Forgive Us Our Trespasses
In this special long read, Judith Atwell looks at the UK government's Nationality and Borders Bill and calls for a refugee integration strategy for Northern Ireland to be implemented.
I was “trespassing” on Easter Monday. I didn’t expect to meet anyone. You never do as a trespasser, but I would have dressed better if I’d known that I would. In a blindingly bright, pink coat, an old pair of jeans with an unintentional rip in the leg and my mother’s blue Dunlop wellies, I recognised the other person immediately. We are neighbours; there are only three fields separating her house and my parent’s house where I was staying. We’ve never met before in person, but as quite a public and sometimes controversial figure, I feel like on some level at least, I know her. She, I’m sure, didn’t know me at all, and in the moment, it didn’t occur to me to introduce myself. It was Arlene Foster.
I was home from Belfast for Easter, and with a house full of people I decided to sneak out for an hour or two to clear my head and re-visit some of my favourite old haunts. I’m a well-seasoned trespasser around these parts. Its where I have my best thoughts, and on this particular day, if I closed my eyes to the smattering of bottles, cans and pieces of rubbish scattered along the roadside, it felt idyllic. I was filled with affection for my homeplace; the sun was shining, the skies were blue, and the birds were singing loudly from the surrounding trees and bushes.
As I came to the crossroads down the road from our house, I remembered an old ruin hidden in the bushes that had recently been up for sale. I’ve been at it before but, in true country spirit, decided to take another nosey around. You can’t see the house from the road and there isn’t really a lane up to it, just a grassy break in the trees. The house hasn’t been empty for too long. I’m sure I could find out the facts if I wanted to, but I enjoy letting my mind wander, imagining the people who lived here and the lives that they lived. In another life I’d have made an excellent American tourist.
There’s no need to knock, the front door of the house is rotted and half open. There’s an old lace curtain over the window, stiff with age and mould. I pause for a moment deciding, then clamber through some brambles and branches to step inside. The ceiling has collapsed, and the floorboards have rotted in the small rooms to either side of the door. There are electrical wires along the skirting boards and though the colours have faded, the paper peeling from the walls is embossed and bordered with patterned designs. A fireplace is surrounded in small, square, green tiles and the grey carpet on the stairs looks surprisingly intact. It was obviously a nice wee house at one stage.
Deep in a daydream, I turn to walk back to the road. That’s when I spot Arlene Foster, almost upon me, a golden Labrador on a lead at her side. There’s no hiding now. But unless she’s the new owner of this abandoned ruin, I suppose she’s trespassing too, I think, assuming, in a panic*. I muster a “hello”. Equally surprised, Arlene removes an air pod from her ear and smiling, says hello back. Her dog jumps up and high-fives my thigh, leaving a muddy print behind on my jeans. She scolds him and I learn the dog’s name is Max, though I think I knew this already from Twitter.
It’s strange to know things like this about someone you’ve never met. “Don’t worry” I say casually, “our dog does the same”. Feeling an immediate need to explain myself I blurt out innocently that “I’m just up here having a nosey”. I quickly realise that this confession only serves to incriminate me and makes me seem even more suspicious than I already probably appear. I’m embarrassed and wait for her to rescue the situation. Slowly lifting her hand to reveal a small posey of yellow and blue she then responds with a confession of her own, “I like the wildflowers around here”. “They’re lovely”, I confirm. There’s a slightly awkward silence. I notice her sporty looking top with Royal Portrush sewn on the breast. I’m wrecking my brain for something to say, and referring to Deborah Erskine, DUP candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the upcoming election and my old school friend, I say familiarly, “I see you’ve been out canvassing with Deborah”. This is a conversation she’s more used to, and giving nothing away, she responds quickly with, “yes, yes, she’ll be fine, she’ll do great”. “I haven’t been chatting to her in ages, I must get in touch”, I respond, and with that we part ways. Arlene along the padded grassy path towards her house, and me back down to the road.
My mind is in a whir as I walk away. I want to ring someone immediately and tell them what happened; I just bumped into the former First Minister in a field in Fermanagh! A private encounter with Arlene, and how poorly I handled it. I feel a fool and regret this missed opportunity. I tried to contact Arlene once in an email. She didn’t reply. How do you talk to someone influential who probably doesn’t want to talk to you about something they probably don’t want to talk to you about? I know that Arlene and I have different opinions on many things, I don’t have to talk to her to know that. But we also have some things in common, some shared histories, and I can’t stop thinking about my life and her life, the choices we’ve made and how we’ve each got to where we are now. I can’t stop thinking about moving and mobility, borders, and the future, and how things might always be otherwise.
I am currently working on my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast. I’m researching refugee resettlement and integration in Northern Ireland and considering how it relates to and is moulded by ideas of vulnerability. Like many of my peers, I left Northern Ireland for university aged 18, and eventually made my way back about six years later. I studied Arabic and French at university and had opportunities to live, study and work in other countries. Learning about others helped me learn more about myself and taught me to see from other perspectives. I think that’s partly why I’m now drawn towards anthropology. I started off in Fermanagh and South Tyrone however, and though a generation apart, Arlene and I went to the same secondary school in Enniskillen, Enniskillen Collegiate Grammar. We are both from Fermanagh, and we are both also “blow-ins” in some way to the place of our encounter on Easter Monday. Arlene grew up in Southeast Fermanagh, near to the border with Cavan and Monaghan. Her family moved in the late 1970s after her father, an RUC reservist, was targeted and shot by the IRA. She knows what it is to be forced from your home. It’s not an uncommon story of that time and in that place, and among some people and organisations a story is told of intimidation, an “ethnic cleansing” of Protestants from the area.
