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Brexit: a 'not welcome' sign for forced migrants

Forced migrants are turning away from the UK for fear of racial discrimination post-Brexit. While some on the right may cheer, is this really something to celebrate?

People crossing the Mediterranean sea wait for aid from the Italian Coast Guard in May 2017. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All Rights Reserved.

As a British citizen and researcher working on the Mediterranean migration crisis in Europe, my nationality was once a problem. I would try to hide it whilst conducting my research in Lampedusa, Puglia, and northern Italy so as to not feel guilty about my inability to help asylum seekers who pleaded with me to assist them in getting to the UK. That was then, when the UK was, as one Nigerian asylum seeker told me, “a kind of Canada…. a country which represented freedom”. Then Brexit happened. Now things are different. Forced migrants from Eritrea, Syria, Somalia, Ghana, Nigeria and other countries no longer want to go to the UK to claim asylum. Sweden and Germany are the main destination countries now.

As an anthropologist I have worked on the migration and refugee crises in Italy for over 20 years. I write crises because there have been more than one. In recent years however, the humanitarian crisis has escalated to the point where MSF estimates “one person loses their life every two hours” crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Those who make it have other EU countries than the UK in mind as their final destination.

The anticipation of racial violence in Britain pushes forced migrants to change destination.

Before the Brexit referendum campaign began over two thirds of the forced migrants interviewed in my research in Italy stated their goal was to claim asylum in the UK. All of those interviewees have changed their minds now that British voters chose Brexit, demonstrating that forced migrants respond to changing circumstances as they pursue their primary goal of finding a viable destination country. Italy has never been that destination, and now the UK is no longer considered as a possibility.

British asylum policy is built on the assumption that asylum seekers are job-seeking 'economic migrants' in disguise, and is designed first and foremost to detect what the government sees as fraudulent applications. This is why asylum seekers are legally prevented from working during the first 12 months of their claim. My research suggests, however, that forced migrants originally choose Britain for what I term more ‘symbolic’ motives, namely to gain access to a fair asylum system, to have the possibility to live in a democratic multicultural society, and to feel protected and not be victims of racism and persecution.

Brexit: a harbinger of growing intolerance?

After Brexit this symbolic value is under threat. For asylum seekers, the concept of safety carries both physical and psychological dimensions. In the climate of Brexit and relative political insecurity surrounding the role of Britain in the EU, many of these forced migrants changed destination as they felt that Britain no longer symbolised a place of religious and ethnic freedom, and thus a place where they could feel integrated.

My research shows that it is the anticipation of racial violence in Britain that pushes forced migrants to change destination. Brexit has meant that Britain has become a country that “could be unstable”, as one forced migrant from Eritrea stated. It is this unpredictability that has led these forced migrants to now disregard the UK as a country in which to seek protection.

One forced migrant from Nigeria told me that he wanted to go to Britain originally because he deemed it to be it “an open society”, a “place that would give him protection” and a future after he was awarded refugee status. He was fleeing Nigeria because he had been persecuted for his sexuality. He initially thought that gay people were treated well in Britain, but now with Brexit, he was reluctant to go. He stated that initially he had had doubts about being able to get to Britain physically, but now he had doubts about his security there as a “gay black refugee man”, as he called himself. He explained:

“I had a dream to go to London. I can speak easily there. I can explain my pain. They tried to kill me in Nigeria because I am gay. I have so much pain inside of me. But now I prefer Germany. I am scared I will be beaten in London”.

I conducted my research with individual asylum seekers, cultural mediators and community refugee groups in Italy from countries including Nigeria, Eritrea, Syria, Ghana Ethiopia, Somalia and Pakistan. They all confirmed that forced migrants no longer want to go to the UK to claim asylum after Brexit. This was regardless of nationality and language spoken.

These forced migrants perceived that Brexit would affect British people’s views of migrants in general and would likely lead to racist behaviour against all migrants. Christopher Hein, head of the Italian Refugee Council, stated that Brexit was a vote against the 'foreigner' in general, and that Britain was now perceived as having a climate of hostility against immigrants.

Charting a route through hostile territory

The somewhat uncomfortable term of ‘asylum shopping’ has always negated the real messy and dangerous business of 'getting elsewhere' from Italy to other EU destination countries. Many forced migrants are subjected to human rights abuses as they are compelled to pay money to smugglers to transit across borders. This is a consequence of prioritising border control over preventing women from being raped, children from going missing, and people from dying in lorries as they chart invisible journeys through Europe. This is not just a problem for Europe, as many forced migrants in the world “fall outside the recognised refugee and asylum apparatus” and are vulnerable to “protection gaps”.

Human rights abuses in transit are a consequence of prioritising border control over preventing women from being raped, children from going missing, and people from dying in lorries as they chart invisible journeys through Europe.

The Dublin regulation states that EU member states can choose to return asylum seekers to their country of first entry to process their asylum claim. This is providing that country has a fair and effective asylum system. The law has never worked, and many NGO representatives have called for its cancellation. Likewise, the hotspot system introduced to register asylum seekers and distribute them across Europe via quotas is failing. Italy, for instance, has been criticised for the way it implements the hotspot system, with abuse being reported by the asylum seekers.

Whilst it is commendable that the UK government is contributing to humanitarian evacuation programmes and giving aid, they could be doing a lot more. The numbers of arrivals on these schemes needs to be increased and the Dubs scheme to relocate child refugees needs to be respected. Britain needs to take its quota of asylum seekers already present in the EU, even after they pull out of Europe. Passing the parcel is not an option as Italy and Greece are clearly not coping, and the result is that asylum seekers must risk their lives and expose themselves to human rights abuses in order to try to reach other destinations. They are dying in the Mediterranean Sea. Britain, as other states, has a moral obligation to accept asylum seekers during this refugee crisis.

A new day, a new page

What is needed is a change in focus and strategy. These “spontaneous arrivals” who transit via other EU countries are often considered to be “imperfect refugees”, in relation to those who arrive via evacuation programmes. There is a disparity between the assistance given to those arriving through humanitarian programmes and those who gain refugee status by claiming in country, with the former receiving better reception programmes. This differential treatment needs to end. The problems that newly granted refugees face has been documented by the British Refugee council. 

Whilst some on the right may revel in the news that asylum seekers prefer Germany to Britain, there is nothing to celebrate. The diversion of these forced migrants to other states reflects the increase in ethnic and racial hostility in Britain after Brexit. Is that something we must simply live with? Might the billions of pounds currently going to border control be put to better use?

If it were spent elsewhere, it would likely help shift public perceptions in a positive, more tolerant direction. It would signal that refugees and asylum seekers are not a threat to be combatted, but simply people who will relatively quickly start contributing to the economy and society in which they live. This, in turn, will enhance the integration of all migrants – regardless of how they arrived – already residing within the UK.

Perhaps it is now time to consider allowing asylum seekers the right to work, and moving them away from the benefit system, as is the case in other EU countries. Research has shown that forced migrants do not choose the UK for employment and social security benefits – yet they are frequently forced onto the latter by being refused the former. Allowing them to work will reduce their alienation and provide welcome relief for Britain’s benefit system, already overstretched due to government cuts. It will be a positive and welcomed leap towards inclusion in a current climate of exclusion.

Something clearly needs to be done as hate crimes are rising, and the obsession with borders is only adding fuel to the fire. Brexit is proving to be a disaster for race relations.

About the author

Karen Latricia Hough currently works as a lecturer and researcher at the University of Salento (Lecce, Italy), is a research fellow at the University of Oxford Brookes, and is working on a project funded by the Italian government to improve asylum policy in Italy. She obtained her doctorate in social anthropology from the University of Oxford, and she has worked on several EU-funded projects regarding the development of asylum and immigration law in the Russian Federation and in Europe.


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