The UK government has determined that because it doesn’t share borders with failed states such as Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, it is not required to share any humanitarian burden for addressing the global refugee crisis – or even abide by its elementary legal obligations. Post-Brexit Britain appears resolved on retreating within its island shores and trying to forget altogether that the outside world exists.
The UN High Commissioner on Refugees has said that Britain’s proposed new legislation barring entry to asylum-seekers arriving in small boats “amounts to an asylum ban, extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim.” Of the 90 million people forcibly displaced across the world, the UK granted asylum to 13,000 in 2021 – a tiny fraction of the numbers accepted by many other European countries. States such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, which lack the minimum infrastructure to grapple with such influxes, have nevertheless absorbed well over a million refugees each.
The response of the British public to Ukrainian refugees was largely compassionate, despite the government throwing countless administrative obstacles in the path of potential arrivals. Around the world I encounter many who question why the response was so radically different for those fleeing equally brutal conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Congo – or why desperate families travel thousands of miles, risking their lives on unseaworthy boats, only to be locked up and stigmatized as criminals and potential terrorists. Relentless fearmongering and hyperbole by politicians and the right-wing media, often playing on negative religious and ethnic stereotypes, have turned this issue into a British national obsession. Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s assertions that “100 million” or even “billions” of asylum-seekers could soon be heading for Britain are naked demagoguery.
Braverman’s repugnant solution for those who have fled torture, war, ethnic cleansing and repression is to pack them off to a nation such as Rwanda, with a disastrous human rights record, dysfunctional infrastructure, and a complete lack of qualifications for managing refugee concentration camps on behalf of the UK government.
The reality is that only through the grace of God are any of us not born in war zones, compelled to throw ourselves at the mercy of other nations to avoid our children facing starvation, or worse. A succession of Conservative governments has calculatedly engineered a “hostile environment” for all migrants. Consequently, Home Office infrastructure for processing asylum cases is, by design, perversely unfit for purpose, with immense backlogs. Instead of processing applicants quickly and repatriating undeserving cases, arrivals are locked up in indefinite limbo. Over 117,000 people were awaiting an initial decision on their asylum case as of mid-2022. This includes doctors, teachers, builders and nurses who could pay taxes and make much-needed contributions to the economy.
While many recent arrivals have been from Albania, this should be addressed as a specific phenomenon, rather than stigmatizing all arrivals as “illegal” and “undeserving” economic migrants. In 2022, 76 percent of cases that were processed were found to be legitimate and were granted asylum. High-profile ex-footballer Gary Lineker triggered a media frenzy with a tweet comparing the government’s rhetoric on migrants with the language of 1930s Germany. The comparison was not unjustified, given the systematic manner in which government ministers have dehumanized and criminalized refugees, to the extent that many Europeans express the view that it would be better to let immigrants drown at sea. Scandalously, several hundred child asylum-seekers simply disappeared, sometimes abducted directly from hostels, probably into prostitution, abuse and forced labor.
The point is not whether Britain currently resembles Nazi Germany, but rather that Europe risks pursuing the same trajectory. Populist far-right politicians calculatedly whip up fears about immigration, and being “deluged” by non-Christian, non-white foreigners. Neo-fascists and populist authoritarians are today in power in nations such as Italy, Israel and Hungary, with likeminded factions on the ascendant in most European states. Many of these parties praised Britain’s measures against refugees. Threats of terrorism and organized violence from far-right extremism now greatly exceed that from Islamist groups. The right-wing media cynically manufactures these moral panics to sell newspapers, disingenuously feeding audiences an insatiable diet of exceptional cases in which refugees are portrayed as thieves and delinquents. Donald Trump notoriously launched his US presidential campaign with a diatribe against refugees: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…” Recent disclosures from Fox News highlighted how the channel relentlessly peddled falsehoods, knowing they were lying to their audience. Particular hosts deliberately propagated white supremacist narratives, with explosive social consequences.
Neo-isolationist, post-Brexit Britain is a greatly diminished nation, with many sectors badly impacted by the self-harming decision to wrench the national economy out of the European single market. Efforts to consolidate new trade deals have floundered. The halting of the annual influx of tens of thousands of European seasonal workers, the impossibility of exporting perishable goods under cumbersome new regulations, and the fragmentation of supply chains have forced food producers to slash output, giving rise to empty supermarket shelves and rampant inflation. Yet a government that has spent the past 13 years demonizing refugees isn’t going to suddenly look to these arrivals as potential positive contributors to major gaps in the workforce. I am immensely grateful for the welcome we and our young daughters were given in 1980s Britain when we fled the Lebanon conflict, and I hope that as taxpayers and law-abiding citizens we can be seen as having made a net positive contribution to our host society. Britain’s prime minister, home secretary and several other ministers are themselves from migrant families.
The government abolished the Department for International Development in 2020. Aid to many of the poorest countries was slashed by over 60 percent. About half the much-diminished remaining “overseas development” budget is spent domestically on detaining refugees. As well as being morally indefensible, this and Brexit have caused Britain’s global influence to plunge. Britain appears unable to comprehend that when aid budgets are curtailed, greater numbers are forced into exile. Leading nations have meanwhile abandoned their conflict-resolution role.
Refugees will keep coming. Numbers of worldwide displaced demographics have relentlessly increased. Conflicts intensify, states disintegrate, governance deteriorates, and worldwide democracy is in retreat. Climate change is rendering sizable regions uninhabitable. By letting the xenophobia genie out the bottle through incessant dehumanization of refugees, politicians created a rod for their own backs, coming under inexorable pressure to bring net migration toward zero – an impossible goal that would precipitate economic meltdown.
Instead of such self-defeating isolationism, Western governments must take a farsighted approach to factors driving mass migration, so people around the world can enjoy the infinitely preferable option of looking forward to a bright future in their own homelands.