The Guardian view on asylum policy: cruelty is a feature not a bug of the system

Rishi Sunak during a visit to Dover, 5 June.
Rishi Sunak during a visit to Dover, 5 June. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA



Dehumanising language is key to legislating brutality for Rishi Sunak’s governmentMon 5 Jun 2023 18.29 BST

Contrary to popular opinion, Britain is a country with few asylum seekers, in contrast with its comparable neighbours. Last year, it recorded 74,751 asylum applications. While this was the highest annual number for Britain since 2002, France had more than double that number and Germany more than three times as many. Rather than sharing the burden of the chaos in much of the world with rich-country peers, Rishi Sunak wants fewer asylum seekers.

To do this he demonises those already here, and those coming on boats. The former are wrongly portrayed as merely economic migrants who have abused British hospitality for their own needs, creating backlogs and wasting state resources. The latter are customers of unscrupulous people smugglers. Dehumanising language is key to legislating brutality.

Yet boatloads of asylum seekers are still arriving – a failure that is hurting Mr Sunak’s poll standing. Hence his hasty trumpeting that small-boat crossings were 20% down this year while those in Europe were going up. This was evidence, said Mr Sunak, that his inhumane “plans” to deter asylum seekers from floating across the English Channel were working. The government’s proposed bill renders inadmissible asylum claims by those coming on boats – deporting them via a one-way flight to Rwanda. It is with very good reason that these plans are described as racistillegal and unworkable.

Deterrence probably did not lead to a drop in numbers. Mr Sunak wanted to claim victory before the battle for public opinion gets under way. Other plausible explanations, as the barrister Colin Yeo wrote, could be migrants switching to clandestine means to avoid detection, the weather being worse than the year before, or departures from the French coast being more effectively blocked.

The trouble is that the Conservative party has been in power for 13 years, and has no one else to blame. Its “Little England” mentality has been exposed by foreign friends, who know ministerial statements mostly deserve little more than an eye roll. After Suella Braverman singled out “Albanian criminals” for an “invasion” of England, the home secretary’s comments were rightly called “disgraceful” by the Albanian prime minister, whose help Mr Sunak was then forced to seek for a deal to ensure fast-track removals. For all the talk of Brexit restoring control of our borders, it emerged that Britain has to pay France about half a billion pounds to stop the boats.

There are 10,000 more asylum seekers waiting for the Home Office to assess their claims than before Mr Sunak’s premiership began. This number could easily be reduced by extending the welcome given to Ukrainians to others fleeing bombs in Afghanistan, Syria or Sudan. But that doesn’t suit Mr Sunak’s purposes. He alighted on refugees as a threat that needed to be dealt with. Getting a handle on this imagined menace, he thinks, will convert the applause garnered into enthusiasm for failing Tory economic programmes.

Instead, it is stoking tensions in communities and resentment among asylum seekers for their enforced destitution. This Tory government thinks that this is a price worth paying – as did its predecessors, who considered using giant wave machines to deter dinghies, or processing arrivals on Saint Helena, an island in the South Atlantic. Pathetic doesn’t quite capture this form of political theatre, where cruel policies are sold to the public as solutions, only for them to be overtaken by even more brutish plans before they unravel.

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