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Press Release: Celebrities urge PM to think again on refugees

Olivia Colman CBE, Stephen Fry, Shaparak Khorsandi, Joanna Lumley OBE FRGS, Thandiwe Newton OBE and Robert Rinder are among more than 40 celebrities from stage, screen, comedy, music and journalism to have signed an open letter (1) to the Prime Minister, calling for a kinder, fairer and more effective system for refugees in the UK.

The letter, organised by the campaign coalition Together With Refugees, is published today (Friday 22 October 2021) – in the week the Nationality and Borders Bill is brought back to Parliament – and states: “We are proud the UK is offering protection to those Afghan refugees able to get onto an official scheme…But many others have been left behind in grave danger. They will have to escape any way they can – by foot, boat or hiding in the back of a lorry. But proposed new laws would mean our country turning away people like them who are in desperate need of safety.

“…We want Afghans and other people across the world fleeing persecution and violence to find safety here as they have in the past, no matter how they arrive. Now is not the time to turn them away. Now is the time to offer our hand in kindness and protection. We urge you to think again.”

Signatories Nazanin Boniadi, Shaparak (formerly known as Shappi) Khorsandi and Patrick Monahan are themselves refugees, having fled here as children with their families due to fear of persecution in Iran. Robert Rinder MBE’s grandfather arrived in the UK as a child refugee in 1945, to escape the holocaust.

Shaparak Khorsandi said: “I had to flee from Iran with my family when I was a child when my father’s life was in danger, just because he is a popular humourist who opposed those in power. It’s horrendous to think of the many more people all over the world, including Afghanistan, living in fear for their lives just because of who they are or what they say. I can’t imagine what would have happened if my family hadn’t been welcomed here in the UK. We must not turn our back on those who have struggled to reach our shores in need of safety. The Prime Minister must oppose this anti-refugee bill.”

Robert Rinder said: “In 1945 my grandfather arrived in the UK as a child refugee from the hell of the holocaust. We can help provide sanctuary to those in danger now who have overcome terrible struggles to find their way to safety and freedom. This is what our country is at its very best. We must not turn our backs. We must oppose this bill currently going through Parliament.”

Other celebrity signatories, including Simon Callow CBE, Stephen Fry, Mae Martin, Anna Richardson, Fiona Shaw CBE and Gok Wan MBE, could now be in fear of persecution if they lived in countries such as Afghanistan, Uganda or Nigeria because they are members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Simon Callow said: “It is deeply disturbing to find that people are still being persecuted – often in fear of their lives – because of their sexuality, gender or faith. We have experienced extraordinary change in the UK in my lifetime in these areas: in Afghanistan people face horrifying consequences simply because of who or what they are. When they find their way to our shores, we cannot – we must not – ignore their need for protection and safety. We’re better than that. Instead of the hostile and cruel measures being proposed, we can – we must – create a place of fairness and welcome.”

Female journalists, comedians and actors including Fiona Glover, Kerri Godliman, Emma Kennedy, Joanna Lumley, Francesca Martinez, Dame Jenni Murray DBE, Rachel Parris, Fiona Shaw CBE, Imelda Staunton CBE, Juliet Stevenson CBE and Zoë Wanamaker CBE have signed the letter, aware that if they were living in another country they could be in fear of persecution because of their jobs.

Juliet Stevenson said: “Nobody chooses to become a refugee and leave all that they know and love behind. It’s a last resort. Let’s find the compassion, kindness, decency and imagination that so often characterise the citizens of this country in the course of their daily lives. This Bill will not resolve the problems in the asylum system that exist today. It will further endanger the journeys of those seeking sanctuary from violence. And if passed, it will represent a further decline in our moral standing in the world, and in our national sense of self. What kind of people do we seek to be? “

Signatories with a history of support for refugees include comedian Romesh Ranganathan, actors Riz Ahmed, Douglas Booth and Samuel West, and the band Kaiser Chiefs.

The letter is part of the Together With Refugees Week of Action, running from 18 to 24 October 2021, with thousands of people across the country joining forces to protest against the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament.

The new legislation (2) would mean that most people who would be accepted as refugees under the current rules – meaning those confirmed to have fled war or persecution following rigorous official checks – would no longer have their rights recognised in the UK due to their method of arrival. Half of these would be women and children (3) and includes those left behind in Afghanistan.

Nazanin Boniadi said: “As the daughter of Iranian political refugees who fled persecution, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if my parents had not been granted asylum in the UK. We have worked every day since then to contribute to the fabric of our adopted homes while raising our voices against injustices in our homeland. Providing refugees with a safe haven is not only a moral imperative, it is an opportunity to empower those who wish to end oppression in their birth countries, which is essential for global stability.”

