UK’s hostile environment continues to silence already persecuted people

After the infamous “go home” vans, the Windrush scandal and a (failed) policy to push back people crossing the channel on boats, this week the UK government sharpened its latest tool in its hostile environment box: the Rwanda plan. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak threw a surprise press conference about the government’s Rwanda policy, now freshly emboldened with a new treaty following the Supreme Court’s declaration that Rwanda is not a safe country for UK asylum seekers. The prime minister said he would “finish the job” of getting his controversial deportation plan off the ground.

Questions from journalists to Sunak centred largely around what a vote on new legislation means for the state of the Conservative Party and Sunak’s position as leader. There are free speech implications here too and so I’d like to add a few questions to the list: how does the Rwanda plan impact people at risk? How will the UK keep safe persecuted people? And how will we make sure that people who have a legal right to seek asylum have a voice?

Of the latter, last summer, the BBC aired Sir Mo Farah’s documentary on his experience of being trafficked to the UK from Somaliland as a child, and how he was forced to work as a domestic servant. He was told, “If you ever want to see your family again, don’t say anything. If you say anything, they will take you away.”

His real name is Hussein Abdi Kahin. He was eventually helped in his claim for British citizenship through what was technically fraudulent means and, until the documentary aired, he had remained silent about his true identity, about what he had experienced as a child and really about everything that had weighed on his mind. He feared speaking up and so he stayed silent.

As a much-loved public figure, perhaps Farah knew he would have some modicum of protection if he revealed the truth, which it turns out he did. For others who are victims of trafficking, asking for help can be another story. The only option of escaping exploitation might be going to the authorities and seeking asylum, but this is not the most appealing, or even easy, route. Aberystwyth University’s Gillian McFayden described the Home Office’s “culture of disbelief” in 2018, and how in interviews “inconsistencies will be held against the asylum seeker and they will then be viewed as lacking in credibility.” Trauma is difficult to recount in a consistent way – and this is effectively used against people.

When I last visited Calais and spoke to people planning to cross to the UK (and where they frequently reported violence from French police), there was also a severe lack of clear information about what life in the UK would be like and how the system works. Rumours abounded, amid patchy access to data and language barriers. With a landscape ripe for misinformation and policies that are already unclear amongst the UK public, the confusion that comes from a complicated and hostile environment only leaves people making the journey to the UK more susceptible to exploitation.

Then there is Rwanda itself, hardly known for its robust human rights record. Sile Reynolds, head of asylum advocacy at Freedom from Torture, told me today: “We know from our own clients – survivors of torture who’ve fled the most unimaginable horrors and encountered further trauma on their journeys to find safety – the awful toll that this policy has taken on them. Clinicians have reported that some of our clients are so terrified of being shipped off thousands of miles away to Rwanda that they’d contemplate committing suicide if they were ever served with a removal notice. The stakes really could not be any higher.”

On Rwanda, let’s pause for a moment on its rights record. There is widespread evidence of the abuse of LGBTQ+ people, as just one example. Grassroots asylum support charity African Rainbow Family launched a petition earlier this year to stop the deportation of LGBTQ+ people to the country. On a poster for their No Pride in Deportation campaign, they wrote, “One of our service users was just granted her freedom by the Home Office. She was forced to flee her home in Rwanda due to the persecution she faced as an LGBTIQ+ person. Even the Home Office recognises that Rwanda is unsafe for LGBTIQ+ people.”

They said of LGBTQ+ people: “Deporting them back to these hostile environments can risk condemning them to continued suffering, exile, physical harm, emotional trauma, abuse, isolation, torture and death.”

On the UK government’s own foreign travel advice page for Rwanda it says: “LGBT individuals can experience discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities.” Should we be sending people to a country where they can’t freely express their identity, where doing so could even lead to death?

