The UK’s debased asylum “debate”

by Chris Bertram on March 10, 2023

In a democracy one might, naively, imagine that political deliberation would involve the presentation of the arguments that people think bear on the question at hand. That is, if someone is in favour of a policy they would present the arguments that they believe support it and if someone is against it they they would do the opposite. One of the surreal aspects of British parliamentary debate on refugees and asylum is that neither the government nor the opposition do anything of the kind, and nor, for that matter do the media do much to improve things.

Consider, that everybody knows that Rishi Sunak’s harsh denial of the right to claim asylum of those who arrive “illegally” is motivated by the fact that the base of the Tory party and a sizeable chunk of “red wall” voters are strongly anti-immigration and that Tory strategists are concerned about the “small boats” issue, both because they are worried that a lack of border control gives off a sign of incompetence and because they want to expose Labour as “weak” on “illegal immigration”. In the Tory press, refugees and asylum seekers are constantly demonized as freeloaders, economic migrants, and young male invaders who pose a threat both of sexual predation and terrorism. (The European far-right, including Italy’s Salvini, France’s Zemmour, and the German AfD, in praising the British policy, do so explicitly as keeping the brown hordes at bay.) Labour, on the other hand, while they have a poor record of support for refugee rights, at least stand for maintaining the current human rights framework and upholding the right to claim asylum as set out in the 1951 Convention.

So far, however, in Parliamentary discussion of the issue, the Tories have posed as the real humanitarians, concerned about the most vulnerable and desperate to stop people from undertaking dangerous journeys. Labour, on the other hand, have said little about the basic immorality of the policy and have focused on the claim that the proposed law will be ineffective and that the boats will still come. Neither Sunak nor Starmer stand up and articulate the real reasons why one proposes and the other opposes the law. In Sunak’s case one imagines the primary motivation for this conduct is a debating tactic; in Starmer’s a concern that a proper defence of human rights and the refugee framework would be electorally costly.

Somewhat paradoxically, then, it is in the unelected chamber, the House of Lords, where we are most likely to see a proper debate that approximates the democratic ideal, as the Lords, not facing election, are free to articulate the reasons they think most relevant to the policy. We can be sure, for example, that Lord Dubs,someone who escaped Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport, will say all the things that Keir Starmer and Yvette Cooper are too cowardly to.

Meanwhile the press and broadcast media do worse than nothing to explain to the democratic public what the issues are, who the refugees and asylum seekers are, what is the relevant international humanitarian law, what is the history of refugee protection, and so on. Rather, the “small boats” issue is presented as an immediate crisis that needs urgent resolution lest the asylum system and indeed the entire country be “overwhelmed”. Rare indeed is the press report that informs the public that “illegal entry” without penalty is explitly provided for in the 1951 Convention. Those who clamour most loudly for the “people” to decide on migration issues are also most concerned to mislead the public about the facts: the false and insincere debate in Parliament is mirrored by a narrative where the “concerns” of a ignorant public need to be pandered to.

In the past few days, the substance of the issue has also been pushed to the background by a secondary debate about whether the impartiality of the BBC has been compromised by Gary Lineker, a former footballer and sports presenter, who compared government discourse around asylum to Germany in the 1930s. Cue a bunch of ministers invoking Jewish family members to argue about the offensive nature of a comparison between their “humanitarian” concerns and the Nazis. Yet comparisons with the 1930s are actually very much to the point, in the following sense: many Jews fleeing the Nazis were refused asylum in countries including the UK, and many travelled through “safe countries” to try to get here. Rishi Sunak is not Hitler, but Sunak’s policies, in denying the right to claim asylum on UK soil, would, if applied in the 1930s have prevented many from finding sanctuary. One of the motivations behind the postwar refugee framework has been “never again”. But it seems never does not last forever.

[Update: under government pressure, the BBC has forced Lineker to “step back” from presenting Match of the Day.]



NomadUK 03.10.23 at 2:06 pm

The number of times in the past few decades in which the unelected House of Lords has come to the rescue (or at least attempted to) of basic civil and human rights and to rein in the excesses of the Government of the day is one of the reasons why I continue to look upon calls to ‘reform’ the Lords by making them an elected body as insane. One can argue that the process of peer selection needs work, but the idea that the upper chamber should be able to hold a reasoned debate insulated from the corruption and vapidity consistently evidenced by the lower chamber seems perfectly obvious.

I will take the House of Lords over the United States Senate any day of the week.


Anonymous 2 03.10.23 at 6:55 pm

I am afraid xenophobia and dishonesty, so apparent in the Brexit debate, is being employed again in an attempt to win yet another term of office for the Tories.


