Is the UK ‘Anti-Immigration’? 

by Lianna Ng, GSD Correspondent

Back in June last year, when it was announced that the first group of asylum seekers would be ‘relocated’ to Rwanda on the 14th of June, reports of suicide attempts among those facing this prospect began emerging.  

This arrangement, officially known as the ‘UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership’, was agreed upon earlier in April 2022. Fortunately, at the time of writing, nobody has been sent to Rwanda amid ongoing legal challenges. But with the High Court upholding the lawfulness of the policy in December 2022, the threat of being ‘relocated’ remains a possibility in the future.  

Under the Nationality and Borders Bill, people who arrive through ‘irregular’ means (such as crossing the English Channel on small boats) and from a safe third country (such as France) can be considered ‘inadmissible’. And with the Partnership, the Home Office will be able to send ‘inadmissible’ asylum seekers to Rwanda on a case-by-case basis, following an initial screening process upon their arrival in the UK. Their claims will then be considered by Rwanda authorities, and they will not be eligible to return to the UK. Currently, this does not apply to unaccompanied minor children or families with children under the age of 18.  

According to the Home Office, this is primarily designed as a disincentive for ‘dangerous and unnecessary’ journeys, to save lives, prevent injuries and disrupt the business model of ‘people smuggling’ networks. In his speech announcing the plan, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said:  

‘It is controlled immigration, through safe and legal routes, which enables us to make generous offers of sanctuary while managing the inevitable pressures on our public services such that we can give all those who come here the support they need to rebuild their lives, to integrate and to thrive.’  

Veiled behind the vocabulary of generosity and sincerity, however, is a system characterised by hypocrisy and self-righteousness, enacted at the expense of asylum seekers’ wellbeing. It is a deflection of the government’s humanitarian obligations, as it is the government itself which has the power to define what is ‘safe’ and what is ‘legal’ in the first place.  

The harsh policies imposed onto those who arrive through irregular travel methods are a stark contrast to other recently implemented programmes, such as the British National (Overseas) (BN(O)) visa scheme, announced by the Home Office within a month of the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong on the 30th of June 2020, which was widely seen as a threat to political freedoms and human rights in the territory. This means that BN(O) passport holders (those who registered for one in Hong Kong before the 1st of July 1997 handover), their adult children and their dependents can come to the UK to live, work, study and apply for full citizenship more easily than those who have to pursue pre-existing visa options. 

Additionally, less than a year later, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government swiftly introduced a range of visa support schemes for Ukrainians. For example, the Ukraine Family Scheme allows individuals to come to the UK if they have a relative who has refugee status or humanitarian protection granted by the British government, who has permission to settle in the UK or who is a British Citizen. The Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme allows people and organisations in the UK to sponsor and bring Ukrainians and their family members to the UK.  

In the second quarter of 2022, Ukraine and BN(O) schemes made up as much as 40% of entry visas granted for any purpose (excluding tourist visas). Along with a post-Covid rebound in international student numbers, they are the largest contributors to a rise in net migration in the year ending June 2022.  

Clearly, it is within the government’s ability to create ‘safe and legal’ routes for immigration, although its willingness to do so is highly inconsistent. Its efforts in the cases of Hong Kong and Ukraine show that the issue is not immigration itself, exposing the hypocrisy of the recently implemented inadmissibility policies. 

Those who cross the English Channel on small boats make the life-threatening journey because they are fleeing from conflict and persecution in their home countries. Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, one must be physically present in the UK to claim asylum, and yet there is no legal way of travelling here for the specific purpose of seeking asylum.  

Adding selectively restrictive measures to ‘fix the broken immigration system’, as it has often been described by the government, is rarely an effective deterrent because asylum seekers often lack detailed knowledge of their destination’s asylum procedures, nor do their needs for safety change. Furthermore, studies have shown that social and familial ties, the ability to speak English or a desire to learn it, and the belief that the UK is a tolerant and democratic country are the main reasons behind choosing it as their final destination.  

Between January 2018 and June 2020, the majority of people crossing the English Channel in small boats came from Iran (51%), followed by Iraq (26%), Syria (6%) and Afghanistan (4%). In light of these statistics, one might argue that in practice the new immigration policy is a form of systematic discrimination and devaluation of human life not only based on the method of arrival in the UK, but also on the country of origin, neither of which inherently determine how much a person needs and deserves protection.  

Apart from the opportunity to safely and legally enter the UK, what happens to immigrants while staying in the UK is full of double standards as well. For example, while Hong Kongers and Ukrainians are allowed to work in the UK upon arrival, asylum seekers are unable to do so for as long as their claim is being processed, which can take several months or even years, and are forced to rely on state support of as little as £5.66 a day. Not only do they struggle to support themselves, the opportunities for them to contribute to and become part of the community are comparatively much scarcer.  

Hong Kongers and Ukrainians are awarded a much broader definition of ‘family’ in the case of family reunions as well. ‘Dependents’ under the BN(O) visa scheme include the BN(O) passport holder, their adult children and respective partners/children, as well as parent(s), grandparent(s) and sibling(s) who live together and are highly dependent due to illness, disability or age. A ‘UK-based family member’ under the Ukraine Family Scheme can be an immediate and extended family member, including children under 18. On the other hand, those who have refugee status, humanitarian protection and Discretionary Leave can only apply for their partner and children to stay with them in the UK. Children refugees are not allowed to sponsor their family members either, despite thousands of asylum applications being from unaccompanied children.  

Although the reasons behind this differential treatment and its impacts would require a separate analysis, it is nevertheless unfair, highly discriminatory and even inhumane. One’s nationality and method of arriving in the UK do not and should not define their right to safety and dignity. It is therefore imperative that the immigration system be, for lack of a better word, fixed.  

Header image by Joakim Honkasalo, via Unsplash

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