Did you know that the rate of people seeking asylum in the UK is at a 10-year low?
Yes – your eyes are not deceiving you! There are fewer asylum seekers coming to the UK than there have been for the last 10 years. Calculated per head of population the average rate of asylum seekers in the whole of Europe is 3 times as great as the number coming to the UK. The UK ranks 17th out of 28 in the table of asylum seekers per country – from all sources and by all means.
You can be forgiven if this surprises you because even the much respected BBC trumpets the large numbers attempting to cross the channel without setting it in the context of the overall pattern.
Further, from the extraordinary (some might say ridiculous, objectionable and plainly stupid) ideas from a government brain(sic!)storm so widely publicised in all media in recent weeks you might think the problem had reached crisis point. You would be as wrong as the government if that is what you thought.
What is worrying is that every effort has been made to wind up ordinary people into thinking there is some kind of crisis. People who believe this are not bad people. They’re far from being all racists or on the far right. They’re just people who have (mis-)placed their trust in politicians and popular media
The point of this message so far is simply to bust a very unpleasant myth. Have the initial fact in mind when the issue of immigration and asylum seekers comes up in conversation.
The coronvirus epidemic has spread fear through many nations, including ours. Combined with this justifiable fear of the disease itself is the massive threat it is generating to many people’s livelihoods and to the economy as a whole. Many poorer people and those whose jobs are precarious (and they run into several millions and are often referred to collectively as “the precariat”) have suffered disproportionately from the crisis.
It is interesting to note how widely the blame game is spread as a direct impact of the fear. When we can’t find a way to overcome major societal challenges we next look for someone to blame for them. In the summer it was people who were confined to cramped housing who dared to try and have a day at the seaside. Then it became “those less educated people in northern cities” and more recently it has been “irresponsible students and young people who’ve gone to university for a good time”. Government has fed this trend when it is indisputably the responsibility of government to make its people safe. Diverting blame and responsibility is a time honoured set of tricks across the world and governments are past masters at it.
The Blame Game in History
Migrants and minorities have always been targets in the blame game. History is littered with examples – many of them monstrous in their scale and obscenity.
The most monstrous in recent history have been genocides fuelled by general economic hardship and acute political division. The Holocaust was only possible because of the massively punitive settlement at Versailles at the end of the First World War followed by over a decade of worldwide depression, but the mistakes of the Western governments at Versailles have never been owned up to as causes of the Holocaust. Much easier to heap all the blame on “those nasty Germans”.
There is no obvious reason to think that the hateful divisiveness that has characterised much of Western history so far this century will lead to anything that dreadful. However, the Covid-19 economic impact is going to be felt for a long time to come. It may be compounded in the UK by Brexit – especially if there is no deal. But as the planet burns at one time and is awash with mighty floods at another the impact of the global climate crisis and other likely environmental catastrophes will fuel the flames of blame, and at the same time spark much more pressing migration crises.
In the blame game – the global scapegoating surge – it is most common to blame people who are not so much like us. The Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia, Rohingya Muslims, UIgha Muslims and the division of the old India are a few examples of how this commonly works out. It was just the same in the early 17th century when thousands of women were horribly tortured and many burnt alive as so-called witches for no other reason that someone had spotted some small difference about them – they weren’t ‘us’.
The point is not that ordinary people are just queuing up to blame foreigners or immigrants or people of other faiths for their own misfortunes. It is that governments need people to blame for their own failings. None of the crises the world currently faces came from nowhere. They practically all come from bad decisions made by governments individually or collectively – aided and abetted by already rich and powerful people seeking to bolster their own wealth and power further. The latest travesty is to attack lawyers for correctly seeking the application of the law and supposed ‘do-gooders’ (who surely are more worth having than ‘do-badders’ by which I mean politicians attacking lawyers in extreme language that incites violence against them).
What we saw a few weeks ago was a splurge of silly ideas to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist. I write “really” because there is some kind of problem. But it’s a problem either made by government or magnified by government incompetence. It’s mainly the lethargy that infects the Home Office that causes backlogs and sloppy decision-making that makes it appear that the ‘problem’ is so much bigger than it is.
It’s true that more asylum seekers are attempting – and in good weather succeeding – in crossing the Channel in small boats. It’s true that many of them have put their lives in the hands of people smugglers. It’s true that this is very dangerous for the asylum seekers. But it’s not true that in trying to cross the Channel in a boat they are breaking the law. Everyone who experiences war, persecution, torture, acute hunger, even economic oppression, has an unassailable right to seek safety and relief from their suffering. This is enshrined in the United Nations and European Declarations of Human Rights. It is a right. By making themselves known to the authorities and claiming asylum as soon as they can they put themselves inside the law. Once someone claims asylum in a particular country their claim has to be fairly and transparently assessed and this is mainly a judicial matter.
