Toy Story – the phenomenally successful 1995 Pixar animation – is hilarious and moving, but the film now has an interesting additional dimension: it provides the blueprint for a key element of the UK government’s latest proposals affecting asylum seekers and refugees.
In Toy Story, the hero of the film, Buzz Lightyear, a clueless action-figure who believes he is a real space-hero, finds himself at an amusement arcade in Pizza Planet, a space-themed pizza restaurant. One of the games in the arcade is a rocket-shaped claw machine (the sort kids use to try to grab a toy to win it as a prize), into which Buzz clambers in the hope that he can zoom into space. The machine, he discovers, is filled with toy aliens whose entire existence is built around their worship of “The Claw” – a deity, as far as they are concerned, that selects a chosen-one to travel to “a better place.” These little green toys all dream of escape from their incarceration to some imagined utopia, but have no control of whether they are selected.
Under Priti Patel’s new proposals, people who have fled persecution and are hoping for asylum in the UK find themselves in a surprisingly similar position to the toys in the claw machine:
To be recognised as refugees, rather than be penalised for “illegal entry”, they are expected to use “legal routes” to enter the UK. But, to be clear, these legal routes are not really ‘routes’. Rather, what is meant by “legal routes” is the UK’s refugee resettlement programme. The refugee resettlement programme involves UNHCR selecting vulnerable people living in refugee camps, informal settlements and host communities, who are then put forward for refugee resettlement in various countries. The UK has made it a point of pride that it takes more people through this programme (27,915 between 2010 and 2019) than any EU member state. These numbers, while significant, represent only a little over one in a thousand of the 26 million refugees around the world – many of whom are stuck in limbo for years or even decades.
Like the aliens in the claw machine, the people living in refugee camps or waiting in limbo elsewhere in the countries they have fled to, have no agency in whether they are selected to go to “a better place”. They cannot apply to be resettled in the UK (or elsewhere) and must rely on the lottery of being selected by a mysterious and life-changing grabber – only a fraction of 1% are selected. It is yet another element of the lives of refugees over which they have no control.
Priti Patel’s new proposals mean that many (possibly most) people who actually try to travel to the UK to claim asylum will be deemed to be entering the country “illegally”. Under the 1951 Geneva Convention Concerning the Treatment of Refugees it is made clear that a person should not be penalised for entering a country via clandestine means to claim asylum. The new proposals would penalise people deemed to have entered the UK illegally by precluding them from full refugee status (even when they are judged to have a valid claim), refusing them access to public funds, and potentially removing them from the UK after 30 months. Of course, it may be that the actual implementation of the new policy measures is so narrow that it only affects a small number of people.
It is also not clear the new approach will significantly discourage people from making the journey. Simply announcing that the only legal route to refugee status in the UK is to sit and wait in a refugee camp (or similar) – hoping to be one of tiny fraction of people selected by the bureaucratic claw machine – does not remove the motivations people may have to seek asylum in Britain rather than elsewhere, such as being able to speak the language or having connections here, for example.
And by leaving the EU and withdrawing from the Dublin agreement with our European neighbours, Britain also faces bigger challenges in returning asylum seekers who have arrived from France or our other coastal neighbours. So, as well as potentially placing the UK at risk of being perceived to be in contravention of the Refugee Convention, these new measures may also fail to reduce numbers significantly.
But, perhaps this new asylum policy draws something else from Toy Story and its deluded hero, Buzz Lightyear: if you are prepared to ignore reality and just tell yourself and everyone else that you can achieve the impossible (or at least the highly improbable), some will believe you.