The UK’s Middle East migrant shame
The British government’s plans to deport people seeking asylum in the country to Rwanda has been widely criticized at home and abroad. Opposition parties, human rights groups, the UN and now the European Court of Human Rights have all weighed in.
Their focus has, understandably, been on the immorality of deporting migrants to an unfamiliar country with a poor record on human rights, and the high costs to the UK both financially and reputationally.
Few, though, have emphasized the connection between this crisis and recent British foreign policy. The majority of the migrants trying to enter the UK illegally originate from countries in the Middle East where the UK has played a major role in destabilizing in recent decades.
Of the 44,190 people who sought asylum in the UK in 2021, more than half (28,526) arrived on small boats that crossed the English Channel after France tightened the controls on former illegal access routes. The numbers are even higher this year and London’s policy of deporting migrants to Rwanda is intended as a new deterrent to threaten those planning to make the crossing. Yet an underreported issue is where these migrants mostly come from.
Last year, 30 percent of them came from Iran, 21 percent from Iraq and 9 percent from Syria. In 2018 and 2019, the majority were from Iran. These countries all share varying levels of recent violence, political repression and economic uncertainty. They also share a considerable degree of interference from the UK in recent years.
Iraq was invaded and occupied by London, alongside the US. Iran has been sanctioned by the UK and other Western states at varying levels for years. British leaders joined others in facilitating civil war in Syria by encouraging a rebellion against Damascus while not providing enough support for it to succeed.
Britain has a long history of denying or downplaying the negative elements of its past actions abroad, both during the days of the Empire and after it.
People seek asylum for a variety of reasons but instability and fear of violence at home are clearly high on the list. One of the people the UK is trying to deport to Rwanda is an Iraqi man who said he fled his home country after receiving threats from relatives who held high-level positions in government — a government the UK supports and helped to install.
Another, from Iran, said that he faces arrest or execution for taking part in demonstrations against the regime in Tehran. In contrast to the situation in Iraq, this is a government the UK opposes and has tried to punish through sanctions.
Like these two men, many of the people currently languishing in makeshift UK processing centers fled Middle Eastern realities the UK helped to create.
Of course, London was not alone in creating instability and Western intervention is far from the only factor in play. However, the UK does bear some responsibility and this should at least be acknowledged.
Instead, Middle Eastern asylum seekers are demonized and dehumanized by the British government and its supporters in the press. Rather than accepting that they are fleeing violence the UK helped create, or oppressive regimes London has actively opposed for years, they are instead presented as part of a foreign horde seeking to leech off British generosity.
The stance taken by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government is, of course, unsurprising. Britain has a long history of denying or downplaying the negative elements of its past actions abroad, both during the days of the Empire and after it.
Johnson frequently emphasizes (and seeks to recreate) Britain’s “glorious past,” and therefore few would expect him to acknowledge the role of his predecessors in facilitating the current crisis.
Moreover, demonizing asylum seekers rather than considering what caused them to flee their countries plays well with some of the politicians and voters whose support Johnson desperately seeks to retain.
Yet, like so much of his politics, this is a short-term approach that will likely prove to be counterproductive in the long run. Despite London’s hoping to repackage itself as “Global Britain” after Brexit, deporting migrants to Rwanda makes it look cruel and dispassionate.
The fact that it is turning away Middle Eastern migrants whose plights British policies helped to bring about adds a further layer of hypocrisy and shame. It might help keep Johnson in power for a few more months but further damages Britain’s already diminishing international reputation.
• Christopher Phillips is professor of international relations at Queen Mary University of London, author of “The Battle for Syria” and co-editor of “What next for Britain in the Middle East?” Twitter: @cjophillips