How did it become acceptable for Britain to treat refugees so badly?

The asylum system that Britain has ended up with is not just inhumane, it is impractical for anyone who wants to reduce net migration.

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The coffin was white, bearing only the marking “Body No: 132”. It contained the corpse of a teenage boy. He was one of 24 unidentified people buried in Malta on 23 April, after the worst recorded capsizing of a migrant boat in the Mediterranean killed 800 people. We have all seen the images of the boats, rickety contraptions that hardly look watertight, full to the brim of people desperately seeking a better life. We have all seen the images of the bodies washed up, floating in the sea, dredged onto the beach. More than 2,000 people have died this year alone trying to make the crossing; up to 200,000 have been rescued. When they arrive in Europe, they face an uncertain future, frequently remaining trapped on the borders as EU governments try to shift responsibility. The numbers keep mounting up. We are in the midst of the worst global refugee crisis since World War Two.

Recent weeks have seen a battle over terminology – the “migrant crisis” has become the “refugee crisis” after the publication of a devastating photograph of a dead toddler began to shift public sympathy. Images matter; but so do words. Certain terms – asylum seeker, migrant – have been part of an overwhelmingly negative political discourse for the last two decades. A recent analysis of the British press found that the two words were most commonly found next to the word “illegal”.

This is political and media environment which has habitually cast asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, not as people worthy of help – not as people at all – but as a threat to “our way of life”, to our scant resources, a “swarm” seeking to overwhelm our borders. It is not just the scale of the current crisis, but two decades of dysfunctional asylum policy that has left the UK (and other western countries) so poorly placed to respond.

The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as someone who has fled his or her own country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution there. An asylum seeker is someone who comes to the UK and applies for protection as a refugee. The UK adheres to UN and EU agreements which mean that asylum applicants cannot be returned to a place where they are likely to face torture or persecution.

Last year, I met a Syrian student who was finishing a degree in London when she heard that her entire family had fled Syria. It is difficult to imagine today, but refugees were once viewed positively in the UK – at least, more positively than now. Refugees were Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, and then eastern Europeans fleeing Communism during the Cold War. Quota systems still applied and the situation was far from perfect, but to an extent, they were seen as brave freedom fighters fleeing totalitarian regimes. Just as now, the numbers changed with international developments. The number of people claiming asylum in western states rose in the 1980s, and jumped dramatically when the Cold War ended in 1991, when eastern Europe’s travel restrictions were lifted.

So why the shift in the way that politicians and public alike view refugees?

It happened partly as asylum applications grew. Air travel became more affordable for normal people, so western states became the countries of first asylum more often than before – people fleeing conflict were not restricted to the countries they could reach by land or sea. The number of asylum applications in the UK grew steadily throughout the 1990s, from around 22,000 applicants in 1992 to a high of 84,000 in 2002. (Last year, it was around 25,000). This rise was accompanied by politicians of left and right competing to appear most capable of containing the threat of “asylum invasion” that was vividly evoked in tabloid newspapers. The UK, in common with other western governments, had once welcomed asylum seekers – but began to implement a huge array of restrictive policies to prevent people from accessing their borders in the first instance, and subsequently to make it as unpleasant as possible for them once they arrived. This was supposed to remove all incentives to come to the UK through restrictions on welfare, limits on appeals, establishing detention centres, and increasing deportations. The idea that people are attracted by the generous benefits on offer in Britain is a longstanding political myth with no hard evidence to back it up. As Oxford University’s Migration Observatory notes: “The nationality of asylum seekers changes as crises come and go across the globe, since asylum seekers come mainly from countries embroiled in political and military conflict.”

The ideas established in this period are still painfully evident today. We live in a context where Katie Hopkins can refer to migrants dying in boats as “cockroaches”, where our prime minister speaks of “swarms” of people, and our foreign secretary denigrates “marauding Africans” who seek to change “our way of life”. Have we come to the point where refugees are no more than insects, or crude racial stereotypes?

As prime minister (particularly during his second term), Tony Blair brought asylum to the top of the political agenda, making it a priority to bring numbers down. Afraid that his government would be portrayed as incompetent, he introduced legislative and structural changes to reduce numbers. He also gave a number of speeches that traded in harsh rhetoric, reinforcing the existing idea that the system was flooded with “bogus” asylum seekers. The term applied to anyone whose case was refused; even though many of these cases are then won on appeal. After 9/11, the idea was tied up in security concerns – Blair spoke of the “people who abuse our laws and hospitality” and “those whom we suspect of terrorism”. The narrative of the dangerous “other”, the silent threat, the invader of our borders, grew more entrenched and deeply racialised.

Where have years of restrictive asylum policies left us? The answer, to any reasonable observer, is with a system barely fit for purpose – a fatal combination of cruel and inefficient. Those working in the field identify as “culture of refusal” at the Home Office, where the definition of a refugee is stringent and where credibility is automatically doubted. In 2011, 26 per cent of Home Office decisions were overturned on appeal. In 2014, 59 per cent of cases were initially refused; 28 per cent were then won on appeal. It is not enough to be from a conflict zone; an individual must prove that they personally are at risk of persecution. If they cannot, they face deportation. Yet deportation to some of these countries is illegal or impossible. This leaves 175,000 failed asylum seekers in Britain, stuck in limbo, unable to work and pay taxes but not eligible for state benefits. Frequently these people drop out of the system altogether, vulnerable to exploitation and, for the purposes of the Home Office, invisible. This is not just inhumane policy making, it is impractical for anyone who wants to reduce net migration.

As a political culture, we have spent so many years narrowing the definition of who should have the right to be here, chipping away at the notion of the refugee into insidious subcategories, that we are paralysed in the face of real, overwhelming need. The rigidity of these definitions does not make sense when you leave the printed page and enter the domain of humans, with lives, stories and complex emotions. People do not cease to be rational beings just because they have been forced out of their homes by conflict. Everyone will seek the opportunity to work, to provide for their families. Does seeking these things while you flee conflict negate your right to refuge because you have become an economic migrant?

It would be naïve to think this came down only to political opportunism and negative media coverage, although both play a part. In a 2010 paper for Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre, Bethany Maughan outlines the contesting claims of the modern liberal democratic state. On one hand, governments are expected to protect their citizens and their territory. Asylum seekers – people who reach those borders – threaten that authority. In this view, asylum seekers compete for limited resources and undermine the ability of the state to provide for its citizens. On the other hand, the universality of human rights is a concept that is absolutely central to the modern democratic state. Maughan writes: “The co-existence of these two conflicting norms helps to explain the ‘paradoxical affinities’ or ‘schizophrenia’ of British asylum politics… political elites are motivated by the ‘politics of restriction’ whilst constrained by the ‘law of inclusion’.”

How can these contesting claims be reconciled? We do not yet have the answer. Cameron, following in the footsteps of Blair, has continued to use the language of our “moral responsibility” to those less fortunate than us, even as he reduces the humanity of these people – a threat to our territorial integrity, requiring higher walls at Calais, and, indeed, to our very way of life. The government’s announcement on 7 September that Britain will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 is welcome, but it is a drop in the ocean given the scale of the crisis. Britain takes less than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees, and in 2014 received 5 per cent of asylum claims made in EU countries. Despite the impression the media gives of a deluge of marauding migrants, the UK’s asylum applications since 2008 have remained relatively stable. We could do more. Devastatingly, past example suggests that we will not.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.