UK governments past & present have emboldened far-right anti-migrant attacks

UK governments past & present have emboldened far-right anti-migrant attacks
The ‘hostile environment’ for migrants in the UK has long-existed under both Labour and Conservative governments who’ve targeted refugees. The current Tory government is now shifting those policies further to the right, argues Sue Conlan.
5 min read
26 Mar, 2023
Far-right group Patriotic Alternative, founded by the BNP's former publicity officer, protesting against hotels being used to house refugees, 11 March 2023, Cannock, England. [GETTY]

On 7 March the UK Home Secretary, Suella Braverman MP, introduced the Illegal Migration Bill to the British parliament, aimed at further preventing or punishing illegal entry to the UK.

Despite the UK being a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees since 1954, the government plans to end the right to seek asylum. Even some Conservative MPs have expressed reservations about the impact of the Bill. This included the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, who as Home Secretary, gave a speech to the Conservative Party in 2012 in which she announced changes intended to create a really hostile environment for illegal immigration.

The reality is that the Conservative party did not create the “hostile environment” for refugees or migrants, but consecutive Conservative Home Secretaries, including May, Priti Patel and now Braverman, have taken it to a new level. However, the foundations were there from the time that immigration became a political issue.

''Ultimately, far-right mobilisations will not subside with the passing of more draconian illegal measures being proposed by the current government, but rather they will fuel them.''

Immigration control has a history that goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century.  The Aliens Act which was passed in 1905 under a Conservative government, primarily targeted Jewish people fleeing religious persecution from Eastern European countries. It followed a campaign led by a Conservative MP, William Evans-Gordon, and the British Brothers’ League, calling for “the restriction on further immigration of destitute foreigners.”

After the Second World War, attention turned to black British and Commonwealth citizens. For example, the UK parliament passed legislation aimed specifically at UK citizens of South Asian descent in East Africa who were being rejected from countries such as Kenya as a result of ‘Africanisation policies’.

The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 was passed under a Labour government and went through parliament in just three days, despite the Home Secretary at the time recognising that it would be a breach of international law to refuse entry to UK citizens.

The Act was introduced against a backdrop of the infamous “rivers of blood” speech by the then Conservative MP Enoch Powell, which called for an end to the inflow of non-white people into Britain and the exclusion of as many as possible of those already in the UK.

Ironically, this was also the time that the parents of both Patel and Braverman came to the UK from Kenya. Whilst Patel’s and Braverman’s rhetoric has been of a similar anti-immigrant sentiment to Powell, unlike him, neither have been excluded from the Conservative Party.


Two sides of the same coin

Since the UK became a party to the Refugee Convention, both Labour and Conservative governments have demonstrated the same fundamental belief that the integrity of the asylum system is undermined by people who they believe are not entitled to protection, and they have taken steps to prevent their arrival or stay in the UK.

This is why a restriction was imposed on citizens of Sri Lanka in 1985 by the serving conservative government, which required Tamils fleeing persecution to obtain a visa before arriving in the UK. It has never been possible to apply for refugee status prior to leaving a country where persecution is feared, nor has a refugee or humanitarian visa existed.

Little changed on this front under a Labour government. Legislation was introduced in 1999 that ended the right of people seeking asylum to claim benefits and access public housing.  The consequences led to the Home Office itself becoming the provider of accommodation with the initial intention that this would be in shared accommodation, the types of which have paved the way for the increasing use of hotels and disused military barracks.

Described recently as “cruel by design”, the centres have been criticised for providing poor and inadequate food, a form of detention and designed to keep refugees and asylum seekers separate from the rest of society.

Since the current Conservative government switched to using hotels for asylum seekers and refugees, instead of allowing them to live in communities, they have opened the door to far-right attacks against those forced to live in such accommodation centres. Far-right group Patriotic Alternative, has already mobilised protests outside hotels which accommodate refugees and asylum seekers and even where there are proposals to house them. Just this weekend the group demonstrated against plans by the local council to temporarily house Ukrainian refugees in a former primary school in the Welsh town of Llantwit Major.

Additionally, in 2003 then Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, reached an agreement with the French government which allowed for UK immigration controls in France. By 2004, the number of people seeking asylum in the UK dropped from over 84000 in 2002 to under 34000.

This was strengthened recently when Conservative PM Rishi Sunak signed a deal with French President, Emmanuel Macron, committing the UK to paying France over €500 million to increase controls to stop “illegal” boat crossings as well as to establish a detention centre.

What is missing from the right-wing rhetoric justifying such deals, however, is that the reason that people seeking asylum in the UK have been forced to resort to the dangerous journeys, most recently small boats, is because successive UK governments have not been willing to put in place measures that allow for safe passage. This includes humanitarian visas.

Ultimately, far-right mobilisations will not subside with the passing of more draconian illegal measures being proposed by the current government, but rather they will fuel them. The rise of the far-right is the result of a long history of hostile laws, policies and practices towards migrants and refugees in the UK, as well as the determination of the current government to distract attention from its failure to address any crises that surround us.

This government cannot legitimately wash its hands of attempts by people on the streets to take the law into their own hands. They, like their Labour predecessors, are responsible for the move to the right which we are now witnessing. Both the Conservatives and Labour are yet to own their responsibility for moving towards such extremes.

Dr. Sue Conlan is a UK immigration lawyer and Director of TACTIC Immigration and Asylum CIC.

Follow her on Twitter: @sueconlan

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