Britain Doesn’t Have a Refugee Crisis, So It Created One

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have unnecessarily warehoused and endangered thousands of asylum-seekers in an effort to pander to the right-wing press.

Migrants in a dinghy navigate in the English Channel toward the south coast of England after crossing from France, on Sept. 1, 2020.
Migrants in a dinghy navigate in the English Channel toward the south coast of England after crossing from France, on Sept. 1, 2020. GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian thriller Children of Men depicts a jingoistic government locking up migrants in crumbling internment camps along forlorn stretches of the English coast. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel appear to have watched the film—and consider it worthy of emulation.

Faced with a modest trickle of rickety boats washing up on British shores in the months before Brexit and since, Britain’s government has begun to stoke an ugly culture war by linking asylum with danger and chaos. For a country that seeks to rebrand itself post-Brexit as an outward-looking champion of the rules-based international order, and a prime minister who seeks to distance himself from the recently unseated U.S. president and his xenophobia, it is a parochial and authoritarian turn.

Last September, following a devastating fire that destroyed Europe’s largest refugee camp in Greece, European leaders began to debate the wisdom of detaining asylum-seekers at squalid ex-military sites. That month, Britain opened its first refugee camp—in squalid, old barracks—and soon that was on fire, too. The blaze at the end of January came after more than a hundred people—a quarter of the population inside—had tested positive for COVID-19. Chris Philp, an immigration minister, blamed the outbreak on the inmates’ refusal to self-isolate or follow social distancing despite claims by residents that the cramped confines did not allow for this and had effectively incubated the virus.

In 2020, more than 8,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Britain by crossing the English Channel in flimsy boats mainly from France, compared with around 300 in 2018. Hiding in vehicles on board ferries or trains had become more difficult as the pandemic reduced travel, so the smuggling networks redirected the migrants to the water. Although this did not mean a rise in the number of average arrivals, the cinematic quality of seaborne migrants approaching the white cliffs of Dover provided ideal fodder for government-fomented hysteria. Broadcasters attempted to conduct live interviews with asylum-seekers adrift in the channel.

In 2020, more than 8,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Britain by crossing the English Channel, compared with around 300 in 2018.

An ex-Royal Marine was appointed to the preposterously named position of clandestine channel threat commander. But the discourse became more menacing; newspapers reported that the Home Office had discussed deploying naval vessels to the channel, employing wave machines to buffet migrant boats away from British waters, or shipping them to remote outposts in the South Atlantic.

Throughout much of 2020, migrants apprehended after crossing the channel were often temporarily accommodated in hotels, providing a humane solution for the arrivals and a financial lifeline to the pandemic-hit hospitality sector. This soon attracted the attention of Brexit figurehead Nigel Farage and assorted far-right YouTubers who began to descend on the hotels, stalking the corridors, intimidating the residents, and crying foul about the so-called luxury afforded to them.

Not long after this had percolated into the mainstream right-wing press, a former dilapidated barracks at Napier in the southeastern port town of Folkestone was unveiled as a new place to house asylum-seekers, as well as another one in Wales. In a short span of time, they have become the sites of protests, hunger strikes, and suicide attempts. In early February, leaked Home Office documents revealed that more “generous” accommodation would “undermine public confidence in the asylum system,” a further indication that the national asylum strategy is not fair or evidence-led but punitive and designed to kowtow to extremists and bloodthirsty headlines.

Police are treating the January fire as suspected arson, and one man has been charged with assault and criminal damage. From the beginning, many inside complained of poor sanitation and impeded access to health care and legal services. Patel said it was insulting to criticize a facility that had previously housed Britain’s “brave soldiers” and, in doing so, inadvertently highlighted how thousands of service members do indeed live in substandard accommodation like Napier.

Patel—whose parents came to Britain fleeing persecution in Uganda in the 1960s—also decried the fire as “deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country.” Arguably more offensive is the long history of British governments spending vast sums of money outsourcing asylum-seeker accommodation to glorified slum landlords. The firm that oversees the Napier barracks, Clearsprings, has a record of subcontracting rat-infested hovels. In 2016, at another decrepit facility, it forced residents to wear red armbands in exchange for receiving food. It is difficult to justify entrusting the well-being of victims of war, persecution, and trafficking to these kinds of villains unless the point is to deliberately make people’s lives miserable as a public relations strategy.

Under the previous government of Theresa May, making immigrants’ lives harder was precisely the policy, and it had a name—hostile environment—which culminated in the wrongful detention, and sometimes deportation, of hundreds of black Britons, whose citizenship and legal residency the government suddenly refused to recognize. There is little sign that the Johnson administration has learned from this episode, despite it being revealed and documented in painstaking detail by the prime minister’s own sister-in-law, the journalist Amelia Gentleman.

