Accusing the UK Home Office of “dog whistle politics” is what it is used to be like accusing former US president Donald Trump of dishonesty — a charge made so frequently that rather than being surprised, you would find yourself simply wondering how extreme the lies would get.
In the case of the Home Office, the frequency with which Home Secretary Priti Patel offers opinions, soundbites, leaks or outlines of new immigration-deterring plans to the UK’s right-wing media has become regular enough to leave us merely wondering just how extreme her next proposals will get.
To recap, in October 2020 Home Secretary Priti Patel said in reference to the UK asylum system that she aimed to “take every necessary step to fix this broken system.” Her statements were in line with the Conservative party’s Brexit campaign pledge “to take back control of the UK’s borders” after leaving the EU.
But rather than fixing a supposedly “broken” system, Patel has above all demonstrated an unfaltering desire to nourish and appease the scapegoating, anti-immigrant sentiments that helped secure the Brexit vote. With the new legislation that Patel is proposing today, including plans to house asylum seekers in off-shore detention centers, the Home Office is once again showing the true face of this Conservative government that is going to great lengths to write racism into law.
So far, plans have emerged to end immigration of low-paid workers; to maintain policies discouraging low-paid immigrants from staying; and to make the experiences of asylum seekers so impoverished and challenging as to discourage remaining in the UK altogether.
Last year, this plan also involved accommodating hundreds of newly-arrived asylum seekers in decrepit former army barracks in unsanitary shared dormitories, leading to foreseeable mass COVID-19 outbreaks.
To their often unacknowledged credit, grassroots campaigns and migrant solidarity groups, both big and small, have expressed their support outside these camps, often making themselves the target of far-right and nationalist protesters. Ultimately, these solidarity actions did help to bring in proper inspections which revealed the government’s deliberate plans to treat people poorly to the point of putting them at risk.
Last week, hostility towards asylum seekers intensified as it was revealed that Patel will be re-launching plans to keep newly-arrived asylum seekers offshore, allegedly in Africa — a measure that was recently legislated in Denmark, a country that made international news over its government’s “zero asylum seekers’” campaign, and its reports of rising levels of racism.
According to a report in The Times last week, the UK is in talks with Denmark about jointly running an offshore asylum camp. Until now, Australia is the only country to use offshore processing camps — much criticized by human rights activists — but which has been of major interest to most of the EU’s staunch anti-immigrant groups who closely follow the UK and Denmark’s next steps.
Over the weekend, Patel wrote a column in the Daily Express newspaper explaining how “Britons have simply had enough of illegal immigration,” to justify to a raft of new “tough” — and human-rights-breaching measures — legislation she is proposing today as the nationality and borders bill.
This plan will reportedly involve pushing for longer jail sentences of four years rather than six months for those that have come into the county illegally, makes it easier to remove them and allows for the punishing of countries who refuse to take back their own citizens. And this move itself comes hot on the heels of the New Plan for Immigration, which was announced in May and sets out to make it illegal to apply for asylum after entering the UK via a non-approved route or for those who passed through “safe” countries before coming to the UK.
Most of these plans have already sparked condemnation and threats of legal action by refugee groups and major human rights organizations.
The main reason why most of these threats and plans could be described as intense “dog whistling” to an anti-immigration media and readership, is that there is simply no strong, current evidence to back up Patel’s comments on the sentiment of “Britons” feeling overwhelmed by immigration. Instead, its purpose is to please a right-wing, anti-immigrant media and ensure continued favorable coverage of this government in the future. Scapegoating of immigrants, an age-old routine of the historically pro-colonial and racist right-wing media, became intensified in campaigning efforts to push the public to a Brexit vote. But even after Brexit, Patel and the right-wing media will, as now, re-ignite anti-migrant sentiment for the racist goal of reducing the numbers of non-white or non-British in the UK.
In this case, what we can see is that she is using the Daily Express, the UK’s most staunchly pro-Brexit, anti-immigration newspaper and a Nigel Farage mouthpiece, to “signal” an anti-immigrant and inherently racist commitment to its readers.
Meanwhile, there is also evidence of a key anti-immigration lobby represented by Migration Watch UK, which is seeking to push immigration to the top of a government’s agenda by putting out a constant flow of propaganda to a largely sympathetic right-wing press.
Nevertheless, in a late June YouGov poll tallying the “most important issue facing the country,” only 24 percent responded “immigration,” coming in behind issues like health, the economy, the environment and leaving the EU. This is not high compared to pre-Brexit years, such as in 2014 when it passed 50 percent at times, surpassing the economy as a primary concern issue.
Looking at these polls, we can also generally see the chicken-and-egg relationship between negative media coverage of immigration and public concern and animosity levels, with convergences in peaks and troughs. Not long before Brexit, the UNHCR had named the UK’s right-wing newspapers — The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Sun, Daily Express — as Europe’s most “polarized, negative and uniquely aggressive” anti-migrant media.
In March last year, only 11 percent of the public polled saw immigration as an issue of national concern. This gradually changed following a sustained media campaign, led by Nigel Farage, to direct major media attention to migrants crossing the Channel from France and arriving at Dover in the southeast of the UK, and later to the increasing number of asylum seekers being put into hotels as emergency accommodation during the pandemic.
The outcome of this sparked a flurry of threats from Patel to clamp down on “illegal immigration”; talk of offshore processing camps or floating camps on barges; deterring Channel crossings with wave machines; and deployment of the navy. In the end, a plan suddenly emerged to keep a total of around 600 people in two ex-army camps in such poor condition that health and human rights abuse claims spiraled.
The extent to which the right-wing media is again driving a misleading narrative is becoming increasingly frustrating for activists lately.
Arrivals via the Channel have jumped up year-on-year, but the increase is nullified by a huge decrease in arrivals to the UK of immigrants by any other transport because of the pandemic.
Largely because of its ease of coverage and visual impact, the story of migrants crossing the Channel is hugely exploited by the media and anti-immigration groups — it is essentially these parties that Patel is once again appeasing with her latest proposals given that the government’s own figures refute any evidence of UK being overwhelmed by asylum seekers.
Between March 2020 and March 2021, the UK offered asylum to 8,640 people, which is 42 percent less than the previous year — the lowest level since 2012. In the same period, there were 26,903 asylum applications — main applicants only — in the UK , a 24 percent decrease from the previous year.
A less-reported figure that has risen considerably has been that of the backlog of claims, which came to over 66,000 in March. But this data largely implies that the government needs to expand and improve its claims processing capacity, not that the UK is overwhelmed by newly arriving migrants and that new extreme laws or measures are needed, which is ultimately just birdfeed for right-wing hawks.
By not commenting at all on the more glaring administrative problem and instead treating immigration policy as a continuous exercise in public relations, Patel is fast turning the asylum system into an even more dehumanized knot of unworkable, draconian laws and lawsuits.
We should make no mistakes when assessing the UK government’s immigration policy by confusing the rather euphemistic sounding term of “fixing it” with a more noble aim of living up to a commitment to helping the world’s displaced and vulnerable communities. Patel’s proposals are those of a callous, self-serving capitalist government whose core of institutionally racist principles and neo-colonial ideology continues to entwine immigration policy tightly with racism.
Last year, refugee welcoming marches and the presence of anti-racism campaigners outside army-camps-turned-migrant-housing were hugely helpful in resisting not only far-right intimidation efforts at the camps, but also in challenging false narratives of illegal and ungrateful asylum seekers, such as how they only complain because they expect to “stay in four-star hotels.” With the new plans being presented today, efforts to combat false narratives, new and old, will remain an urgent task for organizers and activists on the left.