With the strengthening of the hostile environment comes the lack of something else: safe routes. It’s not just people already in the UK being impacted by this asylum policy, but persecuted people looking to the UK for help. Take the Afghan journalists we work with who fled to Pakistan only to find more danger awaiting them, and little opportunity to earn a living. Some told us they had considered selling a kidney to afford food, which, horrifyingly, others have indeed done. And after Pakistan forced Afghan refugees to leave at the beginning of November, the situation may have become even more dangerous. Women in Afghanistan have no voice. There is no room for dissent or criticism.

Thankfully, some of the Afghan journalists we work with have found sanctuary in France, after the UK failed to make good on promises of refuge. There are still many more Afghans at risk who should be offered safety in the UK, but instead the focus is on deterrents over safe routes and compassion.

Reynolds accused the government of the “demonisation and scapegoating of refugees” and called policies like the Rwanda scheme and Bibby Stockholm “performative cruelty.” For people seeking refuge in this environment, fear breeds silence. For persecuted people who are still looking for safe routes, there are few options left but more danger.

Argentina’s Milei ushers in atrocity denialism, trolling and attacks on the media

After far-right economist Javier Milei won Argentina’s presidency on Sunday night, it didn’t take him long to set his sights on the media.

“Public television has become a propaganda mechanism,” he told journalist Eduardo Feinmann of Radio Mitre in his first interview on Monday morning. “[…] I don’t believe in those practices of having a covert propaganda ministry. It must be privatised.”

Milei won Sunday’s presidential run-off election with 56% of the vote. His opponent Sergio Massa, economy minister and candidate for the ruling centre-left Union for the Homeland coalition, got 44%. Massa’s defeat came as Argentina suffers through a drawn-out economic crisis: inflation is running at 143% and just over 40% of the population are living in poverty. Neither the current ruling alliance nor the right-wing administration that preceded it have been able to turn things around.

In this context, the libertarian’s victory is a shocking rejection of politics as usual – but his election has been hotly controversial in Argentina. Milei is an outsider whose brash, abrasive populism has drawn comparisons with far-right former presidents Donald Trump in the USA and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. He enjoyed a vertiginous rise to the limelight as an eccentric TV pundit espousing ultra-libertarian views, and had never held elected office until he was voted in as a deputy in 2021. As president, he promises to dollarize Argentina’s economy, liberalise gun controls, privatise healthcare and hold a referendum on abortion, which was legalised in 2020.

As he surged to the forefront of national politics, Milei shouted at reporters, refused to do interviews with critical outlets and accused the media of lying. Online, his supporters insulted and harassed journalists, activists, women, LGBTQAI+ people and anyone else who spoke against their leader.

Now, faced with four years of a Milei presidency, onlookers worry his coalition will move to silence critical media, intimidate dissenting voices and embolden elements of the extreme right who deny the atrocities committed by Argentina’s last civic-military dictatorship.

Lucas “Fauno” Gutiérrez, a queer, HIV-positive activist and journalist, is already receiving thousands of hate messages from hordes of pro-Milei trolls on his social media, and fears the situation will worsen when he takes office. “Once they’ve installed that hate speech, we communicators think twice before saying many things,” he said. “You don’t always have the emotional momentum to deal with 700 messages attacking, insulting and threatening you.”

Some of the most disturbing threats involve Argentina’s last dictatorship. Under the military junta that ruled the country from 1976-1983, 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured and murdered, many of them thrown alive from aeroplanes into the River Plate in the “death flights”.

The scale of the violence and the difficulties reporting disappearances mean it’s impossible to reach an exact figure, but the number of victims is widely accepted by human rights groups in Argentina. However, Milei’s vice president-elect, Victoria Villarruel, campaigns on narratives that seek to play down and exonerate atrocities committed by the security forces. She has repeated the denialist claim that the true number of victims is far lower, a statement Milei echoed during a televised presidential debate. A lawyer by training, she has defended former members of the security forces accused of crimes against humanity. Before his death, she also visited former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in jail.

