Britain seeks to distance itself from a global refugee crisis
There is hardly an issue in the British political-social discourse that is more mired in confusion, misunderstanding, misinformation and characteristic xenophobia than immigration.
The UK government’s latest callous attempt to deflect from its inability to convince the British public that they are the solution to the country’s current hardships is called the Illegal Migration Bill, introduced by the immigration-hostile Home Secretary Suella Braverman. It is not only an attempt to deflect attention from the overall performance of the government, but also from its inability to introduce a holistic, comprehensive answer to the issue of immigration in the post-Brexit era.
From its disingenuous name to every detail of its content, this bill is more about deterring those with clear and legitimate reasons for seeking political asylum in the UK, and even cruelly punishing them, than curbing human trafficking. It is an attempt to tar those asylum-seekers who turn to people-smugglers in desperation with the same brush as the unscrupulous smugglers themselves who exploit them.
In defending this heartless policy, the government conflates support for a more human and nuanced immigration policy with being in favor of illegal activity, and what is seen by the Conservative Party as the mortal sin of advocating completely open borders. Needless to say, but necessary to reiterate in the current toxic immigration discourse, unless one is in the inhuman business of human trafficking and smuggling, there is no support for this illicit activity in any quarter of British society. Equally, the mere suggestion that anyone believes that any country could afford completely open borders without taking into account economic capacity, the implications for public services and social capacity, is ludicrous.
Yet, as we are all united in objecting to acts that are illegal, and disgusted by crooked smugglers who cynically exploit desperate people to extort from them huge sums of money that they can ill afford, as a liberal democracy we still need a humane and sensible immigration policy, one that also aligns with our international obligations.
History shows that from the dawn of time people have migrated for the same reason they do now; to find a safe haven and improve their quality of life. The small boats are mainly a danger only to those who board them to cross the English Channel, but that is only a manifestation of their level of desperation. There are economic migrants among them, mostly from Albania, but this does not negate the fact that the top five nationalities entering on small boats are Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians and Eritreans, all of whom have very good chances of being granted asylum.
It is nothing short of astonishing that a major international power, one of the founding members of the UN and a permanent member of the Security Council, should develop such hostility, expressed in the most toxic language, to foreigners generally, and especially to the least fortunate who flee wars and persecution.
The UK is trying to distance itself from a global crisis of refugees and displaced people
When Braverman, who seems to be short in the empathy department, claims the south coast of England is being “invaded” by asylum-seekers, she deliberately employs inflammatory language, flirting with the right-wing media and manipulating xenophobic tendencies amplified by that media. It is the language of Brexit, which has contributed immensely to the crisis that the UK is in, while the Tories blame everything and everyone but themselves for the current economic, political and social predicaments, which are their own doing.
The UK is trying to distance itself from what is a global crisis of refugees and displaced people, a crisis that is by no stretch of the imagination the refugees’ fault. They are forced to try to survive by any means possible, and we should applaud and support them for that and do whatever we can to help them rather than vilifying them in their time of need.
It is a disturbing reality that due to inter and intra-state political instability in many parts of the world, there are so many places that are unsafe for so many of their inhabitants. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, currently 89.3 million people, one in 97, of the world’s population, have been forced to flee their homes.
This is twice as many compared to a decade ago, and what is more, 40 percent of the refugees are children. But, despite the claim that due to their misfortune they are “invading” our Western shores, the vast majority of displaced people, 85 percent, now live in developing countries, mainly in countries neighboring those they have fled from. In places such as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq among others, we need to shoulder some responsibility for these people’s predicament, as historically the UK has played a crucial role in contributing to the circumstances that have led to their need to seek refuge.
It is not too radical a proposition to argue that the UK, in tandem with others, needs to create a multi-tiered migration policy that includes addressing the root causes of migration, whether it be insecurity due to wars or persecution, or poverty due to lack of development. Solving such problems will surely make many less inclined to embark on a dangerous, expensive journey, which includes the heartbreak of leaving home and loved ones behind.
This Tory legislation, if passed, will amount to an asylum ban — extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the UK for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances. As the bill stands, it denies asylum-seekers the safety and protection they desperately need, and even the opportunity to put forward their case. This would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention, and if passed, would amount not only to an asylum ban, but also to detention and deportation, including that of children.
The British government is once again caught up by its own anti-immigrant rhetoric, despite a clear need for migrant labor in many sectors of the economy, and especially after the damage to the labor market caused by Brexit. And rather than Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government posing as knights in shining armor who are protecting migrants from human traffickers, they should develop a comprehensive, nuanced and humane immigration policy that will consider economic needs, capacity, international obligations, and what kind of society and member of the international community it aspires to be.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.