In an exclusive interview, Palatinate sits down with Amnesty’s head of refugee rights, as he hits out at current migration policy but puts a surprisingly optimistic spin on the uncertainties of Brexit
By Eugene Smith
“There is a chance – I’m not saying I feel optimistic about us as a country taking it – but there is a chance to reappraise just how horribly our immigration system treats men, women and children… and whether we’re gonna stand for that.”
The man speaking is Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International’s Director of Refugee and Migrant Rights, and the “chance” about which he is apprehensively hopeful is Britain’s departure from the European Union.
The process of Brexit, cloaked as it is by accusations of anti-immigrant xenophobia, is hardly a topic on which you’d expect a refugee rights activist to speak with any kind of positivity.
It’s my fault, really: I’d hoped to coax some cheeriness out of Mr Valdez-Symonds by concluding our otherwise pessimistic interview by asking if there were any good things to come out of the migrant rights movement of late.
His first response was to laugh. But, having briefly considered the UK’s recently increased commitment to resettlement as “good news” before discrediting it for “not going far enough”, he comes round to the idea of Brexit being a “critical opportunity to address immigration”.
He is quick to clarify that “Amnesty is neither pro or against membership of the EU”, but that withdrawal at least represents the first opportunity for the UK to discuss immigration in a truly global sense since its accession to the EEC (the EU’s precursor) in 1973.
It’s an opportunity, he admits, that is “tinged with the potential for a lot of unhappiness”.
Long before I’d inadvertently prompted him to examine the silver-lining of what is, at least to figures like himself, the grey cloud of Brexit, I began the interview by asking Mr Valdez-Symonds what role student groups might have in helping refugees.
For him, political activism is the most important thing. That’s not to take away, he says, from the “more practical” work some groups do, such as offering English classes or delivering befriending services to refugees.
But “the key thing for Amnesty… is political change. Because unless and until governments take responsibility, unfortunately we’re just gonna have too many sticking plasters over wounds that are too big”.
Politics is indeed at the core of migrant and refugee rights. Is there any one UK political party, I ask, that gets their immigration policy “right”?
Not according to Amnesty International. Although the policy positions taken by some of the smaller parties tend to be “better”, says Mr Valdez-Symonds, “of those parties that have been in government over the last several years, none of them have got this right, and all of them have done disastrously harmful things on immigration policy”.
He continues: “yes, the Conservatives are in power at the moment, their policy positions are built on policies that have gone before, they’ve made them significantly worse, but it would be wrong to say that they are unique in terms of aggravating… the political situation regarding migrants in this country.”
One thing the empowered Conservative Party did recently – and uniquely – do to aggravate said political situation, however, was to drastically overestimate the number of international students overstaying their visas, as revealed a couple of weeks ago.
Mr Valdez-Symonds, as he recalls, was not particularly impressed by the botched figures. Amnesty International, he acknowledges, “didn’t make any [official] comment about the immigration student numbers, but I think… it was very revealing.
“It now appears that the numbers of ‘overstayers’ on student visas is tiny compared to what had been suggested. And that casualness about how to stoke fears around immigration, right at the heart of how policy is described and discussed and introduced, stretches right across the immigration debate.
“It has done immense harm and continues to do so.”
Whether this “immense harm” might come to an end as a result of the UK’s abandonment of European integration is, like all predictions of post-Brexit Britain, utterly unknowable until we’re on the other side of 2019.
Photograph: Avaaz via Creative Commons