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Distraction, lies and deception: The government's framing of asylum seeking in 2020

Written by
Reanna Smith, Immigration Advice Service
Date of Publication:
12 March 2021

In 2015 the issue of immigration was brought to the top of the UK's political agenda as the European refugee crisis reached its peak. At the same