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© UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Celebrities & refugees take to the Thames to urge MPS to ‘vote to protect not punish refugees’

PRESS RELEASE: 20/04/2022

Actor Juliet Stevenson and the Ukrainian refugee family she is hosting at her home were joined today (Wednesday 20th April 2022) by Robert Rinder, Lily Cole and a host of other celebrities, refugees and campaigners from campaign coalition Together With Refugees on a boat on the Thames to urge MPs to ‘vote to protect not punish refugees’.

Other celebrities who joined the action were comedian Patrick Monahan, himself a refugee from Iran, comedian Deborah Frances-White and author Kathy Lette. The boat passed outside the Houses of Parliament carrying a giant banner with the message ‘Vote to protect not punish refugees’ as the Nationality and Borders Bill returns to House of Commons for MPs to vote today. Those on the boat held up orange hearts – the symbol of a fairer, kinder and more effective approach to refugees (1) – and flags as they passed the Houses of Parliament.

Together With Refugees, a coalition of more than 400 organisations across the country, spearheaded the event to call on MPs to vote to accept amendments to the Bill, including scrapping the proposal to punish refugees seeking protection, who have been forced to make desperate journeys to get to the UK, such as on a boat across the Channel or in the back of a lorry. If the Bill was already law, Ukrainian refugees forced to make their own way to the UK due to the delays and visa restrictions in the UK’s current scheme could be denied their fundamental rights under the UN refugee convention, returned to where they had travelled from, sent to Rwanda or even imprisoned.

MPs are also being urged to agree that the government must publish an annual target for the number of refugees it will resettle in the UK. Campaigners would want this target to be at least 10,000 refugees from around the world each year.

Dartsa and her young daughter are refugees from Ukraine who are being hosted by Juliet Stevenson and her family in their London home.  Dartsa said: “It was a great relief to come to the UK with my little girl and know that we are safe from the terrible war in our country. Of course, it is not easy and I worry all the time for all those back home.  But my family back there and I are so grateful to Juliet and her family for opening their door to us.  I can only hope that nobody has to experience what we are now, but this welcome is a huge comfort at such an awful time.  

“The changes the government wants to make to how the UK treats refugees like us makes me very sad.  Nobody should be punished when they have already had to escape such terrible things as we have.  I would want everyone who arrives to receive the warmth and kindness that we have.”

Juliet Stevenson said: “Being forced to leave behind your home, your livelihood and even your loved ones without knowing when or if you’ll be able to return is something so awful it’s hard to comprehend. But it’s happening across the world right now. We must treat people who have already experienced such terrible horrors with compassion and dignity, rather than suspicion and red tape. I urge MPs to vote to make sure all those who arrive in the UK seeking protection will be treated with fairness and compassion, regardless of how they arrived.”

Sabir Zazai, Chair of Together With Refugees and Chief Executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, and himself a refugee (2), said: “With many thousands of refugees risking their lives every year at sea to reach the safety of our shores, it’s fitting that we are here today on this boat to campaign against measures by our government that would seek to punish and criminalise these very people.

“Debates throughout the Bill’s stages, along with a series of heavy defeats in the House of Lords earlier this month, show that there is strong opposition from all sides to the harsh measures proposed in this Bill. The window is closing to secure changes to the Bill and today, MPs have a critical chance to do the right thing and influence, for the better, a piece of legislation that will define our nation’s fundamental approach to refugees.”

Also on the boat were people from across the world who had been forced to flee their homes due to war or threat of violence and seek safety in the UK, including those from Afghanistan, Syria, Kosovo, Eritrea and Ukraine.

Syed Hashemi, who arrived in the UK having fled Afghanistan in 2006, said: “Becoming a refugee is not something that anyone plans for but when it happens to you, knowing you have a safe place to rebuild your life can make a huge difference at a traumatic time. If passed unchanged, the Bill will make seeking sanctuary in the UK an impossibility for thousands of refugees facing the horror of war and persecution like me. It’s unthinkable that this should be allowed to happen in the country that has been a welcoming home to me and many others for so long.”

Members of the public will be called on to email or tweet their local MP asking them to ‘vote to protect not punish refugees’.

Patrick Monahan, comedian and refugee, said: “This Bill is a devastating blow to those in desperate need of safety from around the world. I arrived in 1980 from Iran. If I had reached these shores under this new legislation I could have been imprisoned for how I arrived, or sent to Rwanda to face conditions we can not yet imagine. I am putting every hope in MPs to do the right thing and vote to make sure the UK upholds refugee rights, and protect not punish them regardless of how they get here.”

ENDS

NOTES TO EDITORS:

  1. The orange heart is a symbol of a more compassionate approach to refugees. It uses the colours of the refugee nation flag created by refugee Yara Said, for the first ever refugee team in the Olympics in 2016. The colours were inspired by a lifebelt representing hope. The heart was developed in 2021 in consultation with refugee organisations and people with lived experience.
  2. Sabir Zazai sought safety in the UK in 1999, fleeing the conflict in Afghanistan.

About Together With Refugees
Together With Refugees is a coalition of more than 400 national and local organisations representing refugees and people from all walks of life who believe in showing compassion to refugees fleeing war and persecution. The coalition is calling for a better approach to supporting refugees that: allows people to seek safety in the UK, no matter how they came here; ensures people can live in dignity while they wait to find out if they will be granted protection; and enables refugees to rebuild their lives and make valuable contributions to their communities. It also wants the UK to work with other countries to do its bit to help people forced to flee their homes. Find out more at www.togetherwithrefugees.org.uk and @RefugeeTogether on Twitter

For media enquiries 
Joe Evans on jevans@freedomfromtorture.org or +44 (0) 7415 299731
Hannah Fox on hannah@brightfoxcommunications.com or +44 (0) 7946 186289