human rights politics

Why is the UK government so afraid of refugees?

Yesterday the queen delivered her state opening of Parliament speech and confirmed that the government will be advancing its ‘New Plan for Immigration‘. It is couched in the language of making the asylum and immigration system more “fair”. In reality, the new legislation doubles down on the ‘hostile environment’ approach to migration that the Conservatives have been pursuing for years.

New immigration policies have been designed to satisfy tabloid readers, not to deliver justice or safety for refugees. There are plans for a two-tier asylum system that would leave people in limbo. The government has also consulted on overseas processing, holding people in far-flung destinations such as Ascension Island while the paperwork is done. This is copying the ‘Australian model’ in the full knowledge that these offshore facilities tend to be hellholes of human rights abuse and misery.

These shameful plans may not even be legal. The Law Society says the new proposals will “undermine access to justice and the rule of law.” Amnesty calls offshore processing “utterly reckless”. The UNHCR warns that “proposals by the UK to overhaul its asylum system risk breaching international legal commitments, undermining global refugee cooperation and triggering damaging effects on asylum-seekers who arrive irregularly.”

So here’s a perennial reminder that Britain is far from the front lines of the global refugee crisis.

Despite the impression created by images of boats in the Channel, the vast majority of refugees flee no further than the safety of a neighbouring country. It’s why so many of the top refugee destination countries are right next to the countries that refugees come from. People from Afghanistan are in Pakistan, Sudanese refugees move south and find safety in Uganda. Colombia has 1.8 million displaced people from Venezuela. The country hosting the most refugees at the moment is Turkey, which is next door to Syria.

Globally, 85% of refugees are hosted by developing countries, with far fewer resources than we have in Britain. Uganda hosts ten times the number of refugees that Britain does (133,400 in 2019) with a fraction of the budget to support them.

We have no reason to be so afraid. The Conservative government is not responding to an actual crisis, but a manufactured hysteria.

For evidence of how different our approach could be, we don’t have to look any further than Wales. The approach of the Welsh government is the polar opposite, declaring Wales to be a ‘Nation of Sanctuary’ and a place that prides itself in welcoming people in need. Their national plan and its “person-centric” approach has the full backing of the UNHRC. A dedicated website created for refugees is translated into dozens of languages and explicitly states that “people seeking sanctuary are welcome in Wales.”

The UK as a whole, with its very moderate intake of refugees and with no shortage of wealth, could be far more welcoming and generous to refugees than it is. A positive view of refugees is not a guaranteed vote-losing strategy, as Labour in Wales just proved by winning another term last week. A lot of groundwork has gone into Wales’ approach, so it’s not an overnight switch – but it’s a very clear demonstration that alternative views of refugees and asylum are possible.

The Conservatives are making us into a paranoid and insular nation, and they are doing so for their own electoral gain. This should be resisted – like Wales is already doing. “Inclusion is rooted within our values and Welsh society” they say, speaking with a confidence entirely absent from Westminster politics. “It is something we as a nation believe in and strive for. We are committed to make Wales a true nation of sanctuary.”


  1. I’m really worried about people having to live in limbo. How will this effect children of refugees? Will they be allowed to go to school or access health care while in limbo? And how about adults..will they be allowed to work or contribute otherwise to society while in limbo? Visit relatives abroad?

    1. All good questions, and to which the government is unlikely to have good answers. It looks to me like they are writing policy according to tabloid opinion, not the needs of vulnerable people.

  2. The Welsh Labour stance on refugees is pure posturing since they have no influence over immigration as it is not a devolved area. It gained support from people who share your opinions but was not widely broadcast to the majority of voters. It had zero salience in the election widely. It was also not in any of the election materials I as a Welsh voter was recieving from Labour nor mentioned in any TV debates. They knew that among the wider Welsh public it was a vote loser. If this power was devolved their rhetoric would be very different.

    The Conservatives are responding the public opinion. That’s how democracy should work. Control of your borders is an essential requirement for public acceptance of decent levels of immigration.

    1. That’s exactly the point – refugees aren’t an election issue in Wales because it really isn’t the terrible crisis that the Conservatives think it is. If it hasn’t come up in your elections, perhaps it’s a sign that Welsh voters such as yourself have a much healthier perspective on the whole question.

      How refugees are treated is a subset of overall immigration policy. Regions have a choice about how they will treat the refugees that are dispersed within their jurisdiction. In Wales, that is very different to England, and that’s not a top-down political decision. The idea of sanctuary has filtered up from civil society, originally in Swansea if I remember rightly, with twenty years of good work behind it.

      If it were posturing, why aren’t Welsh Labour leaning the other way and trying to look tough, since that’s apparently where you think public opinion lies? Like Priti Patel, who has taken to treating police raids as a photo opportunity.

      1. I didn’t get the feeling that immigration was a big issue in the local elections generally. Perhaps you can point the to where any of the major parties went big on it?

        Tough posturing from the Welsh government would have done two things. Firstly been laughed at as it is a reserved power. Secondly it would have gained them brickbats form a large part of their activist base, which is well to the Left of Welsh public opinion. By having one line in their manifesto being nice to refugees but not mentioning it in general campaigning they get plaudits from people who like ‘Progressive Little Country Nationalism’ (but who otherwise decry nationalism as bad when Britain/England does it) while not alienating the average voter who’s vote is more concerned about Covid vaccinations.

        The paradox you may not have picked up is that as the government has appeared to take greater control of the borders and who comes in, public support for immigration increases. Combine support for refugees with calls for strong controls to make sure they only arrive via approved channels is a winning political formula for gaining public consent.

        1. I can recommend reading your government’s national refugee and asylum plan, linked to above, and from that you’ll get a clear sense of what’s posturing and what’s policy.

          1. But the government’s plan wasn’t not a big election local issue was it? You say it wasn’t an election issue because the Welsh plan is popular. That’s quite an assertion with little evidence other than wishful thinking to back it up.

            Policies need democratic assent. Without that they are all posturing.

  3. Read the article back, and you’ll see that I said that the Welsh government’s concern for the welfare of refugees didn’t stop them winning another term. Which is a simple fact.

    I’m not claiming any more than that, so I don’t really know what you’re on about at this point.

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