This essay, on the government’s new immigration proposals, was my Observer column this week. It was published in the Observer, 11 July 2021, under the headline “After Priti Patel has finished, which refugees will carry a torch for Britain?”
“Before I died I contemplated how drowning would feel.” So opens Gulwali Passarlay’s 2015 book The Lightless Sky. Passarlay was, in 2006, a 12-year-old boy in a rural village in Afghanistan, caught in the crossfire between Taliban and American forces. After his father was shot dead by US soldiers, his mother paid a smuggler to take Gulwali and his brother, Hazrat, to safety in Europe. It’s the beginning of a gruelling 12,000-mile trek that takes Passarlay from imprisonment in Iran to being thrown off a moving train in Bulgaria and to seeming death on an overcrowded boat from Turkey to Greece. He survives and makes his way across Europe to the “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais, before smuggling himself into Britain in a refrigerated lorry carrying bananas.
Five years later, after another tortuous and byzantine journey, this time through Britain’s asylum and care systems, Passarlay is eventually granted the right to stay. Shortly after that comes a real moment of redemption: he is selected to carry the Olympic torch on its journey to the London 2012 Games. “More than anything”, Passarlay writes, “this book is about faith, hope and optimism. A story of kindness, love, humanity and brotherhood.”
I was thinking of Passarlay’s story as I was reading Home Secretary Priti Patel’s latest immigration proposal. The Nationality and Borders Bill seeks “to increase the fairness of the system to better protect and support those in need of asylum”. But here’s the thing. Had this law been in force in 2006, Passarlay would never have been an Olympic torch holder. The moment he set foot in Britain, he would have committed a criminal offence and been locked up and, possibly, sent back to Afghanistan.
The Bill proposes “differential treatment of refugees” depending on how they arrived here. Those who came through “regular means” – with papers, or permission to enter the UK – will be eligible to claim asylum. Those who arrived as Passarlay did will not. Any asylum seeker who “knowingly arrives” without “leave to enter” could be jailed for up to four years and then possibly deported.
But what else could Passarlay have done? Perhaps, as Sabir Zazai, another Afghan refugee, who also arrived here “illegally” and is now the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, acidly observed, he could “have gone to the Taliban and said to them that I am fleeing your regime, will you please issue me a passport and then comfortably walked to the British embassy to complete a simple form to seek asylum in the UK”.
The very fact of a regime being oppressive is what makes it impossible to follow legal procedures. In any case, Britain has closed down virtually all “safe and legal” routes for asylum seekers. The new Bill does not criminalise “illegal” entry, it criminalises the very act of seeking asylum. “It will make sure,” as Passarlay said to me, “that people like me will never get the opportunity for safety and sanctuary.” It is cruelty dressed up as law.
Not just asylum seekers, but anyone helping them will also be criminalised – and could face life imprisonment. Currently, it is an offence to aid undocumented migrants “for gain”. The new law removes the words “for gain”, meaning that someone can be jailed even for providing humanitarian assistance.
This demolishes the government’s claim that the Bill is about “breaking the business model of people-smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger”. In reality, it’s the Bill that will endanger lives. As the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee warned in 2019, “a policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups”. The government seems happy to provide more work for the smugglers so long as it can gain political capital at the same time.
Ministers claim the new law is necessary because an upsurge of asylum seekers is putting stress on the system. Images of migrants crossing the channel in flimsy boats have reinforced that claim. In fact, in historical terms, numbers are low. In 2019 (the last full year before the pandemic), there were fewer asylum applicants than there were spectators at Wembley for the England v Italy Euro 2020 final, and less than half the figure of 20 years ago. Last year, the numbers were lower still.
In international terms, too, British figures are tiny. Around 45,000 people claimed asylum in Britain in 2019. The comparative figure for Germany was 165,000, for France 129,000 and for Spain 118,000.
The comparison with non-European countries is starker still. There is a widespread perception that Europe bears the greatest burden in welcoming asylum seekers and refugees. In fact, 86% of refugees are hosted in developing countries and 73% in neighbouring countries. According to the World Bank, of the top 10 countries hosting refugees, just one – Germany – is in the West.
Ministers talk incessantly about the need for a “fair” migration and asylum system. From a global perspective, there is little fairness in Western asylum policies. The world’s richest nations are pushing the poorest to bear an even more disproportionate refugee burden than they already do.
What about fairness to Britons? I doubt if the average voter would think it in any sense “fair” to treat someone such as Passarlay as a criminal for leaving his homeland in the only way he could. The problem, though, is the way the immigration debate is framed. Migrants, especially poor ones, whether asylum seekers or economic migrants, often face the charge of being “scroungers” or “queue jumpers”. Many on the right have been only too happy to push such claims. Many on the left, and especially the Labour party, are too frightened of challenging them, fearful of losing electoral support. There is, though, no iron law that the public must always be apprehensive about immigration. It is, in part, the timidity in questioning immigration myths that helps sustain them.
At the same time, too many on the left view those expressing anxieties about immigration as bigoted or racist. As a result, those who worry about immigration become even less willing to listen to the counter arguments.
The immigration debate is polarised between those who accept the myths and those who dismiss the anxieties. What we need is to both engage with the anxieties and to challenge the myths. Given the sheer cynicism and cruelty of the new immigration bill, there is no more urgent time to do that.