Asylum Seekers: A Conversation of Morality

Photo: The Independent

By Holly Mottram – Regular Contributor

For over 3 decades, the UK has housed asylum seekers in large numbers, but in recent years this act of humanity has been continuously been dismissed as weak and an unnecessary tax burden on the public. Many western liberal democracies are facing a political shift to the right, and one consequence of this is the way asylum seekers are perceived and treated. In the years since the Iraq War, there have been several revolutions in Arab states, the rise of ISIS and the continued presence of rogue states such as Iran. Humanitarian crises continue and rights abuses are still prevalent in the Gulf and Africa among others. The need for vulnerable people to seek protection in wealthier, stronger states has never been more prevalent, and yet, in the UK, border force and immigration enforcement organisations have only become more militarised and hostile towards asylum seekers. 

Boat Arrivals

The response towards those fleeing war and persecution has been heightened in tandem with the increase in asylum seekers arriving by boat to the UK mainland. As seen in other states, particularly Australia, the arrival of asylum seekers by boat is especially ill-received by governments and public due to the perception that border security is compromised. It is in this area that the Johnson Government have enacted increasingly strict and arguably inhumane policies for the treatment of asylum seekers.

In light of this increase in boat arrivals, Priti Patel began a campaign to implement forced pushbacks of those arriving over the Channel in the Borders Bill introduced in December 2021. Her proposed policy would turn back small maritime vessels in the Channel that carry asylum seekers travelling from France. A number of legal challenges have been brought forward by NGOs who claim that the policy has no legal basis and therefore breaches international maritime law, human rights laws and the Refugee Convention. The Borders Bill also strips down the rights provided to international refugees and asylum seekers as guaranteed under the 1951 Refugee Convention. It begins a policy of offshore processing to third party countries to assess the legitimacy of asylum claims. This system is similar to Australia’s, a country whose immigration laws are some of the harshest in the world. The offshore processing centres used by Australia have been claimed to breach the UN Human Rights Act as well as providing dehumanising and inhumane living conditions. Australia’s immigration system should not be one to be looked up to, but one that should hardly legally exist.

Asylum Seeker Legality

The United Kingdom is not generally the first choice for most asylum seekers coming to the EU. Germany, France, Spain and Italy accounted for approximately 70% of asylum claims made in 2020, with the UK only receiving around 7%. Additionally, the refugee population in the UK, around 130,000, accounts for only 0.27% of the UK population. The concept the Johnson Government have pioneered, that asylum seekers are ‘swamping’ the UK and are coming over in unbelievable numbers is simply incorrect. Asylum seeker numbers have been increasing, but so has violence and instability in the regions they come from. The UK cannot refute blame from itself as often these troubled areas are caused in part by actions from the UK armed forces in states such as Syria and Afghanistan.  

It must also be clearly acknowledged that the right to claim asylum is universal and entrenched in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Although politicians or the press may call those crossing the Channel ‘illegal immigrants’, this is simply untrue, they are exercising their legal right to flee their country of origin and claim asylum in another state. Additionally, asylum seekers do not have to claim asylum in the first ‘safe’ country they travel to. It is legal and within their rights to travel as far as they wish to claim asylum in the UK for example instead of Turkey. Therefore the harsh measures enacted by the Johnson Government are deterring or forcibly returning asylum seekers who have the legal right to claim asylum, another reason as to how their treatment of this population is bordering on, and may go on to be, illegal. 

Why do Unethical Practices Continue?

Therefore, if asylum seekers have the legal right to claim asylum, and Britain is not ‘overwhelmed’ with refugees, it begs the question; why continue to pursue such an inhumane immigration policy? There are many potential answers to this. One may be the hostility many Britons feel towards asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants and communities that have been ‘othered’ by UKIP, the Leave campaign and the Conservative Party at times. This form of xenophobic racism is increasingly prevalent in the UK since the rise of UKIP and Brexit, in which case Government policies simply reflect public opinion. However, is racism a good enough reason to militarily deter thousands of vulnerable, destitute people fleeing war and persecution? Certainly not. 

Another potential reason is that the Government doesn’t want the UK to be seen as easy on asylum seekers and refugees in order to deter more from coming. This was seen strongly in Australia where militarised border security was enacted in order to portray an image of strength and deterrence for asylum seekers. However, in the UK and Australia, asylum seeker numbers are not causing catastrophic failures of immigration systems, nor are they swamping or overwhelming these countries. Therefore, there is no good reason that these states cannot help poorer, more in need people. 

The question of basic human decency and morality in asylum seeker laws has seemingly been dismissed in place of ‘strong man’ policies aimed at deterrence. It is evidently inhumane to turn back people in boats or send them to offshore processing centres, and it currently borders on illegal in conjunction with the 1951 Refugee Convention. Does the UK really want to be following Australia’s lead in treating asylum seekers, people who flee situations Britons cannot even fathom, with no humanity? Certainly not, and change needs to come imminently. 

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