Britain is in the imaginary situation of the crisis about immigration. Nothing allays these concerns – not the facts, not the real numbers of arrivals, not the distinction between migrants in general and asylum seekers in particular. In the last week alone, reports have emerged of migrants being illegally detained in overcrowded centers that are sick, sexual assault under ageand others are going down in the middle of the city and immediately forgot about. This appalling failure is happening not because there are too many migrants, but because the government has broken its own asylum system.
This is a crisis by design, not arrival. The government is keen to stress the recent increase in crossing the Channel, yet asylum applications are half what they were 20 years ago. The real and only cause of the crash at Manston and other failed centers is: the number of asylum applications processed in six months fall from almost 90% to about 4%. Not more people are arriving than ever before, more are not being processed, and are stuck in the asylum system for years. Efficiency has been declining since 2014, a year after Theresa May established a “hostile environment” and amid George Osborne’s austerity programme. The intersection of these two forces created an underfunded and ruthless Home Office, and the UK’s immigration “crisis”.
And it is a crisis that the government has no interest in maintaining, or at least no significant interest in solving. The Tories have abandoned the narrative that the country is under siege by migrants that the government is trying valiantly to resist, but has been frustrated in its efforts by a string of criminals – “activist” legal expert, human rights law, tofu eating, Labor opposition. It is a tired retreat from the failure of right-wing governments: defenseless in the face of the ubiquitous fifth column, the abstract left-wing blob that only last week the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Allister Heath, promoted to status of wielding “near total intellectual hegemony”.
This pretense is most fruitful with immigration. The government’s failure to maintain living standards and public infrastructure, from health to housing, can be disguised – with the help of the right-wing press – by portraying migrants as a constant drain on those resources. As a bonus, the fear of more of these imaginary parasites is driving voters to the only party that seems genuinely alarmed by the threat. Immigrants provide a valuable alibi for the senseless political dereliction of the Conservative government fixing the broken immigration system. So the state of emergency must be nurtured and, if necessary, escalated. In this country, there has never been an immigration crisis and there has always been an immigration crisis.
The illusion of a flood is easier to maintain at certain times than others, giving the false migrant crisis a rhythm that feels genuine as it ebbs and flows with political and media agendas. But that pulse has nothing to do with arrivals — in fact, concerns about immigration waned for a period after Brexit, although the number of arrivals increased.
Sometimes it is a reflection of shifting migration patterns. Covid makes travel by road – where migrants are less visible – more challenging, thus increasing travel by sea. A landing on the coast is more evocative of “invasion” vast, border impossible-to-police than an unseen stowaway in a truck. Other times, all it takes is a volatile or incompetent person at the top. The frame is so rickety that loose cannon like Suella Braverman just have to make one bad decision, such as failing to find alternative accommodation for those in overcrowded detention centers, for the entire structure to collapse..
But the other reason this landing is high on the government’s agenda, first under Priti Patel and now under the clumsier Braverman is, well, everything else. Brexit is spent, the economy is in ruins, the Tory party has imploded and there is no one to blame. The government was never able to deliver the transformative Brexit it promised, but it is what it is can do this pretend it is being blocked from delivering it. With the end of EU free movement and the “taking back” of our borders, that is Conservative exposed. They got what they wanted, and are now in the position of a dog that has caught a car. What good is all this new “control” if it means the government now has to take full responsibility for immigration? Enter Dover, a huge vulnerability.
Asylum seekers have become refugees of the government itself. In them, there is an evergreen problem for which a Tory crusade is the only solution. It is a valuable asset for the government that has run out of the way, but can play in everything from the fear of terrorism, sexual assault, economic drag and cultural overwhelm to extend its relevance. Like Donald Trump’s wall, or the windmills at Animal Farm, our borders will always be vulnerable and sabotaged by enemies, while our government fights like hell to rebuild them.
The only way for progressives to get rid of this mythology is to create a competing one. If the UK’s attitude towards migration could be summed up in a word cloud, the biggest phrases would be negative – “hostile environment”, “invasion”, “swarm”, “legal concern”, “illegal migrants”. Not condoning xenophobia, but when you’re constantly bombarded with this kind of rhetoric from much of the press and government, it’s unrealistic to expect any other outcome. Panic reinforces and retreats in line with public messaging and perceptions of how compromised our borders are.
This problem is not logical. It is not based on the premise that the number is too big, but on the hysteria that when we have no control, no number is small enough. So Labor can try to win the immigration argument from the right and stick “Controls on Immigration” on crockery again, but unless the party is willing to crack down and go full-on fascist in its language and policies, the Tories will always be seen as a strong party in the borders that they have successfully painted. as weak and porous. In this case, as well as in patriotism and British identity, Labor has taken a defensive position and simply borrowed from the right instead of making it different, imagining an ambitious better country, different borders – their own word cloud.
British patriotism and values are not limited to the flag, the anthem, the royal family, the military and abstract notions of hard work and justice. It can be about compassion – about a place that we never heard about, one that is welcoming – not full up, but punching above the weight as a refuge and a safe harbor. This country is not an ideal: it is already here, sketched, waiting for color and detail to be filled. up for people from ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong, which dwarfs the number of arrivals on the south coast. Kindness has become stigmatized, rebranded as a “goodness signal”, that people forget it is out there.
Yes, the risk is to openly challenge the myth of the high immigration crisis in the political and media culture that is actually linked to the benefits of lies. But the result may be the disarming of the right’s most powerful, and, perhaps soon only, political weapon. With such a huge payout and a lead in the polls, isn’t it worth a shot?