effectively grew up on top of a shop for most of my life. So we’ve done everything from newspapers to post offices to small supermarkets.”

Patel grew up with Thatcherite assumptions. Her father rose at four in the morning every day for 40 years and built up a chain of newsagents despite unfair competition from the established chains, who saw to it that independent competitors got the papers too late to be sure of delivering them in time for breakfast.

She went to Watford Grammar School, studied economics at Keele and politics at Essex University, became a devout Eurosceptic as well as Thatcherite, joined the Conservative Party in 1991, from 1995-97 was head of press for the Referendum Party, but rejoined the Conservatives as a press officer under William Hague, and also worked for several years in public relations.

At the 2005 general election she stood for the Conservatives in the safe Labour seat of Nottingham North. Early in David Cameron’s leadership she was placed on the A list of candidates, and in 2006 she put in for the newly created seat of Witham, in Essex.

The finalists for what was going to be a safe Conservative seat included Geoffrey Van Orden, who was already an MEP and had served as a brigadier at Nato, James Brokenshire, whose seat of Hornchurch was going to be abolished, and Patel, who looked like an outsider.

There was an open primary, and Baroness Jenkin, who was in the audience of about 200 people and in 2005 had co-founded Women2Win with Theresa May, recalls that when Patel started to speak, “It was very clear straight away that she appealed to Conservatives but also to people who weren’t Conservatives.”

Patel, who had begun to wonder whether she would be selected anywhere, was the unexpected victor, and on arriving at Westminster said in her maiden speech:

“My own deep and personal interest in what I call the economics of enterprise and small business stems from my family background…my youth was literally spent sleeping above the shop and playing directly under the till, while watching my family—thanks to the free-market policies of Margaret Thatcher—thrive and grow. Wherever my parents set up shop, they employed local people, contributed to the local community, and made a substantial contribution to the local economy.”

Along with Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, she wrote Britannia Unchained, published in 2011 and somewhat critical of the British attitude to work:

“Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”

Harsh words, but four of the five authors are now in the Cabinet. Perhaps this is a more Thatcherite administration than has yet been noticed by the pundits.

Patel rose swiftly, in 2015 becoming Minister of State at the Department of Work and Pensions,  and in 2016 backing Leave in the referendum campaign and Theresa May for the leadership, who rewarded her with the post of International Development Secretary.

But Patel had already displayed a marked capacity for annoying some of those around her. Here is Sasha Swire in her diary entry for 12 November 2015:

“Modi comes to town. Priti Patel has been inserting herself into this trip at every turn. As the PM’s Indian Diaspora Champion she does have a role, but she is behaving like the Minister for India, which is actually what Hugo [Sasha’s husband] is. Sure enough, she turns up at the VIP suite to greet Modi. She has also done all the press that morning, at Craig Oliver’s insistence, and got herself invited to a small lunch with the Queen when we were told no ministers were invited. H has thrown a wobbly…”

Sir Alan Duncan is even less complimentary in his diaries, in which she is variously referred to as Priti Horrendous, Priti Outrageous, Priti Appalling, Priti Frightful and Priti Unspeakable. In his entry for 23 January 2017 we read:

“They hate Priti Patel in DfID, mainly because she seems to hate all of them.”

Patel came a cropper at DfID when it was revealed in November 2017 that she had held a series of meetings with senior Israeli figures without informing the Foreign Office, or indeed the Prime Minister. A senior Tory backbencher and former minister described this episode to ConHome as “absolutely disgraceful”, and after a much publicised flight home from Africa, some not entirely candid statements about whom she had seen in Israel, and two meetings with May, she was obliged to resign.

In July 2019, Johnson put her back in the Cabinet in the altogether more senior role of Home Secretary. Here she has developed, presumably at his behest, a more stringent immigration policy than liberal opinion would wish.

Lord Lexden, official historian of the Conservative Party, yesterday reminded ConHome that the choice between being stringent and liberal about immigration is by no means new:

“As is well known, Tory Home Secretaries have to choose between offending much of their party and alienating the complacent lefties who always seem to be in the ascendant at the Home Office.

