16 April 2024, The Tablet

The JRS London Marathon team – defiant hope in the face of the Rwanda Bill

by Eileen Cole

On 21 April, a team of 26 runners, including a refugee supported by JRS, will run the London Marathon to raise funds for JRS.

The JRS London Marathon team – defiant hope in the face of the Rwanda Bill

JRS team members have trained for months to complete the 26.2 miles of the marathon.

This week, the so-called “Safety of Rwanda Bill” returns to Parliament. There is every expectation that it will pass this week. This is a dark day indeed. Be we can and must keep fighting. As I strive to maintain hope in this context, I find it in JRS UK’s London Marathon Team.

The bill is responding to the Supreme Court’s ruling that Rwanda is not a safe place to send asylum seekers. What it does is simply to state, in the face of the evidence, that Rwanda is indeed safe. And it does so to pursue a scheme of unimaginable cruelty to transfer forcibly people, who have lost everything and come here to beg us for safe haven, to Rwanda, without even examining their claims for asylum.

This would, as the court has found, place them in fresh danger. It would destroy lives a second time. It is, as I have written before, utterly unworkable. It is impossible to do at scale, astronomically expensive, and, as a deterrence policy, so lacking in an evidential basis that the Home Office civil servant tasked with developing the Rwanda cash-for-humans scheme found themselves unable sign it off.

This is a deeply destructive scheme that rejects the very humanity of refugees and is bad for our society as a whole. Yet our politicians have pursued it at all costs, and the passage of the Safety of Rwanda Bill brings us closer to a flight taking off for Rwanda.

This is a time of great fear for refugees in the UK. I have spoken to many refugees about the Rwanda scheme, and there is a wide feeling of terror. Last time a flight nearly took off, JRS UK’s detention outreach team sat with people told they were going to be sent to Rwanda. My colleagues spent many late nights ensuring they had legal representation, helping them gather documents, fighting desperately to ensure they had access to justice in the face of this terrifying reality. And they listened. To the terror and the tears. In an inhuman context, they were human. They rejected the politics that told them refugees did not matter, were not human. At the same time, we continued to fight the plan, feeding into legal challenges to stall it.

Faced again with the prospect of flights to Rwanda beginning soon, we must continue to fight. This is not easy. It happens in the context of legislation designed to attack refugees – notably the Illegal Migration Act that, when fully in force, will effect an asylum ban in the UK; the growth of prison-like asylum camps and expansion of immigration detention; and a cost of living crisis that plunges the destitute refugees we at JRS serve into ever greater desperation, struggling sometimes even to get what they need to eat. The Rwanda scheme appears as a crowning act of performative cruelty amid a wider context of hostility to refugees.

Staring at this bleak reality, it can be hard to maintain hope. Yet, this week, I am conscious of another reality: on Sunday 21 April, a committed team of 26 runners, including a refugee supported by JRS, will run the London Marathon to raise funds for JRS. This is an act of solidarity, of generosity, of community – and one that is, obviously, very far from easy.

For months, they have trained to be able to complete the 26.2 miles. Many have been injured and kept going. Some are coming from as far afield as America to do this. Earlier this week, I was struck by the gratitude of refugees when they learnt how many people were running to support them this year. And their effort is vital to enable JRS’s work with refugees and to enable us to continue to fight the Rwanda plan, and support those potentially affected by it.  

Looking at the runners, I am reminded that, even in this bleak context, striving in hope is possible, and it is more important now than ever. As we cheer the runners on marathon day, maybe it is helpful to remember that our work of advocating for refugees is more like a marathon than a sprint.

It takes time. It takes determination. There are few quick wins. And as the runners will not give up, neither will JRS. Whatever happens next with the Rwanda plan, we will be there, we will offer humanity to those threatened by it, and we will stand for justice.

You can donate to JRS UK’s marathon team here.

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