There are 26m refugees around the world. In 2019, 133,094 of them were being hosted by the UK. Some British newspapers assert that they had ‘flooded in’ and deprived Britons of jobs and services. The Government should take the lead on creating a more empathetic discourse around migration.
The normalisation of nationalism
COVID paused the UK’s resettlement scheme and the Government is now rolling out a new points-based immigration system to demonstrate just how much control of the borders it has ‘taken back’.
Xenophobia in Europe is nothing new, dating back to fears of medieval Middle Eastern Muslims invading Christian Europe. But Brexit normalised and facilitated anti-immigrant discourse, culminating in the UK’s toughest immigration policies in living memory.
Recent migration to the UK
Following the addition of new countries to the EU in 2004, British policy-makers forwent the transition periods that most member states used and instead immediately granted freedom of movement to those from the newly joined states. Headlines spoke of “hordes” of Eastern Europeans arriving, arguing that they wanted to exploit the benefits system, and exacerbating fears of job insecurity. By 2019 around 3.7m EU citizens had settled in the UK, but this happened over several years and was a consequence of the EU enlargement that the UK had supported.
The 2015 migrant crisis prompted further debate on those coming to the UK. Millions of refugees fleeing poverty and persecution in the Middle East and Africa sought safety elsewhere during this period. Although the majority became either internally displaced or lived in neighbouring host countries, the Vote Leave Brexit campaign used concerns about immigrants to its advantage.
Dominic Cummings’ 2016 tweet that remaining in the EU risked a repeat of attacks against women by migrant men carried out in Cologne in 2015, and Nigel Farage’s famous ‘breaking point’ poster of long queues of migrants actively stoked these fears. In this way, the Leave campaign successfully politicised the issue of migration and asylum. The focus was placed on the EU’s attempts to forcibly resettle migrants amongst its member states, supposedly diminishing British sovereignty.
Post-Brexit migration policy
Boris Johnson stated that migrants crossing the Channel in dinghies were “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal”, omitting the fact that his party’s policies are a driving factor of such bahaviour. Post-Brexit, the Government stepped up its existing hostile policies and proposed the new UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS). Official figures suggest it will settle 5,000 refugees, but it threatens the safety of thousands more. Its removal of legal routes and safe schemes, like the Dublin Agreement, causes asylum seekers to risk their lives at sea.
Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel create a false narrative of criminal migration. They normalise anti-immigrant rhetoric and portray asylum seekers and refugees as threats to British safety and sovereignty, rather than vulnerable people fleeing war and persecution. In 2016, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination declared that “divisive” language used by UK politicians during the Brexit campaign prompted a rise in hate crime. A poll in 2017 also found that anti-immigrant sentiment garnered support for the Leave vote.
This narrative is also reflected in the Government’s excessive detention of asylum seekers. The UK is the only country in western Europe without a detention time limit. This means that British authorities can indefinitely detain asylum-seekers (698 people as of June 2020), often keeping them in poor conditions.
The Napier Barracks are one such example. After numerous reports of suicide attempts, unsanitary conditions, and the spread of COVID-19, the Home Office temporarily removed those held there, only to return them after the Easter weekend. Criminalising migrants and depriving them of their dignity in this way contributes to their ‘othering’. It implies that they are burdens on the state, solidifying the narratives of suspicion and division that developed in waves around 2004 and 2015.
Rewriting the narrative
The UK’s new asylum laws were prompted by a Brexit vote that aimed to ‘take back control’ from Brussels but, ironically, replicate the EU’s famous red tape by creating yet more paperwork.
More troublingly, efforts to ‘take back control’ have jeopardised the dignity and safety of people fleeing conflict. The Government must implement a more humane policy. Practically, it should expand the UKRS and end indefinite detention, but rhetorically it should also encourage more empathy. In doing so, politicians can attempt to articulate a positive vision for refugees in the UK.
Lara Brett is studying for an MA in Contemporary European Studies at the University of Bath.