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Criminalised and chastised: the brutal reality of seeking asylum in the UK ǀ View

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Since the 2016 EU referendum, the UK has become notorious for harbouring a contemptuous approach to immigration. In a 2018 briefing, the Migration Observatory found that British people held a ‘clear opposition’ to immigration, with 58% voting in favour of reducing the number of immigrants coming to the UK. In a 2017 sample of those surveyed online, the briefing found just 10% believed that ‘no Australians should be allowed to come and live in Britain’ - compared with 37% who felt that no Nigerians should be allowed.

This preference for one ‘type’ of migrant over another alludes to an unnerving truth. In favouring migrants with a ‘cultural likeness’ - typically white, English-speaking and from European and/or Christian countries – it is those at the opposite end of the scale – namely non-white and from Muslim countries – who are left to bear the brunt of such hostility.

It’s no surprise that a country ranked one of the worst destinations across Western Europe for those seeking asylum exudes such xenophobic ideology. One crucial component spurring the nation’s disdain towards immigration is the continuous depiction of migrants, and particularly those seeking asylum, as criminals.

Just last month, discussions were underway between the new UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and the Minister of the Interior for France, Christophe Castaner, regarding what more could be done to deter migrants from making the treacherous journey across the Channel. It was reported that the UK would consider increasing financial support in a joint effort with France to ‘tackle’ boat crossings.

Patel’s antagonistic rhetoric neglects to acknowledge that seeking asylum is a right enshrined within international law. Yet it has historically been presented to the public as an invasion which leaves citizens at risk. Aided by the media's portrayal of ‘illegal immigrants’ sweeping the nation, the truth is both silenced and clouded by an explosive politics of fear.

Those seeking asylum are not entering the country ‘illegally’ when they arrive at the UK border. This is, in fact, an essential part of the process. To claim asylum in Britain, you must do so once you have arrived to the UK. This leaves those desperately fleeing war, violence or persecution attempting to reach the country by any means possible. The very fact that they would risk their lives in the process should speak volumes.

Punitive policy

The entire process of claiming asylum in the UK acts as a maze to those attempting to navigate it; a bureaucratic one-way trap that often allows for an exit only – no entrance. After making a journey that often promises critical conditions, those arriving to seek asylum in the UK are greeted with a system set on inhibiting them.

From Theresa May’s hideous hostile environment policy in 2012 to the ‘Deport first, appeal later’ strategy introduced in 2014 (and later deemed unlawful), the government has consistently championed immigration policies which inevitably sway public opinion and stigmatise those seeking asylum. Innate to the concept of the ‘hostile environment’ policy was its desire to deter migrants through creating an unwelcoming environment, hoping to encourage many to return to their countries of origin. This, in itself, incriminates migrants, conveying them as something to be rid of; a social ill; encouraging segregation.

Detention

The UK’s readiness to detain even the most vulnerable of asylum seekers is of great concern to thousands of campaigners and activists who have urged for an end to indefinite detention for years. A parliamentary report found that in 2018, 61% of those in detention centres across the UK were asylum seekers. The harrowing conditions of detention have been compared to that of prison – or worse – with many left isolated, subject to both physical and mental abuse. Perhaps most abysmally, with no time limit provided on how long they will spend there; 12% of detainees are held for periods of 6 months or more. The UK is in fact the only country across Europe which allows for indefinite detention.

Evictions and interceptions

In September, UK news publications reported the mass eviction of displaced people from makeshift refugee camps in Calais, France. Unsurprisingly, the primary focus was the ‘imminent’ concern that these asylum seekers would swamp the UK border as a result of being evicted. Considered a ‘major incident’ by the Home Office, plans are underway to intercept boats travelling through the Channel. And yet, last on the agenda to be held responsible for this second-wave ‘Calais crisis’ is the asylum process itself and its disregard of asylum seekers as humans; as individuals who have a legal right to access safety.

What ought to be addressed are the inhumane border policies and measures - those the UK helps to fund - leaving asylum seekers with no choice but to attempt hazardous crossings to the UK. Instead, the prime minister issued insensitive and inaccurate statements maintaining that any individuals making such a journey will be ‘sent back’.

The choice to criminalise

The exhausted political slogan and promise to ‘reduce net migration numbers’ treats migration as a disease on the decline; one the government is, slowly but surely, remedying. This constant criminalisation is a deliberate, calculated choice. The poor and widely contested claim that increased migration will lead to a further drain on the UK economy simply is not true. So far, despite the country’s supposed financial pressures, the government has managed to locate millions of pounds to contribute to security measures including the notorious ‘Great Wall of Calais’ to prevent asylum seekers from reaching the UK border.

This is not to mention that holding just one person in detention costs the government £87.71 per day. Considering more than half of those detained in 2018 were simply released again, it undeniably suggests that, for the majority of detainees, detention is entirely unnecessary. Yet the government would rather splash cash on holding those seeking asylum as prisoners as opposed to aiding with their transition into society.

The irony is that post-Brexit, the UK will likely see a spike in the number of individuals seeking asylum. Britain’s departure from the EU means it can no longer take advantage of the ‘Dublin Regulation’ which allows the Home Office to return asylum cases to countries it deems responsible. It is therefore essential that the government rapidly re-evaluates its priorities; evidently, spending millions on callous measures to prevent asylum claims in the UK is failing. This money could – and should – be dedicated to helping those who simply want the opportunity to live a secure and stable life. We must not turn a blind eye to those simply exercising their right to refuge.

  • Holly Barrow is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of UK immigration lawyers providing free advice and legal support to asylum seekers and victims of abuse

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