The British government, whatever its current political stripes, loves to boast about Britain’s long, and proud, tradition of welcoming migrants and refugees. The recent Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper is no exception. It begins with ‘our vision’: ‘Britain is an open and tolerant country which has a long history of welcoming migrants and the benefits they bring, as well as meeting our international obligations to refugees’.
This ‘long and proud’ phrase is so ubiquitous that it is almost a cliché. In my own recent research which has involved interviewing people involved with asylum policymaking in the UK (policy officials in the Home Office, former Home Secretaries, special advisors to these Home Secretaries, amongst others), one former special advisor even commented, “one of those phrases we always put in to every speech is the one about having a long and proud tradition of protecting refugees. So then when you announce the policy everyone is happy; we’re protecting the system from abuse and protecting those in need. That way there’s something for everybody.”
So how about this ‘long and proud’ tradition? Is it something that we can trace across time? Unfortunately, anyone who has studied the history of immigration to Britain will know that it is much easier to find examples of the state passing new legislation to keep (particularly black and brown) migrants out of the country, of steadily reducing immigrants’ social and economic rights, of creating a ‘hostile environment’, building walls and special detention centres and, and even of turning brown citizens into immigrants for the purpose of excluding them. Add this to a broader context of hostility to immigrants – one in which today’s Brexit Britain is generally seen as much more tolerant and welcoming than the imagined monocultural Britain of the past – and the ‘long and proud tradition’ starts to look a bit empty. Unfortunately, when we look at the history of asylum and immigration policy in the UK we find a long and shameful history of exclusion, othering, dehumanization, criminalization, impoverishment, and the shirking of international responsibilities.
I will explain with reference to some of my own research on the history of asylum policy in Britain. In 1951 Britain signed the Convention on the Status of Refugees at the UN. The human rights framework was based on the idea that the need for some legal constraints on a state’s sovereignty might be necessary in order to prevent a repeat of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. Before this people didn’t really have any rights aside from their rights as citizens of a particular country, and so had no right to be protected if the rulers of their country persecuted them. As Hannah Arendt famously put it in The Origins of Totalitarianism, when forced to flee their country and effectively made stateless, Jewish refugees found that they had lost the right even to have rights.
And this was in part because the Jews had been failed. Britain, for example, did not offer them protection from persecution in a manner which might be described as part of a ‘proud’ tradition of welcoming refugees. Britain resisted taking refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, explicitly stating a preference for Aryan refugees. The Home Secretary told parliament in 1938 that the mass migration of Jews must, rather perversely, be prevented in order to prevent the growth of anti-Semitism in Britain. While Britain took thousands of Jews before the end of the war, this was not good hearted. For example, the parents of children arriving via the Kindertransport were not permitted to accompany them, and many of the older kindertransportees were classified as potential enemy aliens and either interned or closely surveilled. The main concern in Britain, as in other European countries, was with not being unduly burdened with dependent migrants.
The Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees was supposed to rectify such inhumane responses which lead to the deaths of millions. So now refugees have the right to cross an international border without the proper documents, have the right to apply for asylum and for their application to be properly assessed, and the right not to be sent back to their home country, or a third country, where their lives might be endangered.
Britain, then the British Empire, was a founding signatory, and while today our historical role in the convention drafting is apparently a source of national pride and evidence of our long and proud tradition of protecting refugees, my own research on the convention negotiations tells a less flattering story. In the late 1940s British government ministers were in fact strongly against human rights, particularly if they affected activities in the Empire. The cabinet secretary’s notebooks from the period show that there were long discussions between senior British ministers about not wanting to be bound by the human rights conventions, but equally not wanting to be seen to be against them.
The reluctance stemmed from the fact that the so called ‘coloured populations’ were treated as inferior humans by Britain and the US, despite the British Empire’s rhetoric of fairness and equality. Over time, due to domestic and external pressure, not least the need to be seen to take the moral high ground internationally, there was little choice but to sign up to the human rights agenda as it unfolded. The central concern was ensuring the least inhibiting outcome regarding activities in the Empire. So a clause, was proposed and passed in the negotiations which allowed colonial powers to decide which of its territories human rights would apply to. Despite at this time holding significant overseas territories, the UK extended the Convention only to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
What this example shows is the longevity of exclusionary asylum practices. The British government was hostile to granting non-European asylum seekers refugee rights under international law from the start of the refugee regime. It was only in 1967, under increasing pressure from decolonizing countries, particularly those in Africa who, unprotected within the UN, were developing their own human rights framework which threatened to undermine the international dominance of the United Nations, that the refugee convention was extended to include those displaced outside of Europe.
So what about now? Perhaps the tradition is, if not long, then more recently ‘proud’? Unfortunately not. In recent years the rights of asylum seekers have been steadily eroded. Though the British government was reluctant to sign up to the refugee convention, it remained tolerable initially as it allowed a trickle of Cold War refugees to flee West. Though conflicts, and indeed refugees, existed outside of Europe, most people did not have the means to flee to the continent. Most still don’t. 87% of the world’s refugees still reside in a neighbouring country to that which they have fled, and Britain does not neighbour a refugee producing country. But in the late 1990s more of these non-European asylum seekers managed to make their way to Europe than had previously, and sometimes they reached Britain.
The arrival of non-European migrants in any number has always been received as a crisis, and this was the case in the early 2000s. If there were more asylum seekers from outside of Europe, this was interpreted as a wave of economic migration disguised as asylum seeking –so many people from poor countries could, of course, not be legitimate asylum seekers. The result of the ensuing moral panic in Britain was nine rafts of primary legislation in under two decades, which steadily eroded the rights of asylum seekers.
Measures such as detention, dispersal, reporting, fingerprinting, impoverishment, and social and economic exclusion, have since proliferated and are a normal part of the asylum regime. Indeed, every effort has been made to limit the number of people who are legally recognised as having been persecuted, irrespective of the country contexts from which they flee. Asylum applicants are largely banned from working. They currently receive £36.95 per week in welfare. This represents less than a third of the income of the poorest 10% of the UK population and was set specifically in relation to what that group spends on essential living needs. The only place where asylum seekers can work is in immigration detention centres, where many are incarcerated sporadically, here they are paid between £1 and £1.25 per hour to undertake jobs which are integral to the running of the centres that incarcerate them. This example itself revealing the disjuncture between ‘hostile environment’ policies for immigrants, and those which seek to eliminate forced labour.
In 2012 a national charity The Children’s Society, instigated a parliamentary inquiry in to asylum support for children and young people. It concluded that ‘the current levels of support provided to families are too low to meet children’s essential living needs’. Low levels of asylum support were, expert witnesses including academic researchers, social workers, local authorities and health professionals, suggested, producing malnutrition, high infant and maternal mortality rates, disrupted education for children, mental health problems, health problems related to living in dirty damp conditions and having inadequate clothing, risk of exploitation, and domestic violence. In short, the impacts identified were all symptoms of living in poverty with factors such as forced dispersal and histories of persecution compounding the impacts of that poverty.
In July 2013 the charity Freedom from Torture, which supports torture survivors, published a research report on poverty amongst asylum seekers and refugees. In his foreword, Juan Méndez, United Nations Special Reporter on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, wrote: “The research [documented in this report] demonstrates that torture survivors living in exile in the UK are pushed into poverty by government systems that are meant to support them as they pass through the asylum determination system and beyond. I know through the work of my mandate internationally that many torture survivors who manage to reach and claim protection in States such as the UK may not have directly experienced these levels of absolute or relative poverty before.”
One single justification has been given for these policies of impoverishment: that welfare and work act as pull factors for disingenuous asylum seekers coming to the UK. Yet, there have been 23 peer reviewed studies on pull factors since 2002 but not one has found a long term correlation between welfare and work rules, and numbers of asylum seekers. In my own interviews with policy makers none were able to present any evidence for work or welfare acting as pull factors. That the policy of impoverishment is, in short, not based on any evidence, but is rather driven by the imperative to be systematically unwelcoming to asylum seekers.
It is within this policy context that we come to the British response to the crisis of refugee reception facing the wider European continent since 2015. Prime Minister Cameron and then Home Secretary Theresa May explained that sharing the burden with their European counterparts would act as a pull factor. The Conservative government therefore opted out of an EU plan to offer resettlement to a limited number of refugees in response to the crisis in the Mediterranean, and have accepted only small numbers taken from camps in the Middle East as part of the UN resettlement programme. Here, again, while doing little we can argue that we have high moral standards. As the special advisor quoted at the beginning explained: we’re protecting the system from abuse and protecting those in need. That way there’s something for everybody.
The claim that Britain has a long and proud tradition of protecting refugees from persecution is, in conclusion, mere rhetoric. There have been moments of hospitality, but scratch the surface and they have often been late in any given crisis and always reluctantly conceded to. Britain was a reluctant signatory of the 1951 refugee convention, and the exclusionary impulse continues today. In fact, we might conclude from this brief overview that Britain has a long history of seeking to avoid being seen as too generous, too welcoming, lest people seek asylum here.
 See Mayblin, L. (2017) Imagining asylum, governing asylum seekers: complexity reduction and policy making in the UK Home Office, Migration Studies, online first.
 Mayblin, L. (2017) Asylum After Empire: Colonial Legacies in the Politics of Asylum Seeking, London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
 London, L. (2000) Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948: British Immigration Policy and the Holocaust 1933-1948, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 See also Mayblin, L. (2014). Colonialism, Decolonisation, and the Right to be Human: Britain and the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. Journal of Historical Sociology, 27(3): 423-441.
Lucy Mayblin is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick.