Burma Campaign UK is calling on Home Secretary Priti Patel MP to introduce special measures to protect Burmese nationals whose UK visas are expiring from being forced to return to Burma, and to end uncertainty and unnecessary distress caused by short term visa extensions.
Many Burmese nationals, including students, are fearful of returning following the military coup on 1st February.
Human rights violations they are at risk from if they return include:
- More than 6,000 people arrested.
- Family members or neighbours of people the military believe are engaged in anti-coup protests arrested.
- Widespread use of torture and sexual violence against detainees, including people being tortured to death.
- Around 900 people killed.
- More than 200,000 people forced from their homes by military attacks and activities.
In addition to the risks of returning, Burmese nationals, including students, also face additional challenges being able to return to Burma, including:
- Being unable to or facing delays in renewing passports because of staff shortages at the Burmese Embassy in the UK since the coup.
- Being afraid to provide personal information to the military controlled embassy in the UK.
- Being unable to return because of international travel restrictions and restrictions on entering Burma put in place by the military dictatorship.
In response to a letter from Burma Campaign UK on this issue, the Home Office stated in April:
“The Government has already acted, ensuring there is a strong immigration package in place which Myanmar nationals can access according to their personal circumstances Through this extensive package of measures, every Myanmar national currently in the UK, including students, will be able to regularise their stay and no one will be at risk of having to return unless they choose to.”
The statement that no-one will be at risk of having to return unless they choose to is welcome, but it is misleading for the Home Office to claim it has acted to bring in a strong immigration package. In fact, no new specific measures have been brought in to assist Burmese nationals.
Instead, the Home Office cites pre-existing visa programmes such as skilled worker visas, graduate visas and student visas as part of its so-called package. These are simply not options for many people as they either don’t meet the criteria, or don’t have the significant financial resources required.
Since the military coup most people have only been able to obtain exceptional assurance visas, which only last for one or three months at a time. This system creates unnecessary anxiety and uncertainty.
Another option suggested by the Home Office is the complex process of Leave Outside the Immigration Rules. However, while stating that Burmese nationals have the option to apply, the Home Office has not stated that it considers the situation of Burmese nationals in the UK following the military coup to meet the exceptional circumstances criteria of Leave Outside the Immigration Rules. Clarity is needed on this issue.
The final option suggested by the Home Office is to claim asylum, but most Burmese nationals are reluctant to be forced down this path. The uncertainty created by the inflexible current approach of the Home Office may result in more people being forced to claim asylum as they are left with no other choice.
The approach by Home Secretary Priti Patel stands in contrast to that taken by the USA, which has given Temporary Protected Status to Burmese citizens. The UK does not have such a system (which needs correcting), but does have the ability to introduce country specific policies in response to a crisis, and it did so with Syria.
“Burmese nationals in the UK need secure long-term visas instead of being forced to make repeated extension requests, which create unnecessary stress and uncertainty,” said Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK. “Priti Patel is following a lose-lose approach towards Burmese nationals in the UK. The current approach makes no sense in terms of treatment of Burmese citizens, and no sense for the Home Office as its creates extra administration and costs.”
Burmese students in the UK have been advocating for the British government to change its approach. In April they held a three-day hunger strike on Westminster Bridge to draw attention to their situation.