Ethnonationalism and the weaponizing of immigration

Sue Collinson says government hue and cry on immigration stokes social divisions and masks harsh realities for millions

This sclerotic and disreputable British government has seized upon the last resort of rogues and scoundrels, pedalling an increasingly divisive right wing agenda of patriotism on to a dispirited country. It has turned opposition into enemies and employed dehumanising language to disfigure the most vulnerable and powerless people in this country, who are deemed to lack patriotism, or cannot by definition be patriots by dint of birth or ethnicity. Immigrants, the unemployed and the very poor are typical of the groups that this government targets, with the support of much of the media which continues, with casual cruelty to demonise and criminalise them. The Bibby Stockholm barge, and the frenetic panic around the “safety of Rwanda” Bill dominate current affairs and conceal the cost of living crisis that the country is experiencing. 

The UK’s benefits system is the least generous in western Europe, and its government appears to be motivated by a moral imperative that life should be as difficult as possible for the unemployed in order to drive them into work, regardless of the nature of that work, its remuneration, location and environment. Ethnonationalism and opposition to immigration has resulted in a high-stakes politicisation of immigration issues. The UK has a very long history of immigration, from which it has undeniably benefited, but until after the 2WW, net migration was relatively low and demographically insignificant. Patterns of global migration have hugely increased since then, as climate, war and improved transport links have boosted the numbers of people on the move globally.  

The UK’s policy towards migrants has become increasingly one of deterrence resulting in the creation of the “hostile environment” introduced by the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016. The idea that “Britain is full”, and that “multiculturalism has failed” were dominant themes during the 2016 Brexit campaign and has enabled the development of an immigration policy characterised by restrictive and punitive measures, as an attempt to deter people from migrating to the UK. One such measure is the prohibition on asylum seekers being allowed to work while they wait for a decision on their application, leaving them stranded in a structureless limbo, on destitution levels of support, often for months and even years while the Home Office fails to deliver decisions in a timely manner. 

When Dr Samuel Smiles published Self Help in 1859, he argued that individuals should improve themselves through hard work, thrift, self-discipline, education, and moral improvement and not seek the help of government; that the state should not be expected to support the individual; and that the poor could be divided into “deserving” and “undeserving”, relabelled in the 20th century as “strivers” and “skivers”.   

After the eastern European nations joined the EU in 2004 and there was freedom of movement, the archetype of the “Polish plumber” with an ethos of hard work and long hours, became an implicit criticism of the work ethic of the home-grown worker. Running parallel to this however, was another perception: that eastern Europeans were flooding into our country in order to scrounge off our welfare state, claiming benefits, and free education and healthcare that they should not have entitlement to – the ultimate “skivers”. 

British attitudes towards migrants, asylum seekers and refugees were already becoming increasingly negative during the first two decades of this century, with a widespread perception that they represent a social and economic threat to society. The language used to describe them presents them as “a flood”, an “invading horde”, “illegal” and, somehow worst of all, “economic”, despite the fact that very few of them will have chosen voluntarily to leave their country of origin. During the long, hot summer of 2020, the furloughed and locked down British public watched as the “small boats” began to arrive on the south coast, containing asylum seekers who would already have endured unimaginable hardship and danger in both their countries of origin and their subsequent journeys to the Channel, frequently via Libyan prisons, enforced slavery and the Calais “Jungle”. This shift in arrival patterns has made for a more visible phenomenon that has garnered a massive increase in media and political attention, but has also been weaponised to vilify people seeking asylum by this “illegal” route. 

Health care for asylum seekers 

Many asylum seekers arrive with multiple mental and physical health needs, but targeted health care is variable. These new arrivals will have claimed asylum immediately upon reaching the UK, and are sent to government provided “contingency” accommodation to wait for their claim to be processed, and a decision made. Much of this accommodation is in the form of hotels, disused military camps and notoriously, the Bibby Stockholm floating accommodation. Local NHS services suddenly found themselves responsible for large numbers of asylum seekers, including hundreds of men, women and children needing GP registration and onward care for a wide range of untreated and often chronic health problems, such as untreated communicable diseases, poorly controlled chronic conditions, maternity care, injuries from torture, mental health and specialist support needs. Very few speak fluent English and there are high levels of mental distress and PTSD. 

Whilst they await an asylum decision, asylum seekers are not allowed to work, and those living in hotel-based contingency accommodation are given £40.00 a month for any essentials they might need above bed and board. Their opportunities to engage in civil society are extremely limited. While minors are allowed to attend school or college, adults have very little to occupy them, except their Home Office paperwork and attending health-related appointments. The UK Home Office resists attempts to change the rules so that asylum seekers are allowed to work while they await a decision, on the grounds that this would be a massive pull factor and attract many more “illegal” immigrants.

The 160,000 asylum seekers currently waiting for a decision on their initial application live lives of enforced idleness and uncertainty which, combined with the trauma many have experienced in their country of origin and during their journeys to get here, means that many struggle with anxiety, despair and depression. The very fact of their worklessness means that they are socially excluded, without opportunities to integrate and contribute to our economy and community, to use their skills, or learn new skills.

As Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer recently pointed out: “I met a Syrian doctor who … was unable to work, because the claim hadn’t been properly processed. He desperately wanted to use his skills to help the community that made him very, very welcome and he was prohibited from doing so. That defies the common sense test”. There are nurses, engineers, pharmacists and agronomists, lorry drivers and postgraduate students in hotels and camps, enduring this apparently endless period of imposed and purposeless idleness still waiting for their Home Office decision, while the UK is simultaneously experiencing a shortage of workers and a very high number of job vacancies, high numbers of people with long term ill health who cannot work, and a rise in economic inactivity.  

Work, like Easter, is a moveable feast. At its best, job satisfaction improves wellbeing at the individual, familial and community levels, while long term unemployment is known to be harmful to physical and mental health. However, the government position is that the mere fact of being in work should act as a panacea for all sorts of social and individual ills, regardless of where and what that work is and whether it pays a living wage and is prepared to impose financial sanctions on those who remain unemployed. Sanctions can be harsh, with the highest level lasting for 91 days. Those who receive sanctions may face avoidable crises relating to worsening mental and physical health, poverty, hardship, unmanageable debt, insecurity or eviction. The UK government has also developed a rhetoric of “economic migrants who have been masquerading as asylum seekers and elbowing to one side women and children” in order to reach the UK and its employment opportunities. What is rarely discussed is the actual ban on the right to work for asylum seekers, the destitution-level of support offered instead, the squalid accommodation and camps and the highly bureaucratic, faceless asylum process that all absorb vast Home Office resources. 

In April 2022 Doctors of the World, part of the Médecins du Monde international network, published their report on the health of asylum seekers in initial and contingency accommodation in England and Wales. This report notes the well-evidenced link between housing and health, and in particular mental health, in its staff’s consultations with asylum seekers in three different contingency accommodation centres. Respondents consistently report a decline in their mental health, referring to isolation from the wider world, loss of autonomy, social isolation, poor social connections and loneliness as major contributory factors.

There exist two antithetical narratives about work, but both are framed by austerity and social exclusion. Job vacancies in the UK in January to March 2022 rose to a new record of 1,288,000; an increase of 492,400 from the pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic level in January to March 2020 (ONS 2022), despite the fact that there is also a record number of people in work. While there are more job vacancies than unemployed people, there remains another popular trope: that immigrants take “our jobs, fill our schools, take our housing, exploit the welfare state and overrun our health services”.

The context of the present cost of living crisis, with those on the lowest incomes forced into “desperation theft”, or to have to choose between heating and eating, fuels the perception that immigration – both legal and illegal – is the chief cause of the crisis in social housing, and also has a negative effect on wages, because of displacement of British workers, particularly in the unskilled and semi-skilled sectors.

In July 2022, the UK government proposed the Nationality and Borders Bill, to strengthen criminal penalties for entering the country illegally and to allow asylum seekers to be detained in a third country while their claim is processed. For asylum seekers, and for the poorest in society, disadvantage is a multi-dimensional concept. It is about “impoverished lives” (including a lack of opportunities), not just low income. Poverty, deprivation, capabilities and social exclusion are different lenses to view and measure disadvantage. Asylum seekers, like the poor, are mainly invisible (Lancet, 2022). Both groups, however, are the focus of negative political commitment: the poor, because they should be working, and asylum seekers, because they must not work. Both groups are also useful to populist political rhetoric as inflammatory campaign fodder, but meanwhile the wellbeing, health and sense of social inclusion of both groups is seriously damaged, which ultimately will damage all of us. 

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