People smuggling is not a right. Yet although we are treated to vast publicity about the asylum seekers themselves coming in boats we have yet to see much evidence of prosecution of people smugglers. The exceptions being those people caught with dozens of dead asylum seekers trapped in abandoned lorries already in the UK. (That didn’t take a lot of effort to detect.) It is the government’s responsibility not to prevent people from seeking asylum here, but to seek out and prosecute people smugglers – a task that seems totally to defeat government. (Is that perhaps because they are well-off people like us?)
Lack of System Wastes Asylum Seekers’ Lives
What also seems to defeat government is getting their own systems to work smoothly if at all. Countless asylum seekers are left high and dry for years for lack of any recognisable admin system. So for example – one local refugee was required to travel in person to Liverpool (an expensive and pointless requirement imposed on all adult asylum seekers submitting fresh claims or fresh evidence) to present his second claim in July 2018. He had already been waiting for his claim to be processed for several years. Two years and 3 months later his case has still not been assigned to a Home Office caseworker – in spite of repeated enquiries both by his solicitors and his local MP.
Another young man has recently had his asylum claim accepted via a ruling by an Appeal Tribunal Judge after being in the country for 10 years. His case has cost many thousands – possibly hundreds of thousands – of pounds in legal aid and other legal costs. He had previously – in early March 2020 – been granted the right to remain under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. He should have then received a Biometric Residence Permit confirming his right to work etc. 8 months later this simple administrative task – issuing a standard permit using a simple template – has not been carried out.
These two cases – of which there are thousands more – indicate a clear source of the chaos and incompetence around asylum seekers and their rights, namely the Home Office itself and the UK Visas and Immigration Department. The most pressing need in this field is for the Home Office to get its own house in order. This means administering the rights of asylum seekers promptly and efficiently so that they can make the contribution to our society that they long to make. The government needs to conduct the investigations into people smuggling; investigations that constitute no more nor less than standard good policing. The government needs to start to punish the criminals instead of lining up innocent asylum seekers pursuing their human rights under international law for blame and scapegoating for the consequences of the government’s own incompetence – or worse their primitive hosility towards people whose only crime is that their lives are so much less comforatble than ours.
Fear = Votes
A more cynical view of what is happening is that by stirring up fear of ‘the other’ (migrants) governments garner the votes of the fearful they need to gain or strengthen their hold on political power – often for its own sake. At one time we had the Europeans to blame (and still have to a residual degree), but like the poor, migrants “are always with us”. Even if this is the case it is not good enough to wring our hands and complain. We are almost certainly leaving Europe and treating refugees inhumanly because the ‘liberal elite’ has locked itself into an echo chamber where we no longer listen to and help unravel the fears of what I have refered to as the precariat. Too often we fall into the same trap and see other people as ‘not like us’ when we should be seeking ways to understand and help them, and at least to listen properly to their fears. We can’t change the world from the inside of an echo chamber.
Finally, getting into a boat and crossing the English Channel is not illegal. But returning asylum seekers to places they have come from is illegal under international law. If one sailed a private boat from France to the south coast of England it would only become illegal if we failed to register our presence with the appropriate authorities once we landed. There is such a thing as an illegal immigrant but it’s not about how they get here. It’s about what happens after that. Stay secret and you are illegal. You are also technically illegal if your claim to asylum is comprehensively rejected, but that is a long and complex process with all the essential safeguards such as right to appeal etc. Only when all appeal rights are exhausted and no fresh claim or fresh evidence can be produced, might an asylum seeker become illegal.
But i’s not even clearly illegal if an asylum seeker stays here without a fresh claim or fresh evidence after all appeal rights are exhausted. Sometimes there is sufficent doubt about safety in the place to which they might be deported that the Home Office itself allows the matter of return to be left in abeyance. (In this instance, the migrant is unable to work or access state benefits or healthcare and is forced to become desititute …or find illegal work). It is not illegal to wait for the Home Office to implement its own decisions.
The asylum system is a long way from being “fundamentally broken”, as the Home Secretary would have people believe. It is that the mechanisms for making it work have corroded through neglect and incompetence – which may well suit politicians whose main game is to stoke fear and wrongly apportion blame on others.
By Roger Pask
Photo credit: Marsham Street (The Home Office), Westminster, London (2000–5) by Terry Farrell and Partners