Frankie Boyle said: “There is nothing funny about the situation facing people in Afghanistan today. Many now face threats to their life under a barbaric regime. We cannot ignore their plight just because they happen to arrive here on a small boat or in the back of a lorry, as the government proposes. This anti-refugee bill is a disgrace and must be rejected.”

Mae Martin said: “It’s hard to comprehend how awful life must be for many people in Afghanistan right now. To know your life is in danger simply because of your gender identity and/or sexuality is terrifying. We all have a right to live in safety, free from persecution. That’s why I am urging the government not to turn people in desperate need of our protection away, but to create a fair and compassionate system of welcome.”

Patrick Monahan, who hosted the Welcome Refugees rally in Parliament Square on Wednesday 20 October 2021, said: “I came to the UK as a refugee and have been given safety and the opportunity to thrive here. It’s devastating for me to know that others – just like me – who had to escape their homeland in fear of their lives won’t have that same right. The government must reconsider this anti-refugee bill and ensure the UK continues to offer fairness and compassion to those in need of protection, the same way it did for me and my family.”

Other events across the country include rallies in Glasgow, Lancaster, London and Penrith; a sunset vigil at the pier in Hastings; craftivism at the People’s History Museum in Manchester; school children writing messages of welcome on orange hearts (4) to display in Halifax; and a public discussion with politicians and people with direct experience of being a refugee to consider the implications of the Bill in Wales. To find out more follow #TogetherWithRefugees and @RefugeeTogether on Twitter.

Anyone wanting to find out more can visit www.togetherwithrefugees.org.uk

Notes to editors

(1) The full open letter will be published at https://togetherwithrefugees.org.uk/open-letter/ and can be found below.

(2) The new rules would mean that all those who claim asylum after arriving in the UK through an irregular route would face removal to a third country, with their asylum claim only progressing if removal is not possible. People who arrive irregularly who go on to be granted refugee status would only receive temporary protection with reduced rights and entitlements. The vast majority of people who claim asylum are unable to access ‘regular’ routes (entering the UK with a valid visa and/or passport) with their only option being to enter irregularly (by boat or in the back of a lorry). The Refugee Convention makes it clear that people should not be penalised for entering a country irregularly for the purposes of claiming asylum.

(3) Analysis of Home Office data by the Refugee Council found that in total, 59,941 people received an initial decision grant of protection (refugee status or humanitarian protection) between 2015-2020. The total number of women and children granted status is 29,882. This equates to 50% of the total. https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/immigration-statistics-quarterly-release

(4) The orange heart is a symbol of welcome 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.

(5) Together With Refugees is a coalition of more than 300 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

Full open letter and signatories

Dear Prime Minister

We are refugees, descendants of refugees and supporters of refugees. For some of us, if we were living in Afghanistan right now, our lives could be in danger, and we would have to become refugees.

The horrifying scenes of those fleeing Afghanistan is a painful reminder of why ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances are forced to escape their homelands in fear of their lives.

We are proud the UK is offering protection to those Afghan refugees able to get onto an official scheme. People up and down the country are doing incredible things to make them welcome as they start their new lives.

But many others have been left behind in grave danger. They will have to escape any way they can – by foot, boat or hiding in the back of a lorry. But proposed new laws would mean our country turning away people like them who are in desperate need of safety.

As a nation we must – and can – do more.

That’s why we are backing Together With Refugees’ call for a kinder, fairer and more effective system for refugees in the UK. We want Afghans and other people across the world fleeing persecution and violence to find safety here as they have in the past, no matter how they arrive.

Now is not the time to turn them away. Now is the time to offer our hand in kindness and protection. We urge you to think again.

Yours sincerely

Riz Ahmed

Ella Al-Shamahi

Dane Baptiste

Angela Barnes

Nazanin Boniadi

Douglas Booth

Frankie Boyle

Sita Brahmachari

Marcus Brigstocke

Jen Brister

Tanya Burr

Simon Callow CBE

Julie Christie

Olivia Colman CBE

Deborah Frances-White

Stephen Fry

Neil Gaiman

Maya Ghazal

Fiona (Fi) Glover

Kerry Godliman

Konnie Huq

Kaiser Chiefs

Emma Kennedy

Shaparak Khorsandi

Joanna Lumley OBE FRGS

Mae Martin

Francesca Martinez

Beth Mead

Patrick Monahan

Dame Jenni Murray DBE

Thandiwe Newton OBE

Rachel Parris

Romesh Ranganathan

Anna Richardson

Robert Rinder MBE

Suzi Ruffell

Fiona Shaw CBE

Imelda Staunton CBE

Juliet Stevenson CBE

Dame Emma Thompson DBE

Gok Wan MBE

Zoë Wanamaker CBE

Samuel West

Benjamin Zephaniah