Replace broken

Sealed borders are a fantasy and talk of invasion is toxic. There is an alternative | Kenan Malik

On one thing, Suella Braverman is right. The system is broken. But about almost everything else she is seriously wrong, especially about why this is so. The cause of the rupture is not a wave of migrants and asylum seekers, much less an “invasion”, but the result of a policy which, both deliberately and accidentally, turned a manageable situation into a crisis. .

Despite all the recent hysteria, the number of asylum seekers coming to Britain is far lower than in the relatively recent past. Undoubtedly, the number of people crossing the English Channel in small boats has increased dramatically – from 299 in 2018 to perhaps 50,000 this year. But an increase in the visibility of asylum seekers is not the same as an increase in numbers. People are crossing in small boats because other routes – through the Channel Tunnel, by ferry or by plane – have been closed. We know from experience that when one road is closed, migrants and asylum seekers seek other, often more dangerous ones.

Even taking into account the increase in the number of people using this road alone, the overall number remains relatively low. According to the Oxford University Migration Observatory, 103,081 people applied for 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 refugee claims. Until around 2012, the gap between asylum applications and the number of people awaiting a decision was relatively small. From about 2012, this gap started to increase and especially so since 2018. At the end of 2010, there were 5,978 cases awaiting a first decision; at the end of 2018, 27,256; and in the second quarter of this year, nearly 100,000. Over the past decade, the backlog has grown about 15 times faster than the number of asylum seekers.

It’s partly a question of resources. The number of officials making these decisions has dropped significantly since 2016. In 2014, nearly 80% of claims were resolved within six months. Today it is less than 10%.

It is also a matter of politics. At the center of British immigration policy is, as with most Western countries, the strategy of deterrence, consisting of making life as difficult as possible for irregular migrants to discourage them from embarking on their journey. From one perspective, the huge backlog in processing applications and the overcrowding and appalling conditions in detention camps are a policy failure. From another perspective, however, these are ways to deter more asylum seekers. This is the kind of perspective that gave us the “hostile environment”. This is what underlies Home Secretary Chris Philp’s assertion that asylum seekers have “a bit of nerve” to complain about conditions.

Deterrence rarely works. The EU’s brutally savage immigration policy, the 25,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014 alone, has not brought irregular migration to a halt.

Far from “breaking the business model” of smugglers, as is often claimed, these policies create new business opportunities for them. They also create openings for human traffickers and criminal gangs, as has become evident in the English Channel.

They also ensure that when a policy fails, the authorities feel compelled to impose something even more inhumane. This is what led to the Rwandan project. Even 10 years ago, the idea that Britain should exploit its economic clout to get rid of people it considers undesirable – by mass deporting asylum seekers before their cases have been heard to a much poorer country in exchange for money – would have been considered immoral by most people. Now, not only is this government policy, but even leading academics are encouraging conservatives to “increase deterrence with more Rwandan-style agreementsand intensify the culture wars, which “not [be] pretty onebut is politically necessary.

Language that was once confined to the far right is now being casually exploited by mainstream conservatives. It’s not just about talking about “invasion”; right-wing commentators regularly lament “white decline” and “the great replacement.”

The rise of rhetoric and politics both dehumanizes asylum seekers and encourages hostility towards them. British public attitudes towards immigration have become increasingly liberal over the past decade, but also more polarized; the firebombing of an immigration reception center in Kent is a warning of the dangers of fueling such hostility.

Nor does harsh rhetoric necessarily lead to political gains. This may help shore up the conservative right and win back some lost votes, but it also creates expectations that cannot be met. In 2019, then Home Secretary Priti Patel promised to eliminate migrant crossings in the English Channel by the following spring. Braverman is now making the same promise. She won’t be more successful than Patel. Failure will only encourage cynicism and fuel the far right.

What to do ? First, there can only be solutions to real problems, not made-up problems, like a supposed mass invasion. Second, to know what to do, we also need to know what not to do. The red lines must be clear: do not demonize, dehumanize or pursue unacceptable policies such as Rwanda’s mass deportation program.

Third, there must be appropriate legal pathways for asylum seekers. Currently, people can only apply for asylum when they are on British soil. But they can only travel to Britain with a valid visa. And there is no “asylum visa”. Which means it’s almost impossible to claim asylum without using irregular means to enter Britain. It’s a catch-22 situation that the government, and its immigration policy apologists, claims doesn’t exist.

Beyond creating legal pathways, there also needs to be decent resources for the asylum process to reduce the artificially created backlog. Allowing asylum seekers to work, making their lives more fulfilling while reducing their dependence on the state, would also be a welcome change.

Finally, we must recognize that there is no perfect solution. The moment someone suggests opening legal avenues, or questions the policy of deterrence, or challenges the morality of the Rwandan deportation plan, critics cry ‘open borders’. It is as if any liberalization of policies is equivalent to an “open border”. Part of the problem is the imaginary desire for a perfectly watertight border. The fact is that a more liberal policy is not only more humane, it is also more realistic.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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