The Dangers of the British Government’s Immigration Rhetoric

Megan Baker

On 31 October 2022, British Home Secretary Suella Braverman told MPs in the House of Commons that ‘the British people deserve to know which party is serious about stopping the invasion on our southern coast and which is not. Let’s stop pretending they are all refugees in distress. The whole country knows this is not true.’ Campaigners, including the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Care4Calais have condemned her comments, calling her language ‘dehumanising’ and ‘indefensible’. According to Politico, around 40,000 migrants have crossed the English Channel this year, which is more than in 2021 and 2020 combined. These migrants have primarily come from Albania, Afghanistan and Iran.

Phil Hubbard from King’s College London argues that the use of invasion metaphors invokes the infamous British patriotism during the Second World War, thus depicting Britain’s beaches as the ‘frontline’ during military conflict. The British public is, therefore, inclined to view refugees as enemies, rather than as people fleeing war, conflict or persecution. Braverman’s comments appear to have been very carefully crafted in order to invoke this type of patriotism among the British public, who are told that their country is being invaded. Adding to this, there is a perception that not all migrants trying to cross the English Channel are ‘refugees in distress’, partly because they have not sought refuge in the first country they arrived at. However, according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees do not have to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach and might have legitimate reasons to seek protection in the United Kingdom rather than in another country.

On 6 November, it emerged that Braverman had been warned by government lawyers of the dangers of her ‘inflammatory’ immigration rhetoric leading to far-right terror attacks before she made her ‘invasion’ comment. Braverman had clearly disregarded this advice in favour of recklessly promoting dangerous populist rhetoric. All of this all comes after a man threw up to three incendiary devices at an immigration processing centre in Dover on 30 October before taking his own life. Counter-terrorism police later claimed that the attack was motivated by ‘extreme right-wing terrorist ideology’. The Home Office has declined to comment on the attack. Braverman’s comments are not made in a vacuum but will have a potentially harmful impact on the beliefs and behaviour of other people. We will never know whether Braverman’s comments directly or indirectly influenced the carrying out of this racist attack, however, government lawyers had warned her of this possibility. Far from backtracking or apologising for her use of language, Braverman doubled down, referring to ‘Albanian criminals’ in the House of Commons on 2 November. This led Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, to accuse Braverman of discriminating against Albanians in order to ‘excuse policy failures’.

Braverman is also facing domestic pressure over claims that she acted illegally by holding thousands of undocumented migrants in unsuitable conditions at the Manston centre in Kent. Established as a short-term holding facility, with no overnight accommodation, Manston is typically unable to detain anyone for longer than 24 hours. Braverman is facing legal action, including from the charity, Detention Action, over allegations of failure to implement ‘essential safeguarding measures’ for children, migrants being exposed to infectious diseases due to poor sanitation, and no means for detainees to get legal advice about why they are being detained. Clearly, Braverman’s comments on refugees are not just words but also extend to action in the form of mistreatment. Braverman’s comments and actions have been overshadowed in British politics by other matters, such as Matt Hancock’s controversial appearance on the reality TV show ‘I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!’ and Gavin Williamson resignation over allegations of bullying.

The government needs to modify its inflammatory language and stop perpetuating misinformation about refugees to avoid stirring up hate towards refugees, the consequences of which we have potentially already seen. The government must also condemn all racist attacks. Polling from Ipsos from February 2022 shows that 42 per cent of Brits want to decrease the number of immigrants coming to Britain. Furthermore, this polling also shows that 60 per cent of Brits are dissatisfied with how the government is dealing with immigration, with 52 per cent citing that not enough is being done to stop channel migrant crossings, and 41 per cent agreeing that too many people are being allowed to claim asylum in Britain. Although the British public’s attitude is generally more positive towards refugees than in recent years, a good proportion of people still believe that there are too many asylum seekers in Britain. Although this data is around nine months old, it is difficult to imagine that Braverman’s comments are improving the public’s attitudes towards refugees.

Bibliography

‘Attitudes towards immigration’, Ipsos, Fieldwork 28 January – 10 February 2022.

Casciani, Dominic, “Suella Braverman facing legal action over Manston children safety”, BBC News, 3 November 2022.

​​”Dover migrant centre attack driven by right-wing ideology – police”, BBC News, 5 November 2022.

Forrest, Adam, “Stop using Albanians as excuse for your failures, Albania’s PM tells UK’, The Independent, 2 November 2022.

Hubbard, Phil, ‘We shall fight on the beaches’: invasion rhetoric and the anti-asylum discourse in Boris’s Britain”, King’s College London, 15 June 2022.

Kayali, Laura, ‘France, UK to reach illegal migration deal as soon as Monday: Report’, Politico, 12 November 2022.

Preussen, Wilhemine, “Albania’s PM Rama: UK must stop blaming us for ‘policy failures’, Politico, 2 November 2022.

Sparrow, Andrew, “Suella Braverman condemned for claiming asylum seekers engaged in ‘invasion’ of south coast – as it happened”, The Guardian, 31 October 2022.

​​Townsend, Mark, “Suella Braverman was warned ‘hate speech’ could inspire far right”, The Guardian, 6 November 2022.

‘UK government’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is fuelling racist attacks against asylum seekers’, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, 17 August 2021.

‘UK Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda’, UNHCR.

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