Gareth Wilson 03.10.23 at 8:07 pm

Who exactly was seeking asylum in 1930s Germany?


laura 03.11.23 at 5:19 am



J-D 03.11.23 at 8:50 am

…Gary Lineker, a former footballer and sports presenter, who compared government discourse around asylum to Germany in the 1930s. Cue a bunch of ministers invoking Jewish family members to argue about the offensive nature of a comparison between their “humanitarian” concerns and the Nazis.

An applicable comparison is with the participants at the Évian Conference:Évian_Conference


engels 03.11.23 at 2:12 pm

If the BBC finally implodes over this it will be about the only good thing it’s done in decades.


engels 03.11.23 at 5:48 pm

(Correction: Radio 3 is still very good between 1 and 7am)


JellowMF 03.11.23 at 9:00 pm

The one hope I have when politicians refuse to talk about actual refugee rights, is that it means that maybe if people knew the truth, many would stop supporting inhumane restrictive policies.

My real feeling, when I’m not hopeful, is that an honest and complete discussion about refugee rights and whether we should abandon the convention, would split electorates in a way that politicians find incredibly risky without much gain. A large group of people would appalled that their government would ever consider such cruelty and another large group of people would be appalled that their fellow citizens oppose cruelty. Still, seems like it could help things to push the actual arguments to the center of the debate and not just the market tested talking points. If it leads to more division, so be it.


Matt 03.12.23 at 6:45 am

…in Starmer’s a concern that a proper defence of human rights and the refugee framework would be electorally costly.

This is always so depressing to me. It seems hard to believe that a good case can’t be made on British tradition as a place where those fleeing tyranny could come to, looking back to the 19th and early 20th century, and on the basis of people fleeing from the Nazis. This would have to be a partly romantic and mythical view, but one that could be inspiriring. And yet, no one seems to try this, as far as I can tell – not in the UK, I guess, not for most politicians in the US, not for major politicians in Australia, and so on. I wish that some major politicians would at least try this.


engels 03.12.23 at 10:49 am

I wish that some major politicians would at least try this.

The only way we can defeat a politics of hatred is with a politics of compassion. The Tories’ assault on refugees must be opposed – not because it lacks fiscal prudence, but because it lacks a basic regard for human life. Refugees are not political pawns to be debated and disempowered. They are human beings, whose hopes and dreams should not be sacrificed in calculations of electability. When looking to justify an alternative policy toward refugees, surely their humanity is enough. We need an immigration system grounded in compassion, dignity and care. One that brings an end to the poverty, environmental collapse and wars that are displacing people around the world. One that stops spewing the hateful rhetoric of “invasions” and instead says loudly: refugees are welcome here. As Warsan Shire writes in her poem Home, “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land”. For some, a politics of pragmatism is more important than a politics of principle. Maybe a trip to Calais would change their mind. Jeremy Corbyn


J, not that one 03.12.23 at 2:41 pm

The debate is unfortunate. It sometimes seems to me that while European Jews who came to the US in the 20th century were admitted to polite society on the condition that they acknowledge they’d be separate from the main body of the citizenry, those who went to the UK were asked to deny that any separation could be ethically permitted. We see the result with the overwhelming support for the Tories among those groups and for their lack of compassion for those coming up behind them.


Chris Bertram 03.12.23 at 4:59 pm

@J, I’m not sure I understand your comment, but fwiw the British Board of Jewish Deputies has issued a statement deploring the government’s policy and a Holocaust survivor recently confronted Braverman.


J, not that one 03.12.23 at 5:15 pm


Well, that’s good to know, and I wish that clarification might have been added to the OP, which otherwise might begin to look like a string of criticisms of people who “just happen” to be Jewish.


Chris Bertram 03.12.23 at 5:32 pm

@J what a bizarre and borderline defamatory comment. I suggest you take a remedial reading class. Meanwhile, don’t comment on my posts again.


Matt 03.12.23 at 10:50 pm

Thanks for that, Engels. It’s a pretty good statement by Corbyn. For practical purposes I think I’d rather see such things tied less to general humanitarian/cosmopolitan reasons (even though I think those are more than sufficient normatively myself) and more to an idea that providing refuge to those fleeing persecution (or, in the Australian case, a place to make a home for those pushed out of their homeland, or something like that) is a traditional value that should be upheld, as I expect that has more popular value. Of course, it would be nice to be wrong about that.


engels 03.13.23 at 6:58 am

Matt, I see what you mean specifically about appealing to national tradition and I agree it’s different and worth a try; it seems connected with recent debates about progressive patriotism on parts of the British left.


novakant 03.13.23 at 10:47 am

It’s regrettable and telling that the debate about Lineker and the BBC has overhadowed the actual facts of the case. For a good summary of the legal aspects by a KC, see here:

And yet, the Lineker debate might actually be a good thing in that a very prominent and beloved public figure (I’m not into football, but the seems to have demi-god status) is on the right side of the issue and might sway public opinion in a way that even the right-wing tabloids could be powerless to argue against – we’ll see.

