ReROOT Output


Recently, the first steps were taken in implementing a bizarre new plan for processing arrivals across the English Channel. Announced on 14 April 2022, the ‘Migration and Economic Development Partnership’ (MEDP) was described by the Conservative government as an ‘innovative’ approach likely to become a ‘new international standard’ in dealing with asylum. The UNHCR, in contrast, has called it an ‘egregious breach of international law and refugee law and human rights law.’ It involves distinguishing between asylum claims on the basis of the claimant’s mode of arrival, and excluding from the asylum process anyone arriving outside ‘safe and legal routes.’

Since the ‘safe and legal routes’ currently in existence relate only to resettlement of refugees already living in safe third countries, their families, and various discretionary visa schemes (Home Office, 3 December 2021), the announcement expressed an intention to severely erode or eliminate the system of in-country asylum claims. From detail that has since emerged, in-country claimants will henceforth be affected by their connection to or stay in a third safe country, and considered for removal to that country or alternatively to Rwanda, a ‘safe third country’ with which the UK has signed an agreement. The most obvious targets of this new approach are arrivals across the English Channel, whose departures from the French coast give them an inevitable ‘connection’ to a third safe country.

On the day of the surreal announcement, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a speech at Lydd Airport, an air base to Her Majesty’s Coastguard located along the Kent coast in South East England. In it, he made a case for the MEDP policy, and the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill which underpins it (which passed into law two weeks later, on 28 April 2022). His rhetoric reminded me of Achille Mbembe’s observation that the ‘security state thrives on a state of insecurity, which it participates in fomenting and to which it claims to be the solution (Mbembe, Necropolitics, p.54). In this reflection from ReROOT’s UK field site, I share some thoughts on how the discursive choices in this speech conjured a state of insecurity, justifying and giving a ‘common-sense’ quality to the government’s decision to treat arrivals across the channel, and men in particular, as disposable and less deserving of rights.

Conjuring threats to life, law and governance

Boris Johnson’s speech at Lydd – which serves as an airbase for Her Majesty’s Coastguard – focused on ‘action to tackle illegal migration’ (Johnson, 14/04/2022). Johnson linked this action to the efforts of the Nationality and Borders Bill, for the first time, to “distinguish between people coming here legally and illegally” and to make that distinction material to claims and status.

What is clear from Johnson’s speech is how the invention of this distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ arrival, allows the majority of asylum seekers to be named as ‘illegal immigrants’. Once this is accomplished, their arrival can be considered a crime and a threat to law and order, which the state can then claim to solve using the instruments of national security rather than of hospitality and humanitarianism.

The speech demonstrates the power of this legal/illegal distinction to mark as criminal the everyday and internationally recognised act of arriving in a territory with the intention to claim asylum. It speaks of in-country asylum claims as ‘a parallel illegal system’, of people arriving on boats or trucks as entering or arriving ‘illegally’, as having chosen ‘illegal options’ which constitute ‘abuse of our legal system.’ This despite the 1951 Refugee Convention stating that Contracting States ‘shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who… enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.’

Apart from 13 references to illegality, the speech emphasises the association of irregular migration with other criminal themes, such as ‘people smugglers’ (mentioned 8 times), ‘gangs’ (mentioned 7 times) and ‘abuse of the vulnerable’. The speech emphasises the ’vile‘, ‘appalling’, ‘ruthless’ and ‘brutal’ nature of these activities. It uses hyperbole to equate them with a ‘sweeping tide’ that might bring the ‘80 million displaced people in the world’ to the UK’s doorstep, expecting ‘the British taxpayer to write a blank cheque to cover the costs.’ The substantial costs of housing asylum seekers (£5million a day) are also cited, implying irregular asylum seekers are responsible for this financial burden, while contributing issues in housing and immigration policy and practice are overlooked.

Finally, the speech utilises multiple references to death and suffering: ‘desperate and innocent people… taken to their deaths in unseaworthy boats’, ‘drowning in unseaworthy boats’, ‘losing their lives at sea’, ‘suffocating in refrigerated lorries’, in such a way as to justify the Government’s approach, present it as ethically necessary and argue for it to be implemented with speed and urgency: it is imperative, it seems, to ‘stop these boats now, not lose thousands more lives.’

In this way, in-country asylum claims are presented as virtually inseparable from crime, deviance and death, leading to the extraordinary revelation that the Government’s solution to ‘taking back control of illegal immigration’ is ‘a long-term plan for asylum.’

Defining a New Trope for Disposable Life?

