With border restrictions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK government must avoid nationalist rhetoric as it will harm its most vulnerable populations.
The outbreak of COVID-19 early this year has caused mass border closures. Even now, as governments begin to reopen their borders, controlled migration through approved travel corridors looks to be the ‘new normal’.
Governments are prioritising mitigating the economic repercussions of restricted travel on their own countries. In the wake of such inward-looking policies, it is important to understand how nationalist sentiments can impact the governance of some of the UK’s most vulnerable population: asylum seekers and other refugees.
Nationalism has long been a pervasive factor in UK migration policies. Before Boris Johnson entered the picture, the Parliament had already passed the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016. These were introduced to limit non-European Economic Area (EEA) migration into the UK and create a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants in the country. Non-EEA migrants in the UK were faced with increasingly stringent policies in an effort to deter them from living in the UK. Since migration from the EEA is predominantly white, these policies disproportionately targeted non-white people, thereby creating a framework where the national identity could be manufactured around the white identity. Former Prime Minister Theresa May’s manifesto for the 2017 snap election echoed previous Conservative Party leader, David Cameron’s desire to ‘bear down on immigration from outside the European Union’.
The global nature of this pandemic has been instrumental for nationalist, right-wing voices to amplify their concerns over immigration. Migration Watch UK, an anti-immigration think tank, has announced a controversial policy proposal to ban the entry of those over the age of 50 coming from non-EEA countries into the UK and restrict visas for other age groups.
The right-wing immigration rhetoric: erasing refugees from the picture
Populism and nationalism revolve around defining a person through their shared heritage and the country they were born in. This national identity is then juxtaposed with an ‘other’, someone who does not share the same lineage of a particular demographic. Right-wing nationalism in particular, founded on the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ narrative, privileges the lives of the citizens (‘us’) over immigrants (‘them’).
With COVID-19 resulting in rapid border controls and an inconsistent restriction on international movement; refugees are further defined as ‘others’. The Government is more concerned over the management of its governable population – its citizens – than that of immigrants.
At present, there are 51,906 documented asylum seekers still awaiting a decision on their status as a refugee in the UK. Asylum seekers are often too afraid to access healthcare in fear of their possible refugee status being overturned. They are not legally allowed to work to make a living and have to depend on ill-equipped government systems to sustain themselves.
Refugee migration will continue even as the pandemic rages. While a global pandemic may halt some economic activities, it does not stop wars, natural disasters, or tyrannical regimes from committing human rights violations on their own citizens. Thus, even during a pandemic, the drivers of migration continue. History has shown us time and time again that migration cannot be curbed simply by imposing stricter border controls. In fact, the number of migrants crossing the Channel from France to the UK has risen to more than 1,400 in the month of June from a mere 200 earlier this year.
The UK’s migration management policy needs to see a drastic shift from merely containing refugees to creating structures that can better oversee their governance. Providing a healthcare system that is accessible to refugees and spans both physical and mental health should be a priority for the Government. This global pandemic has shown the myopic nature of nationalist immigration policies but it has also provided us with an opportunity to learn and improve our systems of governing immigration.
Paakhi Bhatnagar studies International Relations at King’s College London.