Btw, I think it would be a shame if the BBC, for all its faults, would ‘implode’, whatever that is supposed to mean exactly. I don’t get the BBC hatred from the left, it reminds me of the left-wing ‘case’ for Brexit.


engels 03.13.23 at 2:00 pm

I don’t get the BBC hatred from the left, it reminds me of the left-wing ‘case’ for Brexit.

It’s very simple: you can’t have a nominally independent broadcaster whose leaders are hired and fired by the government.

I was probably being a bit unfair: I do still enjoy the Proms (mostly) and there was a detective mystery set on a submarine about a year ago I thought was pretty good. The BBC rolling news coverage of the BBC clusterfuck featuring BBC interviewers grilling the BBC director-general about BBC staff protests does have a certain je ne sais quoi.

I think it should be democratised, not abolished.


notGoodenough 03.13.23 at 5:32 pm

Reading the bill quickly (usual caveat that I have no legal training, am merely someone on the internet, people are welcome to post more accurate discussion and I will accept correction, etc. etc.) is rather…er…”interesting”:

Clause 4(2) seems to say that anyone arriving irregularly to the UK must be deemed inadmissible, with no exemptions. Meanwhile clause 4(3) seems to state that a claim deemed inadmissible can never be considered in the UK – so even if someone can’t be removed, their claim still cannot be processed here. This would be quite a departure as, currently, the Home Secretary (HS) has the power (but not duty) to deem an asylum claim inadmissible if the applicant has a connection to a safe third country (but this can only happen once there is an agreement for that person to be removed from the UK). This new bill removes any requirement to have any agreed removal in place – instead the HS must declare the application inadmissible, and anyone covered by the bill will never have their asylum claim heard in the UK, regardless of how strong it might be. (Perhaps somewhat ironically, the Home Office may actually comparatively increase the number of refugees, as it could end up unable to deport people it could have if only it processed their claims).

Clause 2 outlines who would be covered – it would create a duty for the Home Secretary to arrange the removal of anyone who 1) arrived in breach of immigration rules; 2) on or after 7th March 2023; 3) didn’t travel directly; 4) don’t have leave to remain; with anyone meeting those 4 criteria having their asylum claim deemed inadmissible. This is an incredibly broad remit (particularly when you consider the difficulties Braverman has had when asked to outline how in fact people can legally arrive in the UK to claim asylum). However, even the definitions are stricter. For example, currently section 37(1) of the Nationality and Borders act states someone has not travelled directly if they stopped in a country where they could have been expected to have sought protection under the Refugee Convention. This bill seems to have removed the need to have stopped, and doesn’t mention the Convention. There appears to be no exemption for children who meet the 4 criteria – and while it appears there may not be a duty for the HS to remove unaccompanied children, they still would have the power to do so (and such refugees would also liable to be detained indefinitely without the current safeguards, including time-limits, applying).

Of course, one big question – assuming this passes – would be, since there would be both the duty and power to remove people…where exactly would we be sending them to? After all, if the Home Office hasn’t considered the asylum claim, most couldn’t be sent back to their country of origin. Those from 32 “safe” countries (EU, plus Liechtenstein, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Albania) could be (if I read correctly), but for everyone else, they may be only be removed to one of 57 listed countries (unless that country is their own country of origin – e.g. a Syrian could not be deported to Syria). Currently the UK only has removal agreement for third country nationals (i.e. not that country’s own nationals) with one country on the list: Rwanda. To the best of my knowledge, that would still face considerable hurdles, was estimated to be very expensive, and even if “successful” would still only take around 200 people. So, if the HS has a duty to remove people but cannot, what happens then?

Well, coincidentally, the bill would also increase the HS’s power to detain people – current time limits which exist for separated children (24 hrs), children in families (72 hrs), and pregnant women (72 hrs) would no longer apply; the HS could also detain someone for as long as deemed “reasonably necessary”, even if a removal agreement isn’t in place (and Clause 13 prevents an application for bail within the first 28 days of detention). Of course, detaining everyone that this bill would demand would be very expensive – not merely in terms of human wellbeing, but also financially (at the Home Office’s estimated £120 per person per day, detaining the number of people estimated to cross this year would be ca. £220 million alone – this is discounting the cost of facilities, etc., though I suppose it is possible the UK might go full “tent city”). But then again, I can’t see any requirement to house people, either. So, this will essentially lead to tens of thousands of people stuck in a sort of limbo – they would not be removed by the government, but neither could their case be heard nor could they be able to work. This opens up two possibilities that I can see – a) detaining tens of thousands of people indefinitely; or b) leaving tens of thousands of people homeless and destitute, and unable to work or support themselves. Even setting aside such radically left wing notions as “basic human decency”, it seems to me a less than ideal outcome (unless, presumably, you happen to be a Tory MP’s barber or something of that ilk, and therefore first in line to get a juicy government contract with no strings attached).