In this context, some Milei supporters have taken to threatening those they disagree with by sending them photos of green Ford Falcons with no licence plates – the vehicle the dictatorship’s security forces used to abduct their victims.

“The green Ford Falcon means endorsing the disappearance, torture and extremely violent death of all those who opposed the dictatorship,” said Beatriz Busaniche, president of the human rights and technology foundation, Vía Libre. She described Milei and Villarruel’s denialism as “re-legitimising” discourse that was widely discredited in Argentine society.

“There’s been a retreat of public discourse,” she said. “The sphere of public debate has become so aggressive that many people have started to lock their accounts and leave social media.”

Despite his promises, it is not clear whether Milei would be able to privatise Argentina’s public media, because doing so would require changing the law that governs them, explained Agus Lecchi, secretary general of the SiPreBA journalists’ union, who works for Argentina’s Televisión Pública. That means it would have to pass through Argentina’s congress. Milei’s Freedom Advances coalition will not have a majority in either the deputies or the senate.

Nonetheless, Argentina’s public media have come under fire from hostile governments before: in 2018, right-wing President Mauricio Macri’s administration attempted to lay off 68 journalists at the state news agency, Télam, although all were reincorporated after a labour court found their dismissals to be illegal.

“TV Pública plays a fundamental role for Argentine democracy, not just with regard to pluralist information, but also in terms of coverage of situations across the country,” Lecchi said. “In some corners of the country, TV Pública, National Radio or [state news agency] Télam are all they receive.”

While his comments on Monday took aim at Argentina’s state-owned media, Milei would also have tools in his arsenal to pressure private media. Many Argentine outlets, especially small local and independent media, rely largely on state advertising revenue to stay afloat. Politically-motivated allocation of this budget can exert pressure on the media.

Gutiérrez believes that major social media platforms like Meta and X (formerly Twitter) have a duty to stop hate speech, but worries that they often hold back because the floods of abuse he receives drive engagement. “My emotional life, my mental health and our freedom of expression can’t be subordinated to engagement,” he said.

In October, the government passed the “Olympia Law”, which recognises digital attacks such as doxxing, revenge porn and threats or harassment as a form of gender-based violence. If enforced, its proponents hope it would serve to dissuade some of the worst online attacks. However, Milei has already said that he plans to shut down Argentina’s Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, along with most other government ministries.

A bill currently under discussion in Congress also aims to prevent people who deny the dictatorship’s crimes from holding public office, but with the change of government in less than three weeks, it’s unclear whether the bill will become law.

To Busaniche, faced with a president who many say represents antipolitics, the first line of defence could be politics itself. “Congress will oblige him to negotiate,” she said. “Unlike what many Milei voters might expect, the importance of politics will be central.”

Qatar fails to deliver on World Cup promises

“It’s an opportunity to maybe shine a light on the issues and use our platforms to make change for the better.”

These were the words of England midfielder Jordan Henderson during a press conference in the months preceding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. His comments were in response to questions about the host nation’s appalling human rights record, particularly in regard to LGBTQ+ people, women and labour migrants, and whether teams should be boycotting the competition in protest.

England manager Gareth Southgate echoed Henderson’s suggestion. “There would be more change if we go and these things are highlighted,” he argued. “There’s an opportunity to use our voices and our platform in a positive way.”

This sentiment was commonly expressed in the build-up to the tournament, as teams justified their participation in what was widely regarded to be an ill-disguised sportswashing attempt. However, a year has gone by and such changes have yet to materialise, with those inside the state continuing to be denied basic rights and freedoms.

Qatari physician and activist Dr Nasser Mohamed tells Index on Censorship that for LGBTQ+ people inside the state the situation has not improved.

“As we were approaching the lead up to the Qatar World Cup, I noticed that the coverage and the public message was so disconnected from the lived reality that I had,” he revealed.