During the Brexit campaign, Britons were told that leaving the European Union would allow the country to “take back control” of immigration. The grim sideshow at the barracks masks a policy failure stemming from a loss of control. Until the Brexit transition phase ended on Dec. 31, 2020, the U.K. was able to avail itself of the EU’s Dublin mechanism, which allows governments to send asylum-seekers back to the member state where they were originally registered (a grossly unfair system for the beleaguered Mediterranean countries where the majority inevitably enter).

There is an EU-wide fingerprint database that authorities can consult to see if a migrant was previously registered anywhere in the bloc, to which to U.K. no longer has access. Sensing it was losing a highly convenient EU law in the run-up to the Brexit deadline, the Home Office indulged in a spree of Dublin returns, which it publicized alongside the deportations of foreign offenders, another transparent attempt to further associate asylum with criminality.

Though it is often asserted, there is no obligation under international law for asylum-seekers to stop in the first supposedly safe country they reach. In addition, though manifestly not war zones or dictatorships, some countries in the EU operate such dysfunctional asylum systems that the option of secure legal status and dignified treatment is barely afforded. Some member states also are unsafe: Croatia tortures migrants. Greece pushes them out to sea. Hungary rounds them up for illegal deportations. If every country tries to outsource the problem, asylum-seekers will be booted all the way back to their original oppressors.

If every country tries to outsource the problem, asylum-seekers will be booted all the way back to their original oppressors.

A majority of those crossing the English Channel come from troubled places like Iran, Iraq, and Eritrea. There are also those who may not have such strong cases for asylum yet worryingly Britain now seeks to deny them even access to a fair hearing. Shorn of the power to ping-pong unwanted migrants back to the EU, London is forced to arrange case-by-case deportations or establish bilateral arrangements with any country willing to accept them. But these are lengthy and costly agreements to make, and there is no sign that any have been.

In the meantime, according to Home Office guidance, if there is “no reasonable prospect of removal within a reasonable timescale,” then asylum claims must be heard. Given the inevitability of delay, there is a real prospect that a great number of people will spend time in pointless limbo before being given legal status to stay anyway. For this, Britain already operates a vast and expensive network of privatized immigration detention centers; it is the only country in Europe to detain migrants without a time limit.

The choice of the Napier barracks is nothing but crude security theater, reinforcing far-right messaging that asylum-seekers are security threats who need to be behind barbed wire. As various studies have shown, maintaining draconian measures and degrading conditions fails as a deterrent. Inhumane policies barely influence asylum-seekers’ choice of destination; they merely inflict further suffering when they arrive.

But the Johnson government seems to relish the confrontation with civil society and the poisonous atmosphere it is engineering. In September, Patel’s Trumpian denunciations of “activist lawyers” attempting to “frustrate” deportations preceded an attack on an immigration law firm in London by a knife-wielding man carrying far-right literature. Volunteer groups working in the barracks have reportedly been asked to sign the Official Secrets Act to prevent them from publicizing the grim conditions inside, and a journalist was arrested at his home and his equipment confiscated for covering a minor protest at the camp gates.

In its rush to create a spectacle, the Home Office ignored public health officials who deemed the site unsuitable and has now been forced to concede that a High Court case can be brought against it on the grounds that the conditions could constitute a breach of human rights. Earlier this month, most of the residents of the barracks were spirited out on the eve of visit by independent immigration and prisons inspectors. There are reports that many have been transferred to hotels—more proof that the whole affair was a grotesque and unnecessary publicity stunt from the beginning.

There is no refugee crisis in Britain; in the year ending June 2020, the country received some 32,000 asylum applications, while countries like France and Germany typically receive triple or quadruple that number. Though it does resettle modest amounts of refugees (but hasn’t for a while), it insists on doing so from regions bordering conflict zones and not from those who have supposedly “jumped the queue” and are already in Europe, erroneously arguing that it acts as a pull factor. It shouldn’t be a binary decision; one can do both.

Punishing the victims of dictatorship and poverty is a strange look for a post-Brexit “global Britain” striding out onto the world stage. As it chairs the U.N. Security Council and hosts the G-7 later this year, what kind of moral authority will it have to call out wrongdoers as it continues to erode asylum protections, endanger lawyers, and warehouse refugees in the middle of a pandemic?

Andrew Connelly is a journalist covering migration, politics, and human rights. Twitter: @connellyandrew