For the last three years the debate on migrant rights has been revolved around Brexit. But while arguments continue about EU nationals and their status in Britain, serious analysis of Britain’s broader approach to migration–particularly refugees–and how government policy has shaped a narrative of xenophobia has too often been neglected.
Grassroots campaigns have focused on the worst excesses of Britain’s approach to migration: whether highlighting systematic abuse at Yarl’s Wood, the scandal of indefinite detention, or the often-brutal process of deportations raised by the Windrush scandal and the Stansted 15. Each of these have argued for better treatment of migrants and refugees, and have in their own way tackled aspects of the government’s hostile environment policy. The activists behind them should be commended.
But, to date, a fundamental aspect of Britain’s approach to migration has passed without great public scrutiny: the criminalisation of migrants. Why do we, as a country, automatically detain people who flee to Britain seeking protection, if not on the suspicion that they mean to cause us harm? Britain’s global reputation for upholding human rights leads many to seek refuge here, only to find a very different reality when they arrive.
The scale of this systematic criminalisation cannot be understated. In 2015 alone the British government detained 32,500 migrant and refugee asylum seekers, in comparison to just 3,500 in Sweden, a country which has processed far more asylum requests despite their smaller size and comparatively fewer resources. More than 55% of those held in Britain’s detention system end up with permanent leave to remain, but they face years of detention, poverty and appalling conditions first. This is the misery our current system forces onto those we later deem to have legitimate claims to be fleeing war and persecution.
This detention estate cost £108million in the year 2017-18. Evidence suggests community-based alternatives, like those trialled in Austria, could be up to ten times cheaper. So the question is, why are we paying exorbitant amounts to criminalise those that desperately need protection and want to play an active role in our civic and national life?
The costs of detention are not only financial. There are huge social costs associated with criminalisation. From viral videos of Syrian refugee pupils abused in the playground to a rise in hate crime in recent years, we are already paying the price for discord sowed by xenophobic narratives. Deep frustrations at social injustice are being turned into fear of ‘the other’ by these kinds of racist politics, and could further damage our public life in the wake of the EU elections.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Our country’s history is rich with the positive contribution made by migrant communities. Whether that’s the Irish community who moved to Britain during the industrial revolution, commonwealth migrants who came in the wake of the second world war, EU migrants in the last two decades or the cultural contribution made by migrants to our sports, art and music – our nation is at its best when its multicultural population can contribute to the full.
Changing our migration system away from detention to a community-based approach could make those contributions possible. It would bring back dignity to many thousands of migrants on our shores, and help turn the tide against xenophobia. For too long, politicians from all parties have succumbed to pressure to appease those who propagate negative views of migrants who contribute so much to our communities, and promote the idea that people who come here in need of asylum are something to be feared.
Labour members know that every human being is equal in their right to safety, respect, dignity and equality under the law. That’s why our campaign organisation, Labour Against Racism And Fascism, is calling on the Labour Party Conference to commit to ending the ‘Migrant Detention Estate’ in Britain. It’s time we fought back against criminalisation and created a system for migrants to thrive in this country.