Asylum Seekers in Britain: From Displaced to Detained

Taida Nando for Distilled Post

In a white-on-red slogan proclaiming 'Stop the Boats', Rishi Sunak proposed new legislation to restrict asylum seekers entering Britain from small boats via the English Channel.

Considering Sunak and home secretary Suella Braverman's plans to blow up the legislation, it is time to reflect on how we got here and what lies ahead for a country that Gary Lineker has likened to Germany in the 1930s.


The fine print of the legislation

Since becoming the PM of the Uk in October 2022 Rishi Sunak has stressed that stopping illegal small boats crossing the channel is one of his five priorities after a 2022 home Office report revealed that small boat arrivals accounted for 45% of asylum applications-up 500% from two years earlier.

According to the draft bill, Suella Braverman will have a 'duty' to detain and deport the majority of immigrants who cross the Channel to reach the UK. This effectively overrides asylum seekers rights.


In anticipation of the backlash that will come from within the party, and from the Labour Party, Sunak has revealed loopholes. Under the new legislation, children under 18, those too ill to fly or at risk of serious or irreversible harm will be allowed to claim asylum. In addition to Section 19(1)(b) statements under the 1998 Human Rights Act, the bill will include an acknowledgement that it may conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR. A fundamental human right for migrants is the right to seek asylum from their countries, and the UK is obliged to adhere to the convention unless Sunak bypasses it illegally.

Why asylum seekers flock to the UK

With the United Kingdom having a long past in offering asylum to those fleeing persecution and violence, it is no surprise that asylum seekers seek out the multi-ethnic nation in search of a reprieve. Alongside this, despite its rough colonial past, The United Kingdom continues to be hailed as a safe, democratic, tolerant and open minded-nation amongst its European counterparts.

The emergence of thriving ethnic communities in the United Kingdom has also contributed to the large number of asylum seekers since the 1980s. As exemplified by the recent influx of Albanians and Afghans to the UK, existing communities continue to determine where asylum seekers go.

The source of anti-migrant sentiment

One of the most mentioned arguments, when Britons are asked about their disdain for asylum seekers, is the fiscal effects of immigration. Among the economic concerns raised in the debate has been the assertion that immigrants seeking asylum are simply entering the country to receive a 'free ride', which includes free healthcare and benefits.

If their applications are granted, asylum seekers are entitled to either accommodation or subsistence support (cash support) from the Home Office.

For many Britons struggling under the weight of COVID-19, and now the never-ending cost of living crisis, news of asylum seeker support not being suspended during 2019 and 2020 fuelled the already brewing resentments against asylum seekers. According to an official report published on the GOV UK website, there was a significant increase in government support for asylum seekers during this period, with 110,171 independent asylum seekers receiving accommodation and subsistence support."

Such arguments against the ‘economic’ immigrant have spiralled out of control as far-right groups have been strengthened by the rhetoric of the Tory Politicians, to the point that migrant hotel attacks have become the new norm since 2019.

Countering far-right rhetoric

Whilst such arguments of economic migrants draining the country continue to circulate, studies by sociologists continue to reveal that claims of migrants coming to the UK are at odds with the fact that many are highly skilled and previously enjoyed high standards of living, and in most cases pay several thousands of pounds to a trafficker to reach their place of potential asylum. As an alternative to the argument that migrants are free riders, analysis reports have indicated that immigrants who arrived in the country since the early 2000s have contributed significantly to public finances, contrary to the view that has been weaponised by far-right groups.

In addition to pointing out how unnecessary Sunak's legislation is in the grand scheme of things, Labour Party leader Kier Starmer noted how low the numbers are in comparison to their European neighbors. While the number of asylum applications reached its highest in 2022 with 75,000, it remained below the European average. Asylum applications in Germany exceeded 240,000 in the same year.

Similar comments were made by the French interior minister, who mentioned smugglers as Britain's biggest concern.


A tightrope walk to the future

Since the proposed legislation is still under development, the British Prime Minister is riding the coattails of last week's agreement with the EU on the post-Brexit trading regime in Northern Ireland over Cross-Channel Cooperation. The fact that talks are already in motion may suggest that Sunak has already planned where to send those who do not heed his warning. However, the fact remains that he must negotiate bilateral agreements with several

European countries and other global supporters before moving ahead.


In Sunak's and Braverman's case, the proposed legislation is an opportunity they can seize, but for those crossing the 20 miles by dinghies to reach the English Channel, they are in a

more precarious position. Asylum seekers are unlikely to read the fine print before crossing, and even if informed of the threat of detainment and deportation are unlikely to be deterred when they assume they have a slim chance of reaching Britain.