There are other things too, of course – such as severely undermining the Modern Slavery Act by exempting survivors from its protections (I realise that the radical notion that “slavery is somewhat less than ideal” is considered somewhat controversial these days, so I leave it up to individual commentators to form their own opinions about that one), undoing case and common law protections against prolonged detention, as well as undermining such elements of the Human Rights Act as still remain.

So, again, I am not a legal professional (let alone one specialising in a relevant area), but as far as I can tell this would be some combination of pointlessly cruel, ineptly managed, ruinously expensive, alarmingly authoritarian, and highly unlikely to do anything towards its purported goals. Those are not the only reasons to oppose it (basic interest in human wellbeing suggests itself, supposing one might place value on such a thing), but I do think they are worth keeping in mind.


KT2 03.13.23 at 9:01 pm

notGoodenough, the outcome as you said “would be some combination of pointlessly cruel, ineptly managed, ruinously expensive, alarmingly authoritarian”.

The points you make notGoodenough are already well  known. The effects and affects on humans, and the opportunity costs foregone – “this year would be ca. £220” – which if spent on support  instead of detention would alleviate immense trauma.

John Quiggin said in 2004;
“… that the policy these lies were used to defend is one of locking innocent children behind razor wire, in desert camps and remote islands, under inhuman conditions deliberately designed to discourage others. I can think of plenty of things to which this is morally equivalent, and they are all shameful.”

Reading 3 Wikipedia pages is all it takes. Plus JQ.

Immigration detention in Australia
Asylum in Australia and Immigration history of Australia
For the detention facilities housing such immigrants, see Australian immigration detention facilities.

“Sympathy for asylum seekers
AUGUST 20, 2004

“One cheer for Costello
AUGUST 24, 2004

“While I’m on the topic I’d like to express, yet again, my disgust at those who have endlessly parsed government lies about “children overboard” seeking to make them true by arguing that actions “morally equivalent” to throwing children overboard took place on occasions other than the one to which the lies refer. These people should never be allowed to forget that the policy these lies were used to defend is one of locking innocent children behind razor wire, in desert camps and remote islands, under inhuman conditions deliberately designed to discourage others. I can think of plenty of things to which this is morally equivalent, and they are all shameful.”

“Is there a solution to the refugee problem?
JULY 21, 2013

“Could the culture wars really be over?
OCTOBER 16, 2021

“The big exception to all of this is the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. As elsewhere it’s been a potent issue for the culture war right and one on which they have generally been successful.”

And who here is aware of;
“Can Empathy Actually Be Harmful?”

“This resulting “empathy gap” is known asparochial empathy, and unlike the empathy one extends to people similar to oneself, it can have very negative consequences, especially when it goes beyond feelings and actually leads to disparities in how we treat different social groups. For instance, other research on different types of groups has shown that parochial empathy can predict things like prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behavior towards immigrants.

“In our recent article;
Behler, A. M. C., & Berry, D. R. (2022). Closing the empathy gap: A narrative review of the
measurement and reduction of parochial empathy. Social and Personality Psychology
Compass, 16(9), e12701.


KT2 03.22.23 at 8:50 pm

“Offshore detention: cross-sectional analysis of the health of children and young people seeking asylum in Australia

“Results Over half of the CYP (n=32, 52%) were held on Nauru for ?4 years. The vast majority of CYP had physical health (n=55, 89%) and mental health (n=49, 79%) concerns including self-harm or suicidal ideation/attempt (n=28, 45%). Mental health concerns were more likely in CYP who were school-aged (p=0.001), had been held on Nauru for ?1?year (p=0.01); originated from the Eastern Mediterranean region (p<0.05); witnessed trauma (p<0.05) or had exposure to ?4 refugee-specific adverse childhood experiences (p<0.05). Neurodevelopmental concerns were seen in eight children (13%).

“Conclusions This study highlights the almost universal physical and mental health difficulties in a sample of CYP who experienced forced migration and were subjected to Australia’s offshore immigration detention policy. Immigration detention in recipient countries, a known adverse childhood experience, may contribute to or exacerbate harmful outcomes in CYP seeking asylum.


Comments on this entry are closed.