Mohamed publicly came out as gay in 2022, after his anonymous attempts to publicise the struggles of LGBTQ+ people in his home country received little traction, seeking asylum in the United States as a result. He described his initial reaction to Qatar being awarded the World Cup as one of “anger and defeat”. He accused the state of using the tournament to try and launder their international reputation, and attempting to gaslight the world into believing they aren’t abusers, despite “taking everything” from him.

As for the suggestions that the pressure of a global audience would force the state to improve their stance on LGBTQ+ rights, Nasser assured us that this has not been the case. “In terms of things on the ground, I think they have not changed, if anything they are worse,” he said. “Arrests, torture, everything, it’s still happening.”

The activist also condemned his home state’s use of celebrity endorsements to launder their image. “You get people like David Beckham coming in and selling their influence to the authoritative regime, saying things like ‘football has the power to change the world’. Amazing! Do you think it will happen by your magical presence?” he laughed. “You can’t just show up and magically infuse goodness into the world, there needs to be action.”

Mohamed also criticised the role of the media when it came to reporting on such human rights violations, arguing that much of the coverage afforded to LGBTQ+ rights in the region framed the issue as a cultural argument between the Middle East and the West, which he said came at the detriment of actual LGBTQ+ people in the country.

“You get all the thousands of spins on the same factual story. ‘Muslim Dad beats his son’ or ‘Homophobic Qatari is violently attacking his LGBT child’. Then on the Arabic side, ‘white Europeans and Americans are intruding to come and tell Middle Eastern parents how to raise their children’,” he explained.

“Then people get really afraid because now they are worried about Islamophobia, racism, discrimination. In comparison, sometimes it feels like being in the closet and occasionally facing homophobia is a lesser evil.”

The absence of change in Qatar is not down to a lack of effort on the part of persecuted groups. In the autumn 2022 issue of Index, when we looked at the free speech implications of hosting the tournament in Qatar, Qatari activist Abdullah Al-Maliki outlined the many ways the regime punishes – and thereby silences – human rights defenders. He wrote:

“Tamim [bin Hamad Khalifa al-Thani] has planted fear and terror in the hearts and minds of the Qatari people. No one in our country can criticise the actions and words of the corrupt dictator, or those of his terrorist gang.”

Mohamed spoke about his own recent experience. He suggested that external pressure has been placed on platforms and organisations to stifle any allegations of human rights violations in the state, a situation he is no stranger to. He described being “ghosted” by Meta, “shadowbanned” by X (formerly Twitter) and speaking to high-profile politicians at length only for those conversations to go nowhere.

“There’s censorship definitely,” he said. “It’s really hard because Qatar’s money is everywhere. Whenever my voice reached a certain level, I was dropped by the people I was talking to.”

It seems that simply spreading the word is not helping to bring about changes in the region. “I naively thought nothing was happening through lack of knowledge,” Mohamed said, before pausing. “It’s not a lack of knowledge.”

There are similar concerns over the continuing exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar. Despite promises from the state that conditions would improve following global outrage in the build-up to the World Cup, a report published last week by Amnesty International stated that progress towards improving these rights has largely stalled since the tournament ended, while hundreds of thousands of workers who suffered abuses linked to the tournament have still not received justice.

Prior to the tournament, there was hope that the global pressure had successfully pushed Qatar into improving conditions for migrant labourers. Reforms were passed in 2021 in an attempt to reduce the power of sponsors over workers’ mobility and to raise the minimum wage, motions which were largely influenced by the criticisms levelled at the country following their successful World Cup bid. However, Amnesty International’s Head of Economic Social Justice, Steve Cockburn, said on publication of the new report that Qatar had shown a “continued failure to properly enforce or strengthen” these pre-World Cup labour reforms, putting the legacy of the tournament in “serious peril”.

He said in a statement: “From illegal recruitment fees to unpaid wages, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers lost their money, health and even their lives while FIFA and Qatar tried to deflect and deny responsibility. Today, a year on from the tournament too little has been done to right all these wrongs, but the workers who made the 2022 World Cup possible must not be forgotten.”

