Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 9, No. 1, January 2021
By Bertie Harrison-Broninski
2021 marks ten years since the start of the Syrian Civil War, and we’re reaching the end of a decade of European and British politics defined by the migrant crisis. Anti-refugee campaigning contributed to the Brexit vote in the UK, and to far-right governments across Europe, such as Viktor Orban’s in Hungary, or Andrezej Duda’s in Poland.
Yet two seemingly contradictory developments in British policy this month demonstrate that the Brexit architects who are now leading the UK government lack Orban or Duda’s clarity around their attitude towards immigration.
Immigration Minister Chris Philp announced last week that Britain would no longer be giving sanctuary to unaccompanied refugee children. The ‘Dubs Amendment’ to The Immigration Act 2016 was intended to be the Syrian Civil War equivalent of the WW2 Kindertransport programme, and is now officially ended. While Kindertransport resettled 10,000 children however, this policy aimed for 3000 child refugees, and ultimately only managed 480 before its end. Philp said it is “important that we focus on ensuring that we can care for those who are already here before we agree to taking more children”.
Meanwhile, on Sunday applications open for the British National Overseas (BNO) visa scheme, which provides a route to British citizenship for people in Hong Kong. Over five million Hong Kongers are eligible, although the government estimates that between 257,000 and 322,000 will apply.
Helping residents of Britain’s most recently relinquished colony escape the totalitarian crackdown of their new overseeing government is a noble act, with clear ethical and legal justification. The Chinese government breached the Joint Declaration with the passing of the Hong Kong Security Law on 30 June 2020, and it is right that Britain responded.
The concurrence of the BNO scheme with the abandonment of the Dubs Amendment, however, reveals that it is not a commitment to legal obligations that underpins government decision making. Nor is it humanitarianism: few policies have as clear a humanitarian case as offering asylum to orphans from a war in which the UK and its allies have likely killed thousands of civilians.
The reasoning behind both of these decisions is geopolitical. In the first month of full-swing Brexit, Johnson and his cabinet want to distance themselves from the EU’s perceived problems, and reposition themselves as an independent superpower on the world stage. By refusing refugees from the Middle East (via Europe), even unaccompanied children, they are signalling that the migrant crisis is to be dealt with by the EU alone. Unilaterally announcing a scheme to theoretically resettle up to two thirds of Hong Kong’s population is likely an attempt to cast Britain as a major player in the ‘New Cold War’. Adult Syrian refugees in Europe have mostly been middle class and educated, so there is little economic argument for treating Hong Kongers differently.
During Cameron and May’s premierships, immigration was viewed as a burden. Both Prime Ministers paid lip service to the ethics of providing asylum, while announcing (and then failing to meet) quantified targets for lowering the annual number of immigrants. As Home Secretary under Cameron’s coalition government, May introduced the ‘Hostile Environment Policy’. Aiming to dissuade migrants from entering Britain, it centred on a “deport first and hear appeals later” strategy which led to the Windrush scandal. The Equality & Human Rights Commission later concluded that the policy breached equalities law.
Elements of the Hostile Environment Policy remain, but Johnson abandoned quantified immigration targets in October, just as he has abandoned the cold consistency of Cameron and May’s politics. After the ridicule of May’s “strong and stable leadership” mantra, government has instead reluctantly embraced Johnson’s impulsive politics of convenience. Most infamously demonstrated by the two comment pieces he drafted before joining a Brexit referendum campaign, one for Leave, and one for Remain, his approach has translated to national anxiety over sudden U-turns and new coronavirus restriction announcements during the pandemic.
Regarding immigration policy though, this lack of political rigidity leaves room for a new approach to succeed May’s ‘hostile environment’. In between the extremes of denying 2520 unaccompanied children sanctuary and giving passports to five million Hong Kongers lies an ideological void waiting to be filled.
Johnson will not fill this void independently; he will wait until he is forced to pick a side, just as he picked an article to publish at the start of 2016. Civil society, the media, and other politicians must make the case for the immigration policy of the next era.
This must begin by acknowledging the Home Office’s dirty secret: that Cameron, May, and the rest of the Conservative Party have lied about the economic impact of immigration for years. Immigrants are rarely ever a drain on the economy. Hostile environment or not, time and time again studies have demonstrated that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they claim in benefits, and fill labour needs rather than ‘steal’ jobs. The government’s own impact assessment for the Hong Kong BNO scheme predicts its net value to the UK will be well over £2.6 billion, if its estimated application rates are correct. It could prove to be much more. That’s over 25 times the amount needed to house the 2520 child refugees denied the sanctuary promised in the Dubs Amendment.
Not only have anti-immigration politics likely hurt the economy (without even considering the economic impact of Brexit), they have weakened us politically and geopolitically. In 2016, the senior Nato commander in Europe US General Philip Breedlove concluded that Putin was “deliberately weaponising migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve” by bombing civilians in Syria to cause more refugees.
Some pundits interpreted this warning through Theresa May’s ideological lens, and interpreted ‘structures’ as ‘infrastructures’, as if refugees overwhelm jobs or housing markets, or occupy too many hospital beds. That has not happened in Britain, but political structures such as the EU itself have suffered from the negative politicisation of pluralism that results from anti-immgration politics – even losing the UK, their second largest economy.
Pundits can get carried away with Putin ‘puppet-master’ theories, but we know that he encouraged Trump’s rise, possibly as well as the Brexit vote, which studies have proven was decisively influenced by anti-immigration sentiment. Boris Johnson’s ‘secret’ pro-Remain article was eventually leaked to The Sunday Times, and it revealed that one of his biggest concerns over Brexit was “the Putin factor”, Johnson believing that Brexit would encourage Putin to be bolder with Russian foreign policy in the Middle East.
While anti-immigration politics weakened the EU and strengthened Putin in the 2010s, the Hong Kong BNO scheme is a perfect example of how immigration could strengthen liberal democracy and weaken authoritarianism in the 2020s. Not only is offering asylum the moral thing to do, it’s effectively a form of economic sanction: that £2.6 billion is not only gained by Britain, but lost by China.
Negative attitudes towards immigration have declined in Britain consistently every year since the Brexit referendum; by 2019 only 22% agreed that ‘the number of immigrants to Britain should be reduced a lot’, down from 56% in 2013. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Hong Kong could catalyse or reverse that trend, depending largely on media and political narratives. We must all encourage the former, and make new Britons feel not just welcome as friends, but wanted as allies rebuilding Britain after the pandemic, and resisting totalitarianism. In time, perhaps we can extend that to Syrian children too.
Bertie Harrison-Broninski is a freelance journalist, Editor at Freezine and The Civil Society Review, and Member of the Board at Oxford Omnia International. Follow him on twitter @bertrandhb.