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Asylum Legislation and Rising Populism: The Erosion of Protections for Refugees

“It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks” – Dina Nayeri

A person seeking asylum is undoubtedly in the most vulnerable position someone can find themselves in in modern society. Without the existence of a state safety net to fall back on, you are forced to rely on foreign nations to fulfil their moral and legal obligations to provide safety, which the UK in recent years has become less and less willing to do. The UK’s rickety asylum system has recently become even more harsh and difficult to navigate since the government's implementation of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 (NABA) which aims to recreate Australia’s tough asylum system, the ethics of which have been heavily questioned by human rights campaigners. 

The Visa Disaster:

The crux of the UK’s broken asylum system is the issue of a lack of safe and legal routes for individuals who are not from Ukraine, Hong-Kong or Afghanistan (who have had specific application routes created for them). There do exist family reunion and refugee resettlement schemes, however these do not give a person the status of a refugee. Infamously, not even ex Home Secretary Suella Braverman could explain how an asylum seeker who is 

Currently, the asylum system works like this: to apply for asylum in the UK you must physically be on UK soil (section 14 of NABA), and to legally gain entry to the UK you usually must have a visa. It’s at this visa stage that the asylum system utterly fails. Section 40 of the NABA makes it extremely difficult to enter the UK without a visa, with the possibility of up to four years in prison for the offence, however, no “asylum visa” exists for individuals to apply to enter the UK with the sole aim of gaining asylum. This means that asylum seekers are often forced to enter the UK with alternative unrelated visas, such as tourism visas, however, this is impossible to do without lying on the application form when stating the reason for visiting which is, once again, illegal.   

There is no world in which this huge flaw in the system can simply be an oversight by the government. It is either a total failure to prioritise the UK’s commitment to upholding international human rights obligations, or a purposefully placed hurdle in the race for safe asylum. Either proves the current leaders of the Conservative Party to be devoid of the capabilities and common humanity it takes to govern a law-abiding democratic nation. 

The Role of Populism in the Demonisation of Refugees:

The UK arguably has a more complicated history with migration than other countries due to the colonisation inflicted by England throughout history and the commonwealth that exists as a result today. There have been times when the UK has promoted immigration, like the period from 1948 to 1971 that created the Windrush generation, where migration from commonwealth countries was encouraged by advertising abroad and offers of financial support like interest free travel loans to fill the shortages in the labour market. However, this wave of migrants was not welcomed with open arms by the population for their contributions, evidenced by situations like the 1958 Race Riots of Notting Hill, and the encouragement of migration swiftly stopped with the enactment of the 1971 Immigration Act once the employment gaps were safely filled. 

If the period of Windrush demonstrated the UK’s (and many other western democracies) underlying attitude towards economic migrants: toleration, but not hospitality; it is easier to comprehend where the contempt held towards refugees who arrive with nothing stems from, and why it is therefore such an easy issue for political parties to capitalise on.

Off the English coastline in Dorset, a floating barge dubbed the ‘Bibby Stockholm’ is housing roughly 400 refugees in ‘inhumane’ living conditions at a higher price to the taxpayer per night than hotels would be. Leonard Farruku, an Albanian man forced to live on the Bibby Stockholm, took his own life on the 12th of December, with his sister stating that if he wasn’t ‘put in that boat he was going to have a life ahead of him of normality and peace. Such a tragedy could not have happened if he was not put there.’ A hearing later took place in Bournemouth where it was requested that the Home Office and other authorities produce explanatory written statements within six weeks. An inquiry is now taking place into the incident, however it is clear that Farruka’s suicide was likely a preventable scenario if he had not been treated ‘like an animal’ in the words of his sister, by the British state. The treatment of refugees on the Bibby Stockholm and in the UK in general undoubtedly contravenes the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, with asylum seekers entering the UK seen as ‘illegal’ and being treated accordingly, despite the Convention protecting every individual’s right to apply for asylum and to stay until their application has been processed. 

