Originally published in Shout Out UK.
Over a thousand asylum seekers have crossed the Channel from Northern France to British soil since November 2018 … or, at least, this is what our Home Secretary would have us believe. According to Sajid Javid’s most recent pronouncements, the landing of 239 asylum seekers on UK territory between November and January warrants a ‘crisis’ level political response. This is no doubt part of his increasingly self-delusional efforts to assume leadership of the Conservative Party — we should ignore him completely.
Sea-borne Channel crossings have increased in very recent years: our Home Secretary is not wrong about that. Increased border security at Channel ports has made lorry-smuggling more difficult, while the dismantling of the Calais refugee camp in 2016 by French authorities has been followed by an increasingly bureaucratic French asylum-seeking procedure. Amidst tales of French police brutality and the perceived absence of a feasible alternative — which is becoming more acute in the run-up to the UK’s EU withdrawal on March 29 — handfuls of predominantly Iranian, Afghan, Iraqi Kurdish and Eritrean asylum seekers are resorting to making the precarious Channel crossing by boat.
However, it’s worth noting that the Home Secretary’s perspective is painfully limited and misleading — these figures, for example, are nothing on the numbers we’ve witnessed historically. Rather, the ‘Channel Migrant Crisis’ is a warped manifestation of a seriously flawed UK migration policy: a final maturation of the increasing criminalisation of asylum our nation has witnessed over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
This is a tradition that began with the Aliens Act of 1905 — and its full offering of migration control powers over to the Home Secretary. It is a tradition that then rallied behind the expatriation of Jewish refugees despite Hitler’s assumption of power in the 1930s, and blatantly discarded Commonwealth Migrants automatic citizenship rights in the 1970s by conveniently forgetting the British record of brutal colonisation overseas. It is also one that has consistently turned a blind eye to the horrific conditions of asylum seekers in detention centres nationwide, as well as violations of their basic human rights. More than anything, this is a tradition that has become legitimised and indeed expected in the aftermath of 9/11 and now Brexit.
Even on a short-term political timescale, the number of recent crossings is far smaller in holistic terms than the numbers of migrants attempting to enter the UK between 2015 and 2016 as stowaways. It is also negligible when compared with the number of refugees crossing the Channel by dinghy on a yearly basis. The Government’s annual immigration publication states that in the year ending June 2018 the UK issued only 14,308 grants of asylum. This figure is down 12 per cent compared with the previous year.
Furthermore, Javid’s suggestion that this specific wave of crossings is being perpetuated not by ‘genuine’ asylum seekers but ‘illegal economic migrants’ is unnecessarily dehumanising. It turns oppression into a subjective matter that can be dismissed at will. His comments are dangerous: if asylum seekers can be so frivolously reconceptualised as ‘illegal migrants’ without any due procedure — what’s to say the Government’s conceptualisation of mental health, domestic abuse and hate crime victims won’t also suddenly change when it seems politically convenient?
Media coverage isn’t helping the situation either. A string of BBC News headlines have simply reiterated Government press releases without nuance; placing titles like ‘Five migrant boats rescued in English Channel‘; ‘Major incident declared over migrant boats’; ‘Two held over English Channel migrant crossings’; and ‘Royal Navy sent ‘to prevent migrant crossings’ in Channel’ alongside emotionally stimulating images of boat crossings over the Christmas period. Instead of evoking pity, this coverage has had an expectedly paradoxical effect. The boats harbouring ‘migrants’ — and never asylum seekers — have become potent symbols of lax border control and an apparent dearth of British patriotism among politicians. They are cannon fodder for the far-right.
Katie Hopkins, for example, in a ruthless Twitter video that has amassed over 500k views, recently brandished the Government’s asylum-seeking policy as overly generous, suggesting that the UK Government ‘advertises’ a collection of cushy provisions for refugees that draw such individuals away from ‘safe countries like France’. Hers is an inaccurate sentiment, irresponsibly and reprehensibly fostered by Javid. Though provided with shelter and a tiny cash allowance to pay for food and toiletries (which is totally acceptable and an essential basic human right), asylum seekers housed on the Government’s dispersal scheme end up in cheap, sub-standard accommodation in the counties which can least afford it. More asylum seekers are housed in Stoke than the entire South East, excluding London. Their situation is anything but enviable, both here and in France. And what’s more — affluent Southerners like Javid and Hopkins need not even interact with them. Their vitriol against asylum seekers is purely political and ideological.
Of course, national media outlets are occasionally including realistic portrayals of the so-called ‘Channel migrant crisis’ — only the caveats are usually located half-way down an article; buried among detailed recaps of Javid’s ridiculous rhetoric. ‘Channel migrants: UK and France to step up patrols’unfurled one BBC headline on the 30th of December. ‘The UK and France are to step up joint patrols and increase surveillance to tackle a rise in the number of migrants trying to reach Britain in small boats,’ read its opening paragraph. This suggests — again, misleadingly — that a recent migrant-spike justifies increased action.
But delve deep enough into the article, and another angle emerges, like some sort of Easter egg in a film: ‘Compared to the number of refugees seeking asylum in the UK every year, the number who have attempted to cross the Channel by dinghy is tiny’. In other words: the ‘Channel Migrant Crisis’ is a figment of Javid’s imagination; and a nasty attempt to turn desperate people into scapegoats and audiences into victims of Government manipulation. Next time he’s on a holiday in South Africa, he should do everyone a favour and just stay put.