Challenging the narrative of “illegal” asylum seekers

In November, the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, stood up in the House of Commons and announced that “illegal migration” is “out of control” and that the United Kingdom was facing an “invasion on our southern coast”.

This is in response to the increase in arrivals from across the English Channel, with approximately 40,000 people crossing this year from France in small boats. This represents an increase from 2021, when 28,526 people crossed the channel to seek asylum in the UK.

This language has been consistently used by Conservative politicians.

Earlier this year, a speech by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson included the word “illegal” thirteen times to describe asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Lee Anderson, the Conservative MP for Ashfield, has said that the current influx of refugees is the fault of politicians who should “grow a backbone” and send people he called illegal immigrants “straight back the same day”.

This incendiary language has been rightly criticised by a number of groups.

It is reported that several legal minds have contacted Braverman, warning her about the threats posed by using such inflammatory rhetoric.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, also criticised the comments, labelling the language as “utterly grotesque, divisive and inflammatory”.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants described the remarks as “heinous”.

While this language is shocking, it is unfortunately not new. It is also done on purpose.

Labelling asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ is designed to accomplish two things.

First, governments resort to dehumanising and delegitimising asylum seekers in an attempt to shape public opinion. When faced with an increase in boat arrivals, labelling asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ turns them into objects of fear and loathing.

Labelling asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ is also an attempt to differentiate them from other refugees who arrive in methods of the government’s choosing. By portraying boat arrivals as ‘queue jumpers’ or economic migrants, asylum seekers are effectively seen as not worthy or not eligible for seeking protection.

Second, labelling boat arrivals as ‘illegal’ is an attempt to avoid responsibility for their welfare and to sidestep international legal obligations for refugees. It is also a desperate attempt to stem the number of arrivals by acting as a disincentive for those yet to make the crossing.

An example of this was in Australia. In 2013, faced with an increase in boat arrivals, the former Rudd government introduced a policy that no asylum seeker arriving by boat would be resettled in Australia, labelling them as “illegal arrivals”.

This method has since been used by several countries, including the UK, to sidestep their obligations under International Law regarding people seeking asylum, the vast majority of whom are legitimate refugees.

Source: Vox

The narrative of the ‘illegal’ asylum seeker needs to be challenged.

This can be achieved by explaining the facts and tackling misinformation about asylum seekers.

First, under International Law, a person is entitled to apply for asylum in any country regardless of how they arrive. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, in which the UK is a signatory, does not stipulate how a person can and should seek asylum. Therefore, people arriving by boat are legally entitled to seek asylum and the UK is obligated to process these claims.

Second, it is vital to educate politicians and the public that the vast majority of people seeking asylum are fleeing persecution and conflict and are in need of protection.

Most people who seek asylum in the UK are from MENA countries, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. All of these countries experience or have experienced conflict or political instability as well as the persecution of ethnic minorities, women and human rights defenders.

This is reflected in the fact that in 2021, 72% of asylum applications were accepted by the UK government, with 59% of initially declined asylum applications approved on appeal. This reveals that the vast majority of people seeking asylum by boat are legitimate refugees and are not in fact ‘illegal’.

Third, the UK government is being disingenuous when it labels boat arrivals as queue jumpers.

As discussed, the UK government does not get to determine who is legal and who is not. But, equally, the claim that people seeking asylum should stick to “safe and legal” routes is not realistic.

People fleeing persecution and conflict do not have the luxury of waiting months or years to obtain a place in small and selective routes sanctioned by the UK government.

Additionally, the nine routes the UK currently has, five of which are country-specific, are woefully inadequate. Most of the people who cross the channel to seek asylum are either excluded from these programmes because of their country of origin, because the process is too long or because the intake is far too small.

If the UK government wants people fleeing persecution and conflict to use their established routes, they should be extended to include more people from more countries. The UK government should also allow people to seek asylum in the UK closer to their country of origin.

It is important to remember that getting on leaky boats is not the preference of asylum seekers, it is usually their only remaining option.

Finally, demonising asylum seekers simply doesn’t work. Mass displacement events and boat arrivals are caused by events in the regions in which these people originate, not domestic political rhetoric or restrictive policies. While labelling asylum seekers as “illegal” may win votes from xenophobic voters, it doesn’t actually solve the problem.

Combatting misinformation around the demonisation of “illegal” asylum seekers is therefore crucial to pressure governments into meeting their legal and moral obligations when it comes to people seeking asylum.

To ensure the rights of asylum seekers are protected, the prevailing narrative needs to be challenged and dangerous government rhetoric needs to be called out for what it is, misinformation and xenophobia.

Explaining the facts is key.

Asylum seekers are entitled to be here, they are fleeing genuine hardship and the UK has legal obligations to take them in if they are found to be legitimate refugees.

This is key to winning hearts and minds in the electorate and pressuring governments to meet their obligations under International Law.

Doing so will go a long way to ensuring that vulnerable people are protected.