How immigration became a flagship UK general election issue... again

How immigration became a flagship UK general election issue... again
Rights groups say refugees have been scapegoated by the UK government for years, and are at the core of key parties' manifestos this general election.
6 min read
21 June, 2024
Refugee charities have campaigned for more legal routes to enter the UK so people are not forced to make the dangerous sea crossing [Credit: Getty/ Illustration: Lucie Wimtez/The New Arab]]

Earlier this week, a new record was marked when 882 people arrived to the UK’s shores by small boats across the English Channel - it was the highest number in a single day so far this year.

The people arriving - refugees and asylum seekers commonly fleeing war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa - come amid a heated general election campaign that has seen immigration once again become a hot topic in the political arena.

There are less than two weeks to go before the 4 July poll that the opposition Labour Party led by Sir Keir Starmer is widely expected to win, and leave in its wake a crushed Conservative Party after their 14 years in power.

While the British public worries about the cost-of-living crisis and the ever squeezed National Health Service (NHS), politicians and much of the right-wing media have turned this year's vote into "the immigration election".

The Stop the Boats campaign to curb "illegal migration" was launched by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak over a year ago and it remains a key manifesto policy for both the Conservatives and centre-left Labour.

Migrants scapegoated

Migrants have long been scapegoated and vilified by the British right for years, with the recent rise in small boats crossing the English Channel described as an "invasion" and refugees blamed for domestic woes such as housing shortages and long hospital waiting lists.

It has echoes of the rhetoric among populist parties in Europe who blame migrants for domestic issues.

The issue of immigration came to a head in this year's election campaign when Nigel Farage made it the core issue of his hard-right Reform UK, previously known as the Brexit Party.

The Eurosceptic political firebrand said his party, which is hoping to steal disillusioned voters from the Tories, would "freeze" non-essential immigration to the UK.

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He was recently accused of 'race-baiting' after he claimed that a "growing number" of Muslims in the UK don't subscribe to "British values".

'Stop the Boats'

The 'Stop the Boats' campaign was launched by the Tories in 2023 and vowed to detain and deport asylum seekers who enter the country via small boats on the shores of Kent in southeast England.

It followed a controversial bill to send those who arrive by boat to Rwanda, which was denounced by rights groups who said that the UK risked breaching its obligations under international treaties.

Pressure had mounted on Sunak to tackle the issue after a record 45,000 people entered Britain through that route in 2022.

The issue remains a football in the political arena and the number of people, namely from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea, risking their lives to make it to England's shores continues to increase. 

Home Office monthly figures for small boat arrivals for 2024 are higher so far than at the same point last year and the year before.

Refugees 'physically present' but not in the electorate

One refugee charity on the 'front-line' of the crisis is Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) based in the English coastal county of Kent, a landing point for the boats making the 27-mile journey across the sea from France.

The charity supports people aged between 16 and 24 who often come from Afghanistan, South Sudan or Kurds from Iran. 

Its proximity to the port of Dover, famed for its chalky white cliffs, and now as a gateway to the UK, means the charity often supports people who have made the dangerous journey by boat, KRAN's media ambassador Roya Rasully told The New Arab.

For this year's election, KRAN penned a manifesto which Rasully says covers areas "identified for governments to improve the life of refugees and young people".

One of these calls for legislative reform to extend the right to vote in general elections to refugees and asylum seekers. 

Rasully, who came to the UK as a refugee aged two with her mother from Afghanistan, says that despite immigration being "a main topic" used by parties to engage with the public, refugees "don’t have a say in what happens".

"Refugees are physically present, but not present in terms of voting and they should have the right to vote when lots of policies are being made about them," she explained.

Global instability and mass migration

Last year, a record 117.3 million people were forcibly displaced across the world, eight million more than the previous year, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Global instability like conflicts, ethnic persecution, and climate change have triggered mass movements of people desperate to find safety in Europe.

Despite the hardline approach of the Conservative government over the past decade, there has also been growing advocacy for those seeking asylum. 

There are increasing calls for the expansion of existing refugee schemes which have been mainly tailored to specific cases, like the Russia-Ukraine war or the politically persecuted in Hong Kong.

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One political party that has an open policy on immigration is the Green Party, predominantly known for its climate-centred policies.

Dover 'disgusted' by Farage and Reform UK

Christine Oliver, the Green Party candidate for the parliamentary seat of Dover and Deal, spent years working as an immigration and asylum lawyer in the area.

Oliver said she is "deeply familiar" with the UK's "flawed system".

"Our crumbling public services are a result of persistent underinvestment and nothing to do with people seeking asylum," the Green candidate told The New Arab.

The Green Party's manifesto pledges to treat refugees like citizens, giving them the right to vote and allow asylum seekers to enter the workforce  - an idea often raised by charities and practised by Germany.

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Oliver, whose minority party hopes to elect four MPs to Westminster in July, said that the "overwhelming majority" of people in the area are welcoming towards refugees.

"They are frustrated by Dover being used as a backdrop for dog-whistle rhetoric about migration which has no basis in fact," she said, adding that people were "disgusted" when Farage came to Dover to announce the Reform UK candidate Howard Cox.

Last week, Cox told a local newspaper that he was the "only candidate" who could "get a grip on immigration".

'Not a flagship issue'

Another Dover and Deal candidate, local resident Penelope James of the Liberal Democrats, the third-largest party in the country, pushed back against the idea that immigration is a flagship issue of the election, and said instead it had been made a topic thanks to Nigel Farage and Reform UK.

"Up until last week, nobody mentioned it at all," James told The New Arab.

"The real issues are the cost of living and the NHS and that's what everybody talks to me about on the doorsteps  - very, very few people mention immigration," the former communications consultant and local councillor said.

James hadn't placed immigration at the top of her local campaign, but said that the Liberal Democrats believe immigration is essential to fill workforce gaps, and there is a desperate need to establish legal routes.

"We should not be vilifying the people coming in the small boats," James said. "Why have we not set-up safe and legal routes? Before the boats, they [migrants] were all coming in the back of lorries. We’ve had years to do it and we haven't."

While the Dover constituency has been a Labour/Conservative swing seat since 1945, public apathy towards the two largest parties might well make space for the likes of the Green's Oliver or James of the Liberal Democrats in July.

But for those fleeing conflict and persecution and hoping to rebuild lives in Britain, whether they'll face a warmer welcome and greater protection hinges on the next government, who may or may not have the political will to tackle a broken asylum system.