UK-Rwanda asylum deal: What does a fair immigration system look like?
Perhaps the most striking thing about Britain’s immigration system is that it works for no one. It is deeply painful and cruel for those having to interact with it, expensive to the taxpayers funding it, and damaging to the UK’s reputation.
Even on the stringent, incoherent terms set by the UK government itself, current policy is failing miserably to achieve its aims. After all, channel boat crossings trebled year on year from 2020 to 2021 - from 8,417 to 28,381 according to the Home Office’s own statistics - and continue to rise in 2022.
The current system can be accurately described as a mosaic of policies cobbled together to satisfy the appetites of a voter base whose fear of migrants stems from government rhetoric itself.
The narrative of the single young male (and predominantly brown) economic migrant, and the 'crisis' of small boats arriving on UK shores, have created a closed-loop of manufactured panic among white working-class voters - sentiment that has been reflected in increasingly repressive policies designed to quell such panic.
"Border policies have always caused a degree of difficulty and pain to those who come up against them and are, by nature, exclusionary - but what does a just, safe border regime mean in reality"
Most recently, the plan to deport asylum seekers, predominantly targeted at young males, who arrive in the UK by irregular means to Rwanda for 'processing' has triggered outrage among the public, where many believe that the deal represents a culmination of everything that is broken with the British immigration system.
Human rights groups and activists across the spectrum have slammed the initiative as inhumane and impractical.
"People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing," said UNHCR in response to the UK government’s plans.
But global examples of what sound, humane, and sustainable immigration systems actually look like in practice are thin on the ground.
Border policies have always caused a degree of difficulty and pain to those who come up against them and are, by nature, exclusionary - but what does a just, safe border regime mean in reality? Is it possible, and how do we make one that works?
Legal routes and reception mechanisms
“If the British government is serious about taking action to prevent people from making dangerous journeys with the risk of drowning, then it must open up safe and legal migration channels,” said Heaven Crawley, professor of international migration and head of Equitable Development and Migration at the UN University.
“Simply putting up more and more barriers to stop people will not work. Buying fencing, CCTV, and infrared detection technology or sending boats into the Channel to intercept desperate people does absolutely nothing to address these issues,” she continued.
Experts agree that in practice, draconian policies - such as the UK-Rwanda scheme - are largely ineffective at creating a deterrent to migrants in desperately unsafe situations with limited scopes of choice.
Instead, rights groups and researchers agree that the only viable path ahead is the construction of routes that put people smugglers out of business and stop migrants from dying at sea.
“Legal and safe pathways for those seeking protection should be increased,” agreed Elena Bizzi, a migration researcher at EuroMed Rights.
According to Bizzi, states across Europe need “to increase and facilitate access to regularisation procedures” for migrants searching for stability in a new country.
“The recent proposal of the European Commission on legal migration is a positive example of increasing migration pathways for work, facilitating access to long-term residence permits, family reunification and intra-EU mobility,” she said.
“It is time for the policy approach to change to reflect the realities of what researchers, and the Home Office, know to be true,” added Crawley.
As a foundational step, a sustainable UK asylum regime would therefore need to recognise that deterrent policies don’t work and instead invest in ensuring that migrants can contribute to society once they arrive safely.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the UK Home Office on Thursday to decry the government’s new policy of shipping asylum seekers to Rwanda.— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) April 15, 2022
The New Arab went to speak to some of the protesters 👇https://t.co/2aYHbmPVyP
Reclaiming economic migration
“70% of individuals on small boats are single men who are effectively economic migrants,” was the refrain of home secretary Priti Patel to Parliament late last year.
Whether the statement is true or not, the 'good refugee' fleeing war and the 'bad economic migrant' demonised for seeking a better life has been a false binary at the heart of the UK’s increasingly hostile rhetoric for many years.
“Why do I have to be a victim to deserve to be here?” said a migrant currently detained by the Home Office, speaking to The New Arab on condition of anonymity.
“Even if I am released, I still won’t be allowed to work. It’s incredibly frustrating,” the migrant continued.
"Many of the keys to building a fair immigration system - or even just a functioning one - lie in the basic provision of welfare and safe housing to all, not just migrants"
Unfortunately, the case for migration as an economic benefit, both to migrants and host nations, is one that politicians rarely risk their skin to make even though extensive studies have shown that in purely economic terms, European countries that welcome new arrivals see demonstrable gains within five years.
But any sustainable immigration system which is to prove electorally successful will have the unwelcome task of undoing years of anti-migrant messaging and convincing the British public that increased migration is in everyone’s economic interest.
Ending migration detention in the UK would mark a paradigm shift in how migrants are treated upon arriving on British shores.
Currently, the UK remains the only country in Europe to lock up migrants with no fixed release dates. Detainees have repeatedly reported neglect and mistreatment leading to deteriorating mental health conditions inside centres across the country.
“The Home Office process to identify and release highly vulnerable people in immigration detention is totally and utterly flawed,” says UK campaign group Medical Justice.
“The British Medical Association believes that the use of detention should be phased out; Medical Justice agrees. The only way to eradicate endemic healthcare failures in immigration detention is to end immigration detention,” said the group.
During the pandemic, the government showed that wholesale release from detention centres was possible. In May 2020, the Home Office released nearly 1,000 detainees after a legal challenge by advocacy group Detention Action proved that their conditions presented a high and unnecessary health risk.
"The key factor in responding rapidly to meet the needs of sudden, mass movements across Europe has been political leadership with the courage to change public opinion and not be held hostage by it"
Filling the welfare gaps
Many of the keys to building a fair immigration system - or even just a functioning one - lie in the basic provision of welfare and safe housing to all, not just migrants.
In the UK, much has been made of local councils housing asylum seekers in hotels while their claims are processed. It has been a potent image for right-wing politicians, keen to make hay from the depiction of migrants as a drain on scarce resources.
And voters are rightly outraged. Housing vulnerable individuals and families together in often unfit dwellings has been costly and ineffective.
But the use of hotels to cover a range of social housing needs is a direct result of debilitating budget cuts by successive governments, and the wholesale sell-offs of vital council properties over decades, leaving local authorities with crippling bills and little choice.
As austerity still pervades the logic of UK governance and hollows out basic state provisions, migrants so often become the scapegoat.
And while this continues, a UK immigration system that provides just and fair treatment to all those seeking a better, more prosperous life - and appeals successfully to British citizens - will remain a theoretical prospect.
What has been made clear in the last few months, however, is that radical changes are always possible, as European states have provided safe passage and warm welcomes en masse to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.
The key factor in responding rapidly to meet the needs of sudden, mass movements across Europe has been political leadership with the courage to change public opinion and not be held hostage by it.
Austin Cooper is a freelance writer for The New Arab, specialising in Libyan politics and new migration trends.
Follow him on Twitter: @AustinPatrickC