There are other stories too of why people moved. Stories of socioeconomic hardship, oppression, a lack of opportunity, rural isolation, and the desire for a different (better?) life. My family also come from Southeast Fermanagh. They have a different story, but it is also a common one of the time, where some people stayed, some moved far away (Canada in case of my family), and some moved thirty minutes down the road. My grandparents, in the late 1960s, went for thirty minutes down the road. I narrowly missed out on a life of maple syrup, skiing, and bilingualism. People move. People have always moved. Our stories are ancient and complex, and our reasons for staying or coming or going have always been various and multiple, existing within a tension of push and pull, pros and cons, force and choice, and coupled with complicated emotions and consequences. In some ways, movement is the most normal thing in the world for humans. The difference, however, is that for some people it is much easier than it is for others, and that often comes down to the passport you carry and the colour of your skin.
I emailed Arlene over a year ago when she was still First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the DUP. It was 25th March 2021, the day after UK Home Secretary Priti Patel first announced her proposal for a New Plan for Immigration in the UK. This proposal is part of the UK government’s Nationality and Borders Bill (NABB), a Bill that is deeply problematic, and has received widespread criticism from academics, lawyers, NGOs, the charity and voluntary sector, religious leaders from various denominations, thousands of individuals and even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A public consultation of the Bill, published on 22nd July 2021, showed that 75% of respondents oppose it and it was further highly criticised in the House of Lords who suggested numerous amendments. There are many reasons why this Bill is problematic, I will highlight a few.
Firstly, the Nationality and Borders Bill violates Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention by proposing that a refugee’s mode of entry to the UK will impact the progress and outcome of their claim for asylum. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14), states that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries. This Bill, however, goes against international law and solidifies a hierarchical system of protection for refugees based on how they come to the UK.
Secondly, the Nationality and Borders Bill includes a capacity for the use of detention centres for refugees and for “off-shore” processing. The ineffectiveness, inefficiency, high costs and detrimental effects of these types of policies to e.g., the mental and physical wellbeing of refugees is well documented. However, this week the UK Home Secretary even announced plans to deport people arriving in the UK to claim asylum to Rwanda, a country with a poor human rights record and from which the UK accepted 100% of asylum claims in 2021.
Thirdly, the Nationality and Borders Bill does not include details of any plans for alternative, “safe”, resettlement routes for refugees to come to the UK. Moreover, recent schemes proposed for Afghan and Ukrainian refugees have so far been unsuccessful and unsatisfactory. Regardless, many MPs (including 8 DUP MPs) voted in support of the Nationality and Borders Bill in Parliament, proving themselves, along with this policy, as “anti-refugee”. Yesterday, 27th April 2022, the Nationality and Borders Bill passed the final stages of its passage through Parliament and will receive Royal Assent to become law.
Supporters of this Bill suggest there are no other viable solutions to “fix” our broken asylum system or to “stop smugglers”. Along with many others, I have some suggestions. Many refugees cannot access “safe” methods of transport such as aeroplanes, boats, or trains to make a claim for asylum in the UK. Therefore, many refugees depend on risky methods that cost a lot of money and sometimes results in death. Research shows that deterrence policies of detention and offshore processing, such as in Australia, are extremely expensive and ineffective, as well as harmful to refugees. Investing in more refugee resettlement programs, housing, mental health, and health care, rather than in harmful deterrence methods, would provide refugees a safe and affordable route to claiming asylum and support integration. A refugee visa would allow people to travel safely to claim asylum and await a decision without the use of smugglers.
Refugees do not have access to social security benefits in Northern Ireland until the Home Office decides whether they are “actually refugees”. Most of the time (75% after appeals are considered –for the UK as a whole), it is decided that they are refugees. However, it can sometimes take years for the Home Office to make this decision. Until a decision is made these refugees are known as “asylum seekers”. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work in Northern Ireland. They receive £37.75 per week to live on (for e.g., food, clothes, toiletries, heating, electric, phone bills etc.) and asylum seekers living in hotels in Belfast receive £8 per week. If Home Office decisions were made faster, asylum seekers would be able to get on with their lives faster. And if asylum seekers were allowed to work, they could provide for themselves financially and benefit from other social benefits of having a job, such as dignity, community, routine, communication, contributing to society etc.
Arlene Foster didn’t reply to my email in March 2021. She’s a busy woman, and to be honest, it wasn’t a great email. My own MP at the time, Michelle Gildernew, did respond, and confirmed her party’s “resolute opposition” to the British government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies. Her party, however, don’t sit in Westminster and so while I appreciated the sentiment, it was of little consequence.
Arlene Foster is no longer First Minister or leader of the DUP, and I understand I am unlikely to change the stance of the many MPs, including the 8 DUP MPs, who in supporting this Bill aligned themselves as “anti-refugee”. I hope, however, that this article is received in the spirit in which it is intended. It is an act of peaceful protest against one of the most inhumane pieces of policy to come into this place. There’s nothing un-Protestant about protest after all.
I hope it provokes conversation, an openness to listen and even change. I hope it encourages us to ask critical questions of those in positions of power and influence, to hold them to account when they don’t represent us and to call for better. As of yesterday, it is too late for the Nationality and Borders Bill to be abandoned completely. This is devastating. I hope, however, that elected representatives in Stormont will do otherwise.
Immigration policy is an “excepted matter” in Northern Ireland. So, I hope that in addition to implementing a refugee integration strategy for Northern Ireland, we can put in place protections against this Bill.
Finally, noting that refugees are not allowed to vote in Northern Ireland, I hope we ask our local candidates where they stand on the rights of refugees and consider this before we vote on the 5th of May.
*Please note, I sent this article to Arlene Foster prior to publishing it. She replied and confirmed that she was not in fact trespassing.