The Bibby Stockholm is just one example of how populism has manifested itself in British politics today. Whilst it is debatable whether Sunak himself is a populist, he has consistently followed the populist playbook throughout his time as Prime Minister, with a prime example being his complete 360 turnaround on environmental policy after winning the Uxbridge by-election by playing into the constituents' anti-ULEZ attitudes. In a few weeks, the Prime Minister went from endorsing the net-zero-by-2050 approach introduced by his own party under Theresa May, to saying that he was on the side of motorists agreeing to grant hundreds of new oil and gas licences for the North Sea which Greenpeace quickly labelled a “climate disaster”.  Populism as a thin ideology inherently has no core values with its only real purpose being to gain power, and so parties or politicians buying into populism will change their agenda to fit the current political climate in order to align themselves with whatever views will win them the most electoral success. In Sunak’s case this has meant adopting extremely tough views on issues that should remain non-partisan, like asylum seeking, due to their popularity among certain sections of the electorate. 

How can populism be removed from British politics to prevent the abuse of asylum seekers rights and other non-partisan-issues?

Populism has been a rising trend internationally with research conducted in 2018 by The Guardian showing that populist parties have tripled their votes in Europe in the past 20 years where they used to claim just 7% of the continent's votes. So why is now such an ideal time for populist politics? Obviously this is a difficult trend to unpack with multiple factors at play ranging in intensity of importance in different nations, however, if we stick to the UK the leading factor is arguably the media. Social media has given populists a platform that respected media outlets would usually not, allowing individuals that people trust as a news source to put out reckless or untrue statements with little to no consequences thanks to the lack of regulations on social media platforms like X (formally Twitter). The algorithms that social media platforms utilise also contribute to the rise of populism as we are only shown content that the platform knows we will ‘like’ and engage with, creating echo chambers that continue to reiterate our own political beliefs back to us leaving little room for healthy debate both online and in reality. Not only has social media created the conditions for the process of political polarisation, thereby normalising extremes and eradicating the centre ground, it has dangerously given populists a readily available pool of voters to preach to. This could clearly be seen regarding Brexit with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

Social media is ever changing however, and there is no reason to believe that platforms could not become a healthy part of our political landscape if better regulations were put in place. After all, social media can be a tool for good evidenced by pro-democracy protests in Hong-Kong using platforms in 2019 to show the international community how they were being treated by their government. Social media also democratises the news, allowing us access to stories that mainstream media may choose to ignore. This is important in a UK context since 90% of our national print media is owned by just three corporations resulting in an infamously right-wing biassed news landscape. Freedom of the media is a cornerstone feature of a democratic nation, and the monopoly of the British mainstream media by corporations is undoubtedly a significant factor, if not the leading factor, in the rise of populism in politics today as stories are dictated by what will sell, rather than what is important. This often leads to the creation of moral panics, like the demonisation of asylum seekers and immigrants, which feed off of pre-existing fear or attitudes within the population to create easily sellable headlines in order to generate profits. 

Creating legislation to address the imbalance of ownership within the British media could help to offset the levels of populism within the political sphere as the general public would have access to a range of different news sources and perspectives, which would cultivate a less polarised and extreme political climate. 

Asylum seeking as a non-partisan issue:

Asylum seeking and other human rights affiliated issues will always be political issues with various solutions favoured by different individuals, parties and nations as is their right to do so. However, to ensure the longevity of healthy democracy in the UK, populism cannot be allowed to have a permanent place in our political system. Our politicians must unsubscribe to populist ideology and follow the rule of law. They must respect the international agreements in place regarding asylum seeking, in doing so reversing the systemic failings of the state to protect the most vulnerable members of society. 

It’s time the UK government ceases to use asylum seeking as a flippant issue to politicise for power, and fulfil its legal and moral obligations to view asylum seekers as the people in need that they are as opposed to a group to be exploited by the powerful for profits or votes. 


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