Opinion | Boris Johnson’s Government Is Built on Cruelty

LONDON — Last week, as Britain focused on its gradual emergence from lockdown, the home secretary, Priti Patel, laid out the government’s “New Plan for Immigration.”

The details were deeply sinister. Only those coming through resettlement schemes, who amount to less than 1 percent of refugees globally, would be welcomed. Everybody else, forced to take life-threateningly dangerous journeys, would be branded “illegal” and aggressively penalized. They would be blocked from key state support, given diminished family reunion rights and be permanently liable for removal, even if granted asylum.

These drastic proposals — which some suggest could contravene the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention — have been months in the making. Last year, Ms. Patel reportedly raised the possibility of sending asylum seekers to islands in the south Atlantic and considered deploying the Navy to prevent people from reaching Britain’s shores. Her plan, inhumane and wrongheaded, exemplifies how the British government treats migrants and refugees.

But such cruelty goes further than the asylum process. Since Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government took office in December 2019, promising to “Get Brexit Done,” it has sought to institute a harsher, more punitive system of immigration and border control. In the name of British sovereignty, it has suffused its rule with anti-migrant authoritarianism.

Since its election, the government has touted its intent to remake the immigration system. On Jan. 1, its new points-based system came into effect. For all the talk of reform, in many ways the new rules extend the unjust treatment long suffered by non-European Union migrants — subject to outrageously high immigration fees, denied access to basic state support and forced to pay every year to use the National Health Service — to those coming from the E.U. (Before Britain’s exit from the E.U., people from the bloc could enter and settle in Britain with relative freedom.)

But the system introduces new features, like handing out “points” that applicants must accrue to come to Britain. Some are mandatory, like 20 points for a job offer from a government-approved sponsor. Others are optional, such as 10 points for a Ph.D. in a field relevant to the job. The new rules make entry to the country conditional on a migrant’s income (a minimum of £25,600 a year, around $35,000, with a few exceptions) and perceived “skills.” Low-paid workers are effectively excluded. Along with making it even harder to safely migrate to Britain, the new system treats migrants as nothing more than disposable commodities.

This dehumanizing, ruthless approach has been on display through the past year. At the start of the pandemic, a group of organizations handed the government a clear road map to ensure that all migrants, regardless of status, were protected from the virus, including through access to health care and other public services. The government did not listen. Ministers made some changes but largely kept the system intact.

Similarly, after pressure from activists, the government released many people from immigration detention centers, but kept some locked up and continued to detain thousands of others — despite reported Covid-19 outbreaks at a number of facilities.

And while warning against international travel, the government pushed on with deportation flights, ripping people away from their families and loved ones. Osime Brown, a 22-year-old who has autism and learning difficulties, faces deportation to Jamaica — a country he barely knows, having moved to Britain when he was 4. “If he is deported,” his mother has said, “he will die.” In November, the government website boasted that despite the pandemic, there had been over 20 deportation flights that year.

Mr. Johnson’s government has also refused to suspend “hostile environment” policies, a sprawling web of immigration controls through which people without documentation are denied access to basic services like health care and housing. Not even a deadly pandemic can wean the government off the detention centers, deportation flights, bureaucratic cruelty and institutional racism that make up Britain’s immigration system.

The human toll has been horrific. Without a safety net, many undocumented migrants had to choose between potentially contracting the virus at work or becoming destitute. Forty-three percent of migrants surveyed between December and January by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said they would be afraid to seek health care if they became ill during the pandemic — rising to 56 percent for migrants from Asia and 60 percent for those from Africa and the Caribbean.

For a Filipino man known only as Elvis, a cleaner who’d lived in Britain for over a decade, it was a matter of life and death. With no documents, he was too afraid to seek medical advice when he came down with a fever and a cough in April 2020 during the country’s first lockdown. After being ill for two weeks, he died at home.

Mr. Johnson’s government has left immigrants, especially those of color, exposed and vulnerable. But it’s no use denouncing the current system without understanding that it is built on decades of brutality. British history is full of legislation, like the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, aimed at making it more difficult for people of color to come to the country.

And for decades, British politicians of all persuasions glossed over the reasons people move while wrongly blaming migrants for almost anything they can think of, from low pay to an underfunded national health service. Even the latest proposals draw on the racialized figure of the “bogus asylum seeker,” popularized during former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s New Labour government as it made asylum rules stricter and harsher in the early 2000s.

Mr. Johnson’s government is the heir to decades of anti-migrant rhetoric and policymaking. Determined to make good on the nativist promise of Brexit, it is taking things to the next level, with devastating human consequences.

Britain has an immigration problem, all right. But it’s not the people coming to the country. It’s the people who rule over it.

Maya Goodfellow (@MayaGoodfellow) is a research fellow at the University of Sheffield in England and the author of “Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats.”

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