29 September 2021

Britain is failing to protect defecting spies and political refugees

By Josephine Freund & Isabel Sawkins

There is no longer any doubt. Russia was responsible for the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko on UK soil by lacing his tea with radioactive polonium 210. Litvinenko was a former KGB and FSB agent who defected to the UK and became an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. Last week the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) confirmed what had long been suspected, but denied by the Kremlin – that his murderers, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, ‘had been acting as agents of the Russian State‘. The court’s findings come in the wake of the UK counterterrorism police also bringing charges against a ‘senior Russian military intelligence officer‘ for the attempted assassination of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with the nerve agent Novichok.

These recent developments raise broader questions about the safety of political refugees in the UK. Despite coming here seeking sanctuary, many are still hunted down by the states from which they fled. It’s not just Litvinenko and Skripal, women who have fled persecution and enslavement by Isis have also been targeted. As of 2019, the UK had resettled around 15,000 Syrian refugees. But at the same time Britain is beginning to allow the return and rehabilitation of former Isis fighters. As it is impossible for UK security services to monitor all returned jihadis, there is a real risk that some could pursue their former victims. This has already happened in Germany, where a Yazidi woman who had been trafficked came face to face with her Isis captor, and was subsequently threatened by him. While this issue was reported, German police said there was nothing they could do.

Not only are these refugees targeted by the states from which they escaped, but even when the police do manage to identify those responsible for these crimes, very little can be or has been done to hold them accountable. They are often protected by their countries, and it seems that the UK is unable to do much more than verbally condemn these acts. 

The whole notion of asylum is meaningless if refugees are still subject to intimidation by their home nation. Amid conversations about refugees from Hong Kong and Afghanistan coming to the UK, we must consider how Britain can offer better protection from spies and agents working for hostile states. As it stands, the UK seems neither willing nor capable of putting a stop to the targeting of political refugees. Other nations have had to deal with similar threats and have managed them in different ways. While there is not one clear solution, there are ways the UK can better maintain the safety of defectors and the integrity of its promises.

First, the Government must ensure that the identity of political refugees is thoroughly concealed, and that their homes are properly monitored. This will protect not only the refugees themselves, but their neighbours who – as the death of Dawn Sturgess from Novichok poisoning proves – can become collateral damage.

Second, there needs to be more comprehensive vetting of those who enter the UK from high risk nations to ensure they don’t pose a risk to public safety here.

Finally, it should be made clear to political refugees that the state does not have the capacity to fully ensure their safety after granting asylum. Those who gain UK residency should be made aware of potential risks they may face and offered training on how to stay safe on a day-to-day basis.

With these small but deliberate steps the Government could send a message to asylum seekers, and to hostile states, that Britain will always be a safe haven and is prepared to fight for its citizens.

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Josephine Freund is a Research Intern at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.