Human Rights Watch stated earlier this year that the 2021 legislation was not in itself adequate to solve the issues faced by migrant workers, calling claims by Qatari authorities and FIFA that their labour protection systems were adequate to prevent abuse “grossly inaccurate and misleading”. An investigation by the organisation found that some issues being faced by migrant workers in the country in the aftermath of the World Cup include wage theft, being prohibited from transferring jobs, not receiving their entitled compensations and being unable to join a union.

Mohamed believes that the fight for human rights in Qatar should encompass all such groups who find themselves exploited, abused or persecuted, but that more targeted action is required: “Workers rights, women’s rights, you can support all of these causes and I think it can be powerful, and it can be a very helpful thing to do, but it needs intention.”

Curtailing creativity today will lead to greater censorship tomorrow

How we express ourselves and the mediums we choose is an intensely intimate process. Artists, writers, dancers, actors and musicians think very hard about what they wish to convey and how they wish to convey it.

Creativity and freedom of expression go hand in hand. To curtail one imperils the other. Creativity that is confined is censorship and when freedom of expression is under threat, self-censorship in art and culture becomes more prevalent.

All of us who value our voices and our freedoms have a duty to promote and protect creativity and ensure that everyone can tell their stories – however challenging they may be – in whatever medium they choose.

We expect these challenging but universal rights to be upheld in every nation – and especially those that claim to share our democratic values. And you would have thought they would be a given within the European Union member states. Yet, it seems all too often we are likely to be disappointed.

Victor Orbán’s government of Hungary is a case in point. A member of the European Union, Hungary is seemingly on a path leading further away from the democratic norms we all hold dear and venturing off to the dark recesses of oppression.

This week, the target of Hungary’s increasing authoritarianism is the World Press Photo exhibition and specifically the work of Hannah Reyes Morales.

Reyes Morales is a widely respected artist who uses her art and her skill to tell the story of LGBTQI+ life in the Philippines based on her own lived experience. She explores the joy, the optimism, the heartache and the sorrow that modern life brings to everyone.

Her artwork is a canvas in which her representation of emotion is weaved delicately against her own experiences. It is a celebration of what it is to be human and a stark reminder of the fragility of what we all hold dear.

So, a celebrated artist of international standing showcasing her work in a European Country. That’s all good then, yes?

Apparently not.

Orbán’s government not only sought to censor the World Press Photo exhibition – they sought to ban any and all works which featured LGBTQI+ works.

The head of Hungary’s National Museum, Laszlo Simon, has now also been sacked for his curation of the exhibition. He is accused of providing access to material to under 18s which ‘promotes’ homosexuality under the controversial Hungarian law that bans the “display and promotion of homosexuality” in materials accessible to children, such as books and films.

While the head of the museum is clear that no laws were intentionally broken, the compliance with the rule is not the issue. It is the law itself which is an affront to freedoms. And the fact that for the first time on European soil the World Press Photo exhibition has been censored.

LGBTQI+ rights in Hungary are under attack and those who speak out are ostracised. Artistic freedom is under attack and those that challenge it do so at the fear of losing their jobs.

This is yet another attempt by the repressive regime of Viktor Orbán to erase minority voices, silence campaigns and censor anything that does not fit into his narrow world view.

The European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has already called Orbán’s legislation a ‘disgrace’. Human rights organisations around the world have marked Hungary’s lurch to the populist right as a defining moment in European history and should pose the question to other EU members about the sort of leaders they want in their club.

But it also exposes the ease with which authoritarianism and censorship can spread. Curtailing creativity today will lead to greater censorship tomorrow.

Index on Censorship continues to – and always will –  share the stories of those silenced by Orbán. And we stand with Simon and Reyes-Morales as they try to make sure that all voices are heard and celebrated.