“Perhaps no holder of the post pleased the Party more, or attracted more derision from bien pensants, than Sir William Joynson-Hicks, known as Jix, who served throughout the five years of Baldwin’s dominant second cabinet of 1924-9. He detested short sentences, and thought prisons should be the permanent homes of the irredeemably wicked.

“His proudest boast, however, was to have stemmed ‘the tide pouring in here to secure better conditions than can be obtained in their own lands’. He visited the Channel ports amid great publicity, and looked into immigration control arrangements in minute detail.

“Afterwards, he told the Commons that ‘few aliens crept through the net that stretched round the coast, and that most of those who evaded the net were subsequently discovered and deported.’ Priti Patel must take heart from Jix’s success a century ago.”

Paul Mercer: As a frequent flyer, I’ve seen the issues with the red list for travel – which may even increase Covid transmission

4 Jun

Paul Mercer is the director of an international consultancy firm, and is a Charnwood Borough councillor.

The Government’s latest attempt to control people entering the UK from the countries on the “red list” involves directing flights from those countries to Terminal 3 at Heathrow Airport and then transporting them directly to quarantine hotels. Although this plan makes some sense, it is difficult to see how it will achieve much and may even increase the risk of transmission.

Over the past six months I have (legitimately) visited four countries, two of which are now on the red list, and I have seen the way in which the system has evolved at Heathrow. Most recently, having returned from Uganda, border force officers were dealing with arriving passengers far more effectively. In fact, arriving mid-morning the wait was less than it had been in pre-Covid days.

There are essentially three difficulties which this “red list terminal” plan fails to address.

The first is that of the 43 countries the majority do not fly directly into the UK. Passengers travelling from most of the red list countries are likely to transit through major European hubs and then fly into Heathrow on a European airline. Heathrow should have taken account of this and the present system, whereby red list passengers are weeded out of the queue, but those who have passed through “green” and “amber” hubs – from a red zone – will not have been identified.

Thus the problem that this queue system seeks to address – stopping red list passengers from mixing with those coming in from green and amber countries – is not fixed and could even worsen because it will give passengers a false sense of security.

The second problem is that regulations theoretically permit passengers transiting through red list countries to avoid going into quarantine hotels. Government guidance states that rules “could” apply but only if you “mix”, but it fails to specify what this means in practice. If, for instance, one is sitting at the front of the plane and does not come into contact with passengers from the red list country, one could credibly argue that no mixing has occurred and therefore not be sent to quarantine hotel.

Last week, while at Heathrow, I took the opportunity to ask two senior border force officers what this meant in practice. The first, a senior officer (the one with two pips), said that he had never seen this rule and complained that they were being “sent changes in the regulations virtually every day”; the second, a higher officer (one pip), likewise did not know and suggested that, perhaps, I should ask my MP for clarification.

The third problem is that dedicated terminal makes it possible to segregate some passengers from red list countries, but it may become easier for those who have transited through a non-red list country to deliberately avoid being identified. In my case, I was only asked by a congenial border force officer which countries I had visited without even looking at the entries in my passport. With some passengers having more than one passport there appears to be no obvious way to ascertain whether they had been in a red list country in the past 10 days if they have used two or more airlines.

The principal risk appears to be a concern that passengers from red list countries are mixing as they walk from the aircraft to the checking area. Unfortunately walk from many of the gates can often be more than 20 minutes, meaning that many passengers are often out of breath by the time they arrive – especially if they are concerned about long queues ahead. In the confined corridors this will only increase the chances of the virus spreading.

There is no easy solution to these issues but what is clear is that different countries are applying different standards and, in some cases, more rigorous than the UK. In Uganda, for instance, passengers can only enter the airport if their Covid test has been checked electronically, whereas for passengers leaving Britain the PCR test receives only a cursory glance at check-in. This offers the possibility of fast-tracking passengers coming in from countries which are known to have these more thorough checks.

Another change which would help identify anyone who was attempting to evade the quarantine hotel by using another passport would simply be to include a legal requirement on the “passenger locator form” to include all passports held.

The Government is never going to find the perfect solution to the challenge of preventing passengers carrying new variants of the virus arriving but the present system, and the latest changes, still do not properly help matters.