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Britain’s attitude to refugees shows, once again, that it’s a colonial nation

State violence maintains borders and the hostile environment.

Boat People at Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea

Wikimedia Commons/Immigrati Lampedusa

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has found that over 400 refugees have died in the Mediterranean in early 2023. IOM’s director general António Vitorino said:

With more than 20,000 deaths recorded on this route since 2014, I fear that these deaths have been normalized. States must respond.

But states have themselves created a hostile environment for refugees and people seeking safety.

For Britain, one such prominent example is the Bibby Stockholm. The Home Office claimed that the Bibby Stockholm was a “move to a more orderly, sustainable system.” In a humiliatingly short time the scheme was derided as a “symbol for the shambolic incompetence which has broken Britain’s asylum system” by the chief executive of charity Care4Calais. The attempt to detain migrants in cramped and unsanitary conditions on the Bibby Stockholm perfectly encapsulates the government’s ruthless immigration policy and it calls for the challenge of the carceral foundation it feeds upon.

The use of the Bibby Stockholm barge was a part of the Home Office’s plan “‘to reduce the use of expensive hotels." It aimed to house men “aged 18 to 65 while they await the outcome of their asylum application.”

Due to a legionella outbreak, the original 39 migrants were disembarked and the plan was postponed. Now the vessel is being prepared to take migrants again, though the Home Office is facing a legal challenge under planning law.

Racist rhetoric

The Bibby Stockholm is a direct product of the government’s willingness to endanger migrants and their increased determination to stoke anti-migrant sentiment ready for the next general election. This is made plain when MPs like the Deputy Chair of the Conservative party, Lee Anderson, tells migrants, “If they don’t like barges then they should fuck off back to France.” Or when Tory MP Tom Hunt unashamedly says, “I'm quite encouraged to hear it’s like a detention facility, I'd actually like it to be a detention facility.”

This disdain of migrants is not only limited to incendiary rhetoric but extends to legislation. The Nationality and Borders Bill further isolates migrants from adequate aid. It achieves this by creating a “discriminatory two-tier system,” where migrants who travel "via irregular routes… will be given temporary protection with limited rights to welfare benefits and family reunion and they’ll have their status reassessed after 30 months.”

If passed, the bill will enable ’offshore processing’. This not only undermines the Refugee Convention but cements already prevalent and dangerous ideas. The policies of our government, and the rhetoric from ministers, reveal the actual values of our society: Immigration is not our problem. Migrants’ rights are not our problem. Ultimately, anyone who is part of the global majority is painted by the same decisive brushstroke, and also cast as ‘not our problem’.

Ownership and accountability

The illusion that immigration controls are not racist quickly comes undone with the barest glance. The Home Office partly justified the use of alternative accommodation like the Bibby Stockholm by citing public outrage to hotels housing migrants. This has turned hotels into an incendiary fire-pit where fascists can stoke racist flames. In Norwich earlier this year, a speaker from East Anglican Patriots declared, “We will go to every city in the UK to stop the migrants.”

As Gracie Mae Bradley and Luke de Noronha argue, politicians repeatedly claim that:

Racism is morally abhorrent and evil; immigration controls are legitimate and necessary. And yet, every far-right or racist political movement is explicitly anti-immigration and anti-migrant.

Far-right racism is not just a symptom of tighter immigration controls; its very existence demands the existence of tighter controls anyway. It should be no surprise that racism and the far-right are bedfellows. Their parasitic relationship is built on the foundation of Britain’s understanding of movement.

Just as the government needs to stop pretending the immigration policy they enforce is colour-blind, we also need to understand that attacks on migrants not only endanger their access to life-affirming resources but also reinforce brown and black citizens' status as 'the enemy within'. Seen this way, the sustained effort from ministers to other migrants is an effort rooted in white supremacy.

Hostile immigration policy stokes racism but the foundation it builds upon itself is racist and maintains a 'colonial present'. Through dealing with migrants like pests, who deserve to be locked away in a prison barge, the British government continues to ignore the fact that, “Borders maintain hoarded concentrations of wealth accrued from colonial domination." It would appear, then, that the very creation of refugees themselves can, in no small part, be attributed to historic and ongoing colonialism. In other words, very much the problem of British institutions and people.

As long as the government antagonises migrants, they refuse to acknowledge the colonial legacies that in large part explain migration patterns, ultimately declaring their commitment to a “system of global apartheid.” As pointed out by Adam Hanieh, migration is an “internal feature of how capitalism functions at a global scale,” as the movement of people is “relentlessly generated by the movement of capital”. After all, governments have no problem with the free movement of labour and goods, just the free movement of people.

Carceral logic of colonialism

Migrants on the Bibby Stockholm were "strongly encouraged" to return to the barge by 11pm each night, had airport-style security scans to get on and off, and the possibility of their government support being revoked if they refused to go on the barge. These explicit controls are just the tip of iceberg of the carceral logic that plagues immigration policy. Immigration policy must be rid of these logics and this is unattainable with our current construct of borders, because borders don't champion collective movement, but operate ‘through the logic of dispossession, capture, containment and immobility.’

As stated by the Mayor of Portland, Carralyn Parkes, migrants are "human beings that belong in communities." By pushing these migrants onto prison barges, far away from us British citizens, we are directly re-drawing colonial markings on British soil.

Ironically, during the COVID pandemic, when the absoluteness of our borders was so acutely felt, we saw that the so-called impossible can become possible – for example, through the implementation of the furlough scheme and the Everyone In programme, which temporarily tackled homelessness. The government has the capacity to set in motion policies that aid everyone; the choice not to is an active one.

In racial capitalism, migration can only be viewed as an issue, of which the only response is hostility, repression and cries that it is not financially feasible. Transformative justice, which prioritises the presence of life-affirming institutions and the absence of policing and remnants of colonial hierarchy, is vital for fairer locomotion.

Britain does not need a tightening on immigration controls. What it requires is, as Bradley and Noronha argue, is a “radical cultural openness to the Other.” As abolitionist Megan Ybarra precisely puts it, if people who are "undocumented and racialized and criminalized" can gain liberty and humanity, "then everybody will have access to it.”

Undocumented people, alongside criminalised people, are the most oppressed in our societies. Citizens and non-criminalised people actively uphold their oppression when we do not address their struggles in our political organising and, as a consequence, fail to really uproot the systems whose oppressive claws touch us all.

Only by creating a political imagination where migrants and criminalised people are prioritised can we collectively begin to create life-affirming institutions and personal relationships. We need institutions and relationships where organised abandonment is replaced with the nourishing of the needs of the most oppressed. We need institutions and relationships where organised violence is no longer used to stab at the most oppressed groups in society, slashing any potential solidarity between them.

As Ruth Wilson Gilmore perfectly put it, we must allow for “the urgency of no borders to be a prerequisite for how we want to think about the world.”

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