On one thing, Suella Braverman is right. The system is broken. But about almost everything else, she is grievously wrong, especially about the reasons for it being so. The cause of the brokenness is not a surge of migrants and asylum seekers, still less an “invasion”, but the result of a policy that, both deliberately and accidentally, has turned a manageable situation into a crisis.
For all the recent hysteria, the number of asylum seekers coming to Britain is far fewer than in the relatively recent past. Unquestionably, the numbers crossing the Channel in small boats have increased dramatically – from 299 in 2018 to possibly 50,000 this year. But a rise in the visibility of asylum seekers is not the same as a rise in numbers. People cross in small boats because other routes – by the Channel tunnel, by ferries or by air – have been sealed off. We know from experience that when one route is closed, migrants and asylum seekers seek out other, often more dangerous, paths.
Even given the surge in people using this one route, the overall numbers remain relatively low. According to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, 103,081 people claimed asylum in 2002; barely half – 56,495 – did so last year. (A parliamentary briefing gives slightly lower figures for both years, but reveals the same trend.)
What has changed is the backlog of unprocessed asylum applications. Until around 2012, the gap between asylum claims and the numbers awaiting a decision was relatively small. From around 2012, that gap started rising and especially so since 2018. At the end of 2010, there were 5,978 cases awaiting an initial decision; by the end of 2018, 27,256; and by the second quarter of this year, nearly 100,000. Over the past decade the backlog has risen some 15 times as fast as numbers claiming asylum.
Partly, it’s a question of resources. The number of officials making these decisions has fallen hugely since 2016. In 2014, almost 80% of applications were decided within six months. Today, it is less than 10%.
It is also a matter of policy. Central to British immigration policy is, as for most western nations, the strategy of deterrence, of making life as difficult as possible for irregular migrants to discourage them from embarking on their journeys. From one perspective, the huge backlog in processing claims and the overcrowding and awful conditions in detention camps are a failure of policy. From another perspective, though, they are means of deterring more asylum seekers. It’s the kind of perspective that gave us the “hostile environment”. It’s what underlies Home Office minister Chris Philp’s claim that it was a “bit of cheek” for asylum seekers to complain about conditions.
Far from “smashing the business model” of people smugglers, as often claimed, such policies create new business opportunities for them. They also create openings for people traffickers and criminal gangs, as has become apparent in the Channel.
They ensure, too, that when one policy fails, the authorities feel compelled to impose something even more inhumane. It’s what has led to the Rwanda scheme. Even 10 years ago, the idea that Britain should exploit its economic heft to get rid of people it considers unwanted – by deporting en masse asylum seekers before their cases have been heard to a much poorer country in return for cash – would have been deemed immoral by most people. Now, not only is it government policy, but even leading academics are encouraging the Tories to “raise deterrence with more Rwanda-style deals” and to ramp up the culture wars, which would “not [be] pretty” but is politically necessary.
Language that once was confined to the far right is now casually exploited by mainstream conservatives. It’s not just talk of “invasion”; rightwing commentators routinely lament “white decline” and “the Great Replacement”.
The ratcheting up of rhetoric and policy both dehumanises asylum seekers and encourages hostility towards them. British public attitudes on immigration have grown increasingly liberal over the past decade, but also more polarised; the firebombing of an immigration reception centre in Kent is a warning of the dangers of nurturing such hostility.
Nor does tough rhetoric necessarily lead to political gains. It may help shore up the Tory right and win back some lost votes, but it also creates expectations that cannot be met. In 2019, the then home secretary, Priti Patel, promised to eliminate Channel migrant crossings by the following spring. Braverman is now making the same promise. She will no more succeed than Patel did. Failure will only encourage cynicism and provide fuel for the far right.
What to do about it? First, there can only be solutions to real problems, not made-up ones, such as a supposed mass invasion. Second, to know what to do, we also have to know what not to do. The red lines should be clear: don’t demonise, dehumanise or pursue unconscionable policies such the Rwanda mass deportation scheme.
Third, there need to be proper legal routes for asylum seekers. Currently, people can only apply for asylum when on British soil. But they can only get to Britain with a valid visa. And there is no “asylum visa”. Which means that it is almost impossible to claim asylum without using irregular means to enter Britain. It’s a Catch-22 situation that the government, and apologists for its immigration policy, pretends does not exist.
Beyond creating legal routes, there also needs to be decent resourcing of the asylum claims process to reduce the artificially created backlog. Allowing asylum seekers to work, making their lives more fulfilling while reducing their reliance on the state, would also be a welcome change.
Finally, we need to recognise that there is no perfect solution. The moment anyone suggests opening up legal routes, or questions the policy of deterrence, or challenges the morality of the Rwandan deportation scheme, critics shout “open borders”. It’s as if any liberalisation of policy amounts to an “open border”. The fantasy desire for a perfectly sealed border is part of the problem. The fact is, a more liberal policy is not just more humane, it is also more realistic.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist
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