The sorry story of Fortress Britain and its war on refugees

Mike Haynes looks at the UK’s record on receiving migrants and its relationship to that of the European Union. This is the second article rs21 has published in the wake of the concocted English Channel refugee ‘crisis’: see also Safe passage now – the border is the crisis.

The badge of the Immigration Enforcement division of the Home Office. Image: Wikipedia

Let’s be blunt – the UK has a terrible record in accepting refugees. And once here the treatment of refugees is a scandal that too few people want to talk about.

The data on refugees can be confusing. Refugees and asylum seekers are put into different categories and defined and counted in different ways. But the bottom line is that the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers allowed into the UK remains low. The British state has continually refused to help with the current refugee movements to which its own policies have contributed.

The argument about refugees should not be about numbers, but numbers are important. In 2008 there were 153,000 first time applications for asylum in the EU as a whole. This rose to 563,000 in 2014 and then to 1.2 million in both 2015-2016 before falling to 650,000 in 2017.

Few of these came to the UK. In fact refugees know that it is so difficult to get into the UK that only 5 per cent of the asylum claims made to the EU in 2017 were to the UK.

In a crisis, most refugees will be internally displaced within the country affected or move across the border into neighbouring states. It is a minority who become international migrants. It is also a general rule that the poorer the society, the more welcoming it tends to be. Rich states like rich migrants. They don’t like poor ones and those fleeing oppression – especially if they have had a hand in creating the conditions that cause people to flee.

But those with the knowledge, means, and opportunity will try to move further – for those coming from Eurasia or Africa, to Europe. Whether free or forced, migrants move along migration networks or chains (forget Trump’s discovery of this as something alarming – it’s perfectly normal). They try to get to countries where they have contacts, friends or family. They try to get to countries about which they know something. That is why there are so many English speakers in the Calais camp. But they are blocked by political barriers, migration controls, asylum rules and border forces.

Most Syrian refugees have been displaced internally or into neighbouring states. Turkey and Lebanon together have taken 4.4 million Syrian refugees. Turkey now has over 3.5 million refugees within its borders. This is more than the whole of the EU has taken in and many times more than the UK has taken in over its entire history. For those who want to go further, the next hurdle is to get to and claim asylum in ‘Europe’ – a Europe whose imagined borders are set as narrowly as possible when it comes to migration. The land route via the Western Balkans is increasingly closed. So most must now try to get to Greece by sea across the Eastern Mediterranean.

As a response to the Syrian crisis Germany took hundreds of thousands of refugees in a couple of years. But Britain has kept its gates shut. It deliberately refused to take part in EU resettlement schemes. It has agreed to take 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 that it will select through the so-called Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. So far it has taken just over 10,000. For comparison, at the height of the Syrian crisis 10,000 refugees arrived in one day in the city of Munich alone.

For those fleeing Libya and beyond there is no land route. They must try to get across the central Mediterranean from North Africa to Greece, Malta and Italy. There is also a smaller sea route in the eastern Mediterranean by which people try to get from North Africa to Spain.

Once in ‘Europe’ those with contacts in the UK can then try to get here ‘unofficially’. But the UK is an island surrounded by a hostile sea. It has only one land border and that is in Ireland. Refugees wanting to get to the UK are officially turned away at almost every airport and port in the world. That is why so many refugees are stuck in northern France in the Calais camp whose walls are paid for by the UK government.

Yet Britain is fully implicated in the causes of the crisis. In the central Mediterranean ‘crisis’, for example, British imperialism was both a major player in the destruction and then the abandonment of Libya and its people. Britain too is complicit in EU migration policy and the so-called Frontex scheme. The UK trains the Libyan coast guard, it supports the camps in Libya. The Royal Navy deploys ships to assist policing the Mediterranean.

In the first half of 2018 58,000 crossed and perhaps 1,500 died on the way. 23,000 went to Spain, 19,000 to Italy and 16,000 Greece. Virtually none were allowed into the UK. There is no suggestion this will change after Brexit.

It is sometimes implied that the UK’s hands are tied by the EU. This is not true. It is in the hands of a UK government to take any number of refugees. In the case of the Mediterranean all it needs to do is to tell UK bound shipping that they will be allowed to land migrants if they follow maritime law by picking them up. It will not. It could also make a gesture by offering to resettle any of those who made it to Spain, Italy, Greece or even Malta and Cyprus. But the gates of Fortress UK remain bolted.

Graffiti on the fence of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, one of the locations where unsuccessful asylum seeks are held ‘without fixed or specified limit’. Image: Eye DJ/Flickr

Then over Christmas and New Year 2018-2019 a so-called English Channel ‘crisis’ arose as small numbers of boats made their way to Kent. Anybody helping a boat person to get into the UK is deemed to be assisting illegal immigration and is potentially subject to a long term of imprisonment and confiscation of boats and other assets. If a migrant gets on the back of a lorry there are stiff penalties for the drivers and companies.

And anyone who tries to come across the channel must by definition be an illegal immigrant. Refugees are required to apply for asylum in the first safe country they come to. Unless you arrive by air (hard because of airline policing) this cannot be the UK. Once here, any Channel boat people are then arrested. After medical checks they are detained until their asylum claim is rejected. Britain seems to be the only country in Europe that practices detention of asylum seekers ‘without fixed or specified limit’. Asylum seekers have no right to legal aid. Once their case is decided they will then be deported, probably to their home country.

Even if a refugee is allowed to live freely while an asylum claim is considered, they will still not be able to work, whatever their skills. Even voluntary work can be a problem. They will be dispersed and have to exist in poor accommodation which may be far from any friends and community that they hope to join. They are given less than £6 a day to survive. If they hit the jackpot and get permission to stay semi-permanently they then have just 28 days to find accommodation before they are evicted from asylum accommodation.

Theresa May is, of course, responsible for making the ‘hostile environment’ more hostile. Policing illegal immigration in its widest sense is now not just the responsibility of the border force, customs officers or policemen. We are all expected to play a role as doctors, nurses, landlords, potential employers, marriage registrars, teachers, lecturers etc. This works in an especially insidious way since the responsibility for failure falls on the employer. They run scared of being fined and penalised so they make failure to report to them a sackable offence. Once found out it is then probably easier to round people up and deport them from the UK than in many other EU countries.

All this sets a context for Brexit. EU migrants are not refugees. But after Brexit they too might easily fall foul of the UK’s restrictive laws and migration policing. The culture of suspicion will be widened if existing free movement is not maintained. Labour’s alternative plans talk of vague taking ‘fair shares’. Diane Abbott says the UK should honour Britain’s refugee commitments. But that is the problem. Protected by the seas, by the rules of asylum applications to the first safe country, by the threat to airlines, shipping companies and lorry drivers, such a commitment is a commitment to nothing.

Some people on the left make heroic efforts to help refugees and to support people in Calais. But often we are put to shame by the refugee charities and religious groups of all faiths. It is time for the British left to get real and campaign more forcefully against Fortress Britain in 2019.

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