Wave generators in the Channel; detaining asylum seekers on disused oil rigs; shipping them off to tiny islands thousands of miles away. After reading the latest crop of ideas leaked to the press last week, one would be forgiven for thinking that Britain is a country overwhelmed by people dishonestly trying to bypass normal migration routes by seeking asylum, compelling the government to discourage people from coming to Britain by any means at all.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There has been no increase in the numbers of people seeking asylum in recent months: there were just over 32,400 applications for asylum in the year to June 2020, similar to the previous year and much lower than in 2016. This is less than half the number in the early 2000s, many times fewer than the asylum applications received by countries such as Germany and France and far lower than the EU average, adjusted for resident population. Nine in 10 displaced people never even try to make it to Europe but are hosted by low-income countries. More than half of those who applied for asylum in the UK last year had their initial applications accepted, up on previous years, suggesting that the legitimacy of asylum seekers’ claims is increasing.
So, contrary to what politicians such as Nigel Farage or Priti Patel would have us believe, there is no crisis in the numbers of people applying for asylum. What has happened, instead, is that as the pandemic has cut off safer ways to travel to the UK, more of those who are desperate to secure a safe place to live have resorted to the far more dangerous way of getting here, via dinghies on the Channel.
That people are willing to risk their lives crossing the world’s busiest shipping lane in tiny inflatable craft is a mark of the terrible lives they are fleeing, not of cunning plots to get round British immigration law. It is shameful that we have politicians who seek to gain political capital by implying the latter. We know from efforts to deter people from making the Mediterranean crossing that navy patrols or the sort of illegal maritime fences that the government is apparently considering do not work: they just result in more deaths at sea. If the government wishes to reduce the number of attempted crossings, the only way is to increase the accessibility of those safer routes to the UK that existed before the pandemic.
The only crisis in our asylum system is the dreadful way we already treat people legitimately seeking protection. In contrast to countries such as Uganda, which takes a far more progressive approach by allowing asylum seekers to work, in the UK we force skilled asylum seekers who have escaped persecution and torture to subsist on handouts of less than £5.50 a day, in damp, dirty and vermin-infested accommodation. Delays in processing asylum applications, some of which take years, have rocketed; there are now more than 45,000 applications awaiting a final decision.
However, none of this has stopped Boris Johnson and his advisers from deploying asylum seekers as pawns in the culture war, pawns who, they believe, will help stem their falling ratings driven by the government’s Covid-19 incompetence. Hence their attacks on “activist lawyers” who are just doing their job in providing legal representation to asylum seekers against a Home Office whose willingness to trample on human rights was left utterly exposed by the Windrush scandal; hence also the briefing that Downing Street is seeking to “radically beef up the hostile environment”, despite the fact that aspects of it have actually been ruled racially discriminatory by the high court.
Along with attacks on the BBC, accusations that universities “no platform” speakers, despite no evidence they are doing so, and the picking of fights with anti-racism and environmental protesters, those people fleeing war zones and despots are considered fair game in the search for cultural dog whistles to distract voters from this government’s incompetence. It is squalid in the extreme.