Reanna Smith

The summer of 2020 saw a record-breaking number of migrant small boat crossings over the English Channel, since then immigration has taken a top spot on the UK’s government’s agenda as the Home Secretary makes promises to reform what she calls a “fundamentally broken system”. But the government’s claims that we have a migrant crisis on our hands don’t match up with what official statistics show us. There’s one reason for this: distraction. 

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The pandemic and changing perceptions

In the lead up to the EU referendum in 2016, anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK was at an all-time high. This negative perception of immigration continued after the country voted for Brexit and throughout the negotiation period. But then the coronavirus pandemic devastated the UK, and no one could have predicted the impact it would have.

Amongst the many devastating effects of the pandemic, there was one positive impact, changing attitudes towards immigration. With foreign nationals making up over 13% of NHS workers, and BAME healthcare workers being amongst the worst affected during the pandemic, this unprecedented event showed us just how much the country relies on immigrants and the sacrifices that they make for us. 

A return to anti-immigrant attitudes 

However, just a few months later the government was back to vilifying immigrants once again. The increasing number of Channel crossings resulted in a massive response from the Home Office. In her speech at the Conservative party conference, Priti Patel focused heavily on the UK asylum system, as she accused asylum seekers of “shopping around”. At the same time, plans that the Home Office had considered to deter asylum seekers were revealed. 

The draconian measures included offshore immigration centres and wave generators to push boats back. The government further made it clear that asylum seekers weren’t welcome during their treatment throughout the pandemic. The use of military barracks as contingency housing has been heavily criticized, due to reports of unsafe conditions and mass outbreaks of Covid. 

Tabloid headlines and the government’s own statements about Channel crossings attempt to justify this response by convincing the public that we have another migrant crisis on our hands, comparable to the peak of the European migrant crisis in 2015. However, after vilifying asylum seekers for the latter half of 2020, the government’s own latest statistics paint a very different picture of the “crisis” that they have created.  

A fabricated crisis

Although the government have put the asylum system on the top of the agenda, the latest official statistics that they have released show that asylum applications actually fell by 18% in 2020 and the number of people granted asylum or other forms of humanitarian protection dropped by a massive 52%, to the lowest number since 2014. 

The fabrication of this so called ‘crisis’ is truly laid bare by the statistics. Not only have the numbers of asylum seekers dropped but even if they hadn’t the myth that the UK has no room for asylum seekers is untrue. The UK takes in less than 1% of the global refugee population. Even when compared to other countries in Europe, the UK takes in significantly lower numbers than many, including Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain. 

Around 1.3 million immigrants have also left the UK during the pandemic. This is largely due to the hostile environment created by the government, which resulted in immigrants being left with two options, stay in the UK and work in potentially unsafe environments without any support, or return to their country of origin. A watchdog recently revealed that if these migrant workers don’t return, the UK’s economic recovery from the pandemic could be at risk. 

Distraction to hide overwhelming failures

So, if asylum applications are actually dropping, and the UK is reliant on immigrants returning for a successful recovery, why then is the government so focused on their immigration policy? The answer is simple, it’s a distraction. 

The UK Coronavirus death toll now stands at over 120,000, the highest of any European country. This absolutely devastating number of deaths is down to the government mishandling of this crisis. The Prime Minister missed five greatly important Cobra cabinet meetings as the virus began to spread across the UK, but this wasn’t the end of the government’s failures. 

Throughout the pandemic, they have failed to supply adequate PPE, spent billions on a test and trace system that doesn’t work, acted illegally in their handout of Covid contracts, didn’t act quickly enough when cases began to rise in between lockdowns and failed to send effective messages and advice to the public. 

UK governments have historically used migrants as scapegoats to distract from the issues created by their own policies. Prior to the EU referendum, immigrants were blamed for many issues by the current Conservative government, including increasing NHS waiting times and a reduction in other public services, issues which can be traced back to years of austerity measures.

And before the current government, migrants were also used as scapegoats by New Labour, who in an era of increasing immigration into the UK, introduced several bills that saw the rights of asylum seekers harmed and their entitlement to assistance and benefits reduced. Both parties attempted to justify their draconian asylum policies with claims that they were required to reduce “bogus asylum seekers”, refusing to acknowledge the fact that illegal asylum seekers don’t actually exist.

So, when it came to responding to their mass failures during the pandemic, rather than make apologies or take responsibility, the British government did what it always does and resorted to their well-used plan of scapegoating immigrants once again. 

Reanna Smith is a correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, a legal firm that offers support for those facing a variety of immigration issues, from visa applications to asylum claims. 

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Last Update: April 23, 2024