As recent news headlines oscillate between the impending US elections and coronavirus – often encompassing both – a series of alarming immigration policy announcements have slunk out of Westminster. Chief among them is the news that the UK government is assessing the feasibility of ‘offshoring’ its immigration detention and refugee determination processes. In effect: putting asylum seekers in floating or island jails, miles from British shores.
When the story broke, alarm was tempered by disbelief. High-profile immigrants’ rights advocates called the idea ‘ludicrous’, and ‘almost laughable’. Commentators argued that the eye-watering costs involved would scare off a government ideologically opposed to increasing public spending (except when overpaying friends’ private companies to provide substandard services). The plans were so ‘grotesquely inhumane’, so ‘morally bankrupt’ – they added – that pursuing them would stain Britain’s honour (forgetting that ‘British honour’ is a myth built on violent nationalism).
While understandable, these reactions reveal an important truth: we simply did not see this coming. Even as the government heralded hardened borders and new frontiers of xenophobic hostility, recent immigrant advocacy campaigns have remained focused on ending indefinite detention and reducing the number of people detained – vital reformist moves in the direction of abolition. Even as an ill-defined ‘Australian-style points-based system’ was feted as the perfect model for UK immigration, the notion that we’d copy its island refugee prisons felt remote. We should not be so naive – even as we battle for revolutionary change.
Within two short weeks, talk of offshoring has already quieted down. Perhaps it was designed to do so. Even as empty posturing, it served a political purpose. Priti Patel got the chance to smilingly bare her teeth. Two in three Conservative voters approved of the idea. For Labour, one in five. The not-so-inconvenient ‘leak’ has already dragged the barometer of ‘legitimate debate’ – one dictated by xenophobic voices – further to the right, just by planting a seed of possibility.
We must however be prepared for proposals to return – and ready to fight them in court rooms, Parliament and press statements, through local government and on the street (as far as coronavirus allows). Immigrants’ rights advocates in the USA have set an example to follow. When Donald Trump was declared President, they readied for the worst – because they believed his administration would try it. Groups built coalitions from grassroots campaigns to national associations. Within days of taking office, Trump announced his so-called Muslim and Refugee Bans. Advocates fought back immediately on every level, from constitutional courts to city streets. Legal preparedness made all the difference. Public pressure demanded Trump’s opponents take an explicit counter-stance. While unable to stop a juggernaut of anti-immigrant attacks, they at least managed to slow it down and knock it off course.
The Conservatives understand such threats to power. Their ongoing efforts to discredit ‘activist’ and ‘lefty’ lawyers are borne of fear: this week, a UK court of appeal quashed the Home Office policy of deporting migrants without access to justice. The case was brought by a coalition of charities and solicitors. Meanwhile, the Immigration Bill continues to move through Parliament, stripping away rights as it goes. The chilling message on immigration is ‘all options are on the table’.
2020 should be a terrible year for the Conservative Party. It risks becoming a good one to bury bad news – and to test the waters with fascistic ideas. We must take them seriously to prevent them setting in stone.
Siobhán McGuirk is a Red Pepper Editor and co-editor of Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry. Follow her on Twitter @s_mcguirk
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