politics

Labour is shifting right on migration. We’ve seen this before, it didn’t end well | Maya Goodfellow


So-called crises over asylum seekers have become a central part of UK politics over the past three decades. They follow a depressingly familiar pattern: every few years, there is a new wave of scare stories about increasing asylum numbers, governments make the laws stricter, and people die trying to cross borders.

On Friday, Keir Starmer waded into the latest version of this debate. He made a statement about the current “crisis” in the Channel, attacking the government for not reducing the number of people trying to make the journey, and criticising cuts to international aid and Priti Patel’s inability to secure a “strong” agreement with France to stop people making this journey.

Two days later, the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, was repeating much the same messages on the Sunday morning TV rounds. He said Labour would strike a deal with the French and renegotiate the Dublin regulation, under which member states can deport people to the EU country they reached first. Although he also argued for reinstating the Dubs scheme (under which 3,000 unaccompanied child asylum seekers would be allowed to come to the UK) and restated Labour’s resolute rejection of the government’s proposals for offshore detention centres.

Labour’s big statement on migration seems to be that it also wants to externalise the problem. The government is suggesting that people seeking asylum belong elsewhere. In response Labour is opposing some of the most draconian proposals, but isn’t disagreeing with the premise of the overall approach. Instead, the party is simply suggesting it would handle it better.

Presumably, Labour is trying to appear “sensible” and say what it thinks the electorate wants to hear. It is drawing on a favoured strategy of Starmer’s and going after Patel’s “incompetence”. The party is trying to cast itself as the capable adults in the room, who could actually hash out the kind of difficult diplomatic agreements that would be needed to make the “issue” go away.

But it is also conveniently woolly with some of the words it uses and the arguments it makes. There’s some truth to Labour’s analysis, but the framing and solutions play into the exact same kind of moral panic the Conservatives have been whipping up.

Take the Channel crossings. Labour is right that they are incredibly dangerous. Few would argue with that. People are risking their lives trying to get here – some die in the process. But its response is to focus almost exclusively on agreements with France to stop people from crossing, and “people smuggling”, while the domestic border policies that make it so difficult for people to get to the UK safely are seldom mentioned. This is even as the Conservatives’ nationality and borders bill is set to make this much worse and much more dangerous.

This is not a problem of “incompetence”, but political choice. The government chooses to close down routes that would allow refugees to travel here safely. It chooses to force people to cross the Channel. It chooses not to grant people asylum. This is what is at the centre of the current situation: inhumanity, not inefficiency.

These kinds of exclusion have a telling history. From the 1980s onwards, asylum regimes tightened as periodic panics over the number of people arriving took centre stage in national debates. This change, says political sociologist Lucy Mayblin, coincided with people from the global south – predominantly black and brown people who have historically been classed as less than human – increasingly coming to Europe to claim asylum.

This logic of panic and response has defined successive governments’ approaches. When New Labour were in office, it attacked a “broken” asylum system, promised to crack down on people smugglers and made the rules much, much stricter. But those draconian asylum policies are usually left out of the story about how Britain ended up where it did in the years that followed.

With the rise of Ukip, Brexit and the hostile environment policy, the retelling we’re used to is that New Labour was “too soft” and “let too many people in”, causing a backlash of “legitimate concerns”. Its intense anti-asylum stance – and the role this played in stoking racism and xenophobia – barely gets a mention.

But this past tells us exactly what not to do, and outlines the political tradition Labour risks contributing to, where both it and the Conservatives push for harsher and more exclusionary policies. There are alternatives, and Labour should promote those instead.

The prison scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore encourages us to think of reforms that would open up an avenue to transform the world altogether, rather than just tweak the current system.

Here, that means creating a world where everyone has both the right to move and the right to stay. We cannot ignore that some people have no choice but to leave their homes. Instead of championing policies that reinforce the imagined need for borders, we should break with the anti-asylum cycle by demanding safe routes of travel for everyone.





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