Having described the ‘innocent people’ who are ‘taken to their deaths in unseaworthy boats,’ it is a major leap to explain how these supposedly ‘innocent’ people become criminals undeserving of the chance to make an asylum claim if they are fortunate enough to reach British shores. It is as if they can only maintain their innocence if they die; if they live, they become lawbreakers abusing the UK’s asylum system, who (to prevent the deaths of other innocents) must be disposed of through deportation or removal to a third safe country.

To prevent the whole edifice of this ‘innovative’ new system from collapsing on this point, a new type of disposable human is produced. It is ‘men under 40’ that the Prime Minister’s speech appears to construct as the scapegoat for all the ills of uncontrolled immigration. In a dubiously evidenced statement, the Prime Minister claimed at Lydd that ‘around seven out of ten of those arriving in small boats last year were men under 40, paying people smugglers to queue jump and taking up our capacity to help genuine women and child refugees.’

This sweeping statement appears as a rhetorical device intended to draw a distinction between illegitimate, ‘queue-jumping’ male asylum seekers, and ‘genuine’ women and children claimants. As there are no publicly available statistics on asylum seekers’ method of entry, the veracity of this statement is difficult to judge in terms of the sex and age distribution of arrivals by boat, let alone the percentage of such arrivals that are ‘genuine’.

The statements immediately following this one go on to paint male claimants under 40 as illegitimate beneficiaries of the UK asylum system. Johnson asserts that they ‘should’ have claimed asylum in other countries and that their failure to do so is the cause of ‘rank unfairness’ in the asylum system. Coming from the Prime Minister, the claim that legitimate asylum seekers must be ‘DIRECTLY fleeing imminent peril’ statement sounds authoritative, but it contradicts legal precedent (see judgement of Lord Simon Brown in Adimi or for more on legal duties of non-penalisation, see this blog by Costello and McDonnell, 2021).

While ‘men under 40’ are only singled out once in the speech, it appears that here for the first time they are being produced as a distinct, unwanted and illegitimate group. Having defined ‘men under 40’ as those who ‘jump the queue’ and are not ‘genuine refugees’, the Prime Minister goes on to state that under the Government’s plans, ‘those who try to jump the queue, or abuse our system, will find no automatic path to settlement in our country, but rather be swiftly and humanely removed to a safe third country or their country of origin.’ And indeed, from news reports emerging with detail of the MEDP from anonymous official sources, the public has also heard that the plan would involve a pilot which would remove ‘single men’ to Rwanda and make them ineligible for refugee status in the UK (Lee & Faulker, BBC News, 18/04/2022), drawing critical commentary even from former Prime Minister and one-time Home Secretary Theresa May. In this combination of discursive and policy choices, it appears it is single men who come to occupy the position of ‘those who abuse our system.’

Having been produced as a disposable and undeserving category, is it really possible that single men arriving by irregular routes are to become the object of experimentation by policymakers, treated as a lower form of life that can be relegated to a place outside the terms of both domestic and international law? Certainly, theorists have argued that acts of exceptionalism are the very origin of sovereignty. In that sense, perhaps this is not so surprising. And the Nationality and Borders Bill has been controversial exactly for its intention to create a two-tier system that treats some asylum seekers as less equal than others (see blog by David Cantor, Eric Fripp, Hugo Storey and Mark Symes, and the Law Society’s submission to the UN’s universal periodic review of the UK). But even so, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ It does not allow men, single or otherwise, to be denied rights given to others. The UK’s Equality Act makes it unlawful to discriminate ‘against any person’ on the basis of their sex or marital status. To treat ‘single male’ asylum seekers differently from others would be to perform two prohibited acts at the same time.

When challenged about the criteria for removal in the weeks since the announcement, the Home Secretary refused to share specifics, arguing that to do so would provide ‘loopholes’ for smugglers to exploit. The recently published Equality Impact Assessment similarly avoids divulging specific criteria, insisting that decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis. Without transparency, there is little reassurance that in reality this policy will treat asylum seekers equally, particularly given the bias against men under 40 expressed in the Prime Minister’s Lydd speech.

The Home Office has since notified the first group of migrants of the intention to remove them to Rwanda under the MEDP. While the Government has claimed that this will save lives and reduce ‘human misery,’ over 160 organisations signed a letter calling it ‘shamefully cruel’ and likely to cause ‘immense suffering.’ Mbembe’s words are apt again in closing:

What, then, is this “borderization,” if not the process by which world powers permanently transform certain spaces into impassable places for certain classes of populations? What is it about, if not the conscious multiplication of spaces of loss and mourning, where the lives of a multitude of people judged to be undesirable come to be shattered? (Mbembe, ibid, p.97)
Lydd Airport is a permanent base for search-and-rescue helicopters in the south-east of England.
A local Kent newspaper covers Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech at Lydd Airport. He is pictured in the article alongside Natalie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover.
Blog posts
Made on