What is a safe country?

National Scot article - details in blog post

Our politicians are talking about safe countries. They say refugees need to claim asylum in the “first safe country” they reach. In today’s news, we’re told that the UK and the Netherlands have agreed that refugees arriving here need to be “returned” to the “first safe country.”

Screenshot of MSN article,, header pic shows beach-art message 'safe routes now'
link to article

Sounds logical doesn’t it? But who decides what is safe, and how? Or is the very idea of “first safe country” yet another convenient myth, some words to say in parliament? I think this is likely, firstly because the problems that are creating the tide of refugees across the world are enormous – wars created by the arms industry, climate crises created by a generation of destructive industries, and unstable, unsafe regimes created by lousy politicians, mostly propped up by the USA, who don’t like to see other countries running independently of US hegemony.

It could not be more obvious that we have no politicians in our own current government with the intention or the ability to solve problems that big, so jockeying with other countries to try and prove refugees should go somewhere other than here is likely to be the best they will attempt.

In fact, according to France, our politicians are so bad it’s not worth talking to them at all. Macron is apparently annoyed with Johnson for tweeting one thing when he’s just said another, and although it’s possible he’s making a fuss, all our experience of Johnson suggests that when Macron says there’s no point in trying to work with him, it’s likely to be true.

We need a proper government, managed by professionals.

Our Home Secretary is making the refugee situation a crime issue, and thinks the answer is “tackling the criminal gangs” who arrange channel crossings – an absolutely standard Tory response that amounts to treating the symptoms. No-one would be paying strangers to organise stupid little boats if there was an official, safe route available.

Our so-called opposition has at least managed to point out that there needs to be a safe passage.

Michael Rosen tweeted the other day about the masses and masses of displaced people who were on the move after the Second World War, about how the UK had refugee camps all over the country then about how, despite being broke and all but broken by the war, we assimilated many of those refugees and organised passage to places they could live for many more. When you have a proper government, you can do things like that. Like any other project a government runs, such an endeavour builds bonds, creates work, and generally becomes a part of the life of a healthy country.

My second reason for not believing in the “first safe country” idea is that I have seen a stark example of how this works in reality.

An example of a ‘first safe country’

I went to the FiLiA women’s conference in October and in one of the plenary sessions, we all joined a zoom with some women in a refugee camp in Kakuma. It was a devastatingly emotional experience. Most of the women we spoke to were lesbians, and had been put in a ‘special’ area in the camp, because they were in a place where LGBT people were seen as something strange, something to put ‘outside’ the ‘normal’ area. There had been attacks, there had been rapes, there had been tents set on fire. One woman’s baby had been killed.

The women were terrified, and tearful, and had no idea how they could get away from that camp to a place where they would actually be safe. Most of them had no money, and those who did found that traders would not take ‘dirty’ money from gay people. Some had tried to escape from the camp, only to be attacked by security forces and dragged back. They had run away from a country where LGBT people were not safe, and been trapped in a place that was as bad, if not worse.

When I realised what the zoom was about, I worried at first that this would be some terrible spectator drama, but it wasn’t. The women had wanted to do the link-up because of the way news and politics works, because people who are known, people who have names and faces and voices, people who are in communication with others around the world, are harder to kill. I’m writing this blog post because I saw those women, they spoke to me, and I will never forget them.

We know about those women, Ms Patel. We have heard about “first safe countries”, Mr Johnson. We don’t believe you, we don’t trust you, and we require that you participate in #safepassage arrangements for refugees.

If you would like to help the Kakuma women, please visit the FiLiA website here.

Joanna Cherry has written to Priti Patel – one of the outcomes of that zoom…

Header from Nationa Scot article "Joanna Cherry: Priti Patel must help the women from the nation her parents left
Cherry’s column in the National Scot

We need to make more contacts with refugees, whether they are here or in camps elsewhere, find out more about them, and the issues that drove them from home, and then we need to educate our government.

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