The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Why cruelty towards asylum seekers is contagious

There was a poignant moment at the 2023 Academy Awards when Ke Huy Quan made his acceptance speech. “My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp, and somehow, I ended up here in Hollywood’s biggest stage.”

Quan’s words briefly highlighted the long and often difficult journey refugees face. And his story was a powerful rebuke of recent decisions by some of the most powerful governments in the world to curtail the rights of asylum seekers, the latest of which is coming from the United Kingdom.

The British Parliament has been in turmoil over the course of the last week following British Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s new proposed policy of pushing back small boats carrying asylum seekers, exiling them to Rwanda, and keeping them in substandard housing. Her politically motivated “performative cruelty” is a rollback of international human rights laws that protect people fleeing death, torture and war. Her rhetoric, labelling refugees illegal and claiming “they all want to come to the UK”, underscores her political ambitions and lack of moral compass.

In response, BBC commentator Gary Lineker’s tweet about the law’s cruelty and the subsequent fallout at the broadcasting network has obscured the long-term effects this policy will have on asylum worldwide. If the right to asylum is curtailed by major countries in the West, then poorer countries, like Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and Sudan, which host the majority of the world’s refugees, will have little incentive to continue doing so.

As a professor of migration, I am painfully aware that the United Kingdom is not the first country to flout international law for political gain. It is following the precedent set in 2013 by Australia and, to a lesser extent, by Donald Trump in the United States during his presidency. However, the risk it runs is of dismantling a system that has served Europe and most of the world very well in the last century.

Australia implemented a similar, armed forces led policy called “Operation Sovereign Borders” in 2013. Under this policy, anyone arriving in Australia illegally would be returned to their country of origin or confined in offshore facilities indefinitely. That’s right, for life.

Australian ships intercepted boats carrying asylum seekers and sent them to offshore “processing facilities” where they were offered a choice to stay in detention centers indefinitely or go back to their home countries. Once in detention, the asylum seekers had no rights and could not return home or seek to change their status by accessing Australian courts. Australia narrowly skirted the 1951 Convention’s Article 33, prohibiting non-refoulement, which is a clause that prohibits returning any asylum seeker to a place where their lives are in danger. It was able to do this by pressuring neighboring countries like Papua New Guinea and Manus and Nauru to keep the asylum seekers on their soil. Expensive and illegal, this law was finally amended in 2022.

Similarly, the United States continues to use Title 42, an emergency public health measure, to prevent migrants from requesting asylum. This applies predominantly to asylum seekers from Central and South America, countries such as Haiti and Venezuela, where corrupt governments, gang warfare and intimidation and militias threaten ordinary people.

There is an overwhelming reason that people are arriving at America’s southern border on foot or by boat to the EU and UK. Western governments have closed off and severely reduced ways for people to request asylum through any other means. Starting almost 23 years ago, the Carriers Sanction Directive was put in place by the EU, fining airlines for carrying any passengers who might claim asylum. Now boats are being turned away. For countries like Britain, which is an island, or the U.S., which has a huge land buffer in Mexico, this is an easy way to refuse asylum to practically anyone.

So why are Western governments making these changes? The reason is clear. Wealthier countries see no economic or political upside to continue their commitment to human rights in the form of providing asylum.

With the end of the communist bloc, refugees and asylum seekers are only seen as a drain on welfare states. What wealthy countries want are skilled migrants, working age adults, who are educated and trained by other countries but can work for lower wages in the West. Importing skilled labor is cheaper than investing in education and training for their own citizens. At the same time, calling asylum seekers “illegal” or “migrants” is a politically popular way to be seen as nationalist.

The Financial Times notes that after Brexit, Britain has seen a huge upsurge in skilled migrants under schemes that make it easy for companies to import labor. The areas that have seen the highest number of migrants being hired: health care, tech and education. The Australians, British and Americans should be under no illusion that blocking migration has anything to do with protecting their jobs. It has everything to do with protecting corporate profits and underinvesting in the long-term health of societies.

Shailja Sharma is a professor of International Studies and co-director of the DePaul Migration Collaborative at DePaul University, Chicago. 

Tags asylum seekers Donald Trump

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Regular the hill posts

main area bottom custom html

MAIN Area bottom

Main area bottom