openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The UK government is looking to profit from closing borders to asylum seekers

As the UK government pushes its Borders Bill through Parliament, it also makes a sales pitch to other states wanting to limit migration

Mary Atkinson
7 December 2021, 2.58pm
A lifeboat from an Irish ferry rescues people in the English Channel, November 2021
Daniel Chesterton/ PHC Images/ Alamy

On 24 November, 27 people lost their lives crossing the English Channel. It’s a journey that, for the ‘right’ people with the ‘right’ visas, takes less than an hour. But, of course, there’s no such thing as an asylum visa. If you’re coming here to seek protection – even if, like many of those on the boat, you’re trying to join family here in the UK – you have to get your feet on British soil in order to make your case. For those seeking asylum, this journey is fraught with danger – for too many, it’s deadly.

The recent deaths should have marked a turning point for the UK government. Instead, it has decided to push forward with its dangerous new Nationality and Borders Bill, at the same time as promoting the border security industry. Both will make crossings even deadlier.

The Borders Bill going through the House of Commons this week effectively ends the UK’s commitment to refugee protection and the international laws that govern it. There is no obligation under international law to claim asylum in the ‘first safe country’. And yet, under this new system, anyone who travels through another country on the way here – which will be everyone, since we’re an island and you can’t travel by plane without a visa to seek asylum – will be punished for doing so.

People who come to the UK to seek protection, rather than waiting years elsewhere in the hope of being resettled, would never get full rights. Instead, they could be detained offshore, kept here indefinitely in camps or just never have their claims heard at all.

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Speaking in Parliament the morning after the Channel disaster, home secretary Priti Patel dubbed the deadly journey “unnecessary” and accused people crossing the Channel of “elbowing women and children who need support out of the way”. Never mind the fact that three children and seven women – one of whom was pregnant – were among those who died in the Channel the previous day.

She also talked up the bill as a way to “break [the] business model” of the smugglers. “The criminals who facilitate these journeys,” Patel told Parliament, “are motivated by self-interest and profit, not by compassion.”

But as it turns out, smugglers aren’t the only ones hoping to profit. In fact, on the very same day as the Channel drownings, the UK government published a glossy advertising brochure. The products on sale? British-made border security technology.

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Conservative MP Mike Freer, the minister for exports, boasts in the brochure’s introduction of the “enviable reputation” the UK security sector enjoys around the world, thanks partly to “experience gained by UK government agencies in security and border management”. The head of UK Border Force, Paul Lincoln, writes of the need to “improve collaboration between government, law enforcement, the private sector and international partners” to “prevent illegal migration”.

Among the border security toys for sale are giant inflatable airships for surveilling people crossing borders and military-style flak jackets. Also on sale are databases that use machine learning to analyse “data on demographics … wealth … and significant physical, cultural and political events” to allow states to monitor “hazards and risks”. All British-made.

One of the companies featured in the brochure, OceanMind, uses artificial intelligence for marine surveillance and intelligence-gathering. As the brochure notes, “monitoring of the marine environment is an essential aspect of controlling borders, given that sea crossings are one of the primary routes for illegal migration”.

Nowhere in the 60-page brochure is the word ‘asylum’. Migration is usually referred to as being ‘illegal’ – despite the fact that there is no legal way to arrive in the UK to claim asylum here. The movement of people is always typified as a threat – and ever harder, more militarised borders the solution.

A policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes

UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee

The problem here is that the government – the same government advertising British-made border technology abroad and pushing through a hardline Borders Bill at home – is on record admitting that these methods just push people into ever more dangerous border crossings. In fact, Priti Patel was a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2019 when it concluded that “a policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups”.

This isn’t a radical position – even the government’s own assessment of the impact of its borders bill agrees. “There is a risk,” it finds, “that increased security and deterrence could encourage [people seeking asylum] to attempt riskier means of entering the UK.” And while restricting the rights of refugees here might stop people trying to come, “evidence supporting the effectiveness of this approach is limited”.

It seems to be an open secret among the people making these policies that cracking down at the border – no matter how big your blimps or how smart your artificial intelligence – doesn’t actually stop people from having to cross to seek asylum, as is their right under international law.

The solutions that would actually work – humanitarian visas, real safe routes to resettlement and family reunion and an asylum system that gives people a fair hearing – are right in front of us. MPs will have a chance to vote for some of them this week, as the Borders Bill finishes going through the House of Commons. Those who truly want to break this vicious cycle of deaths at the border must choose common sense and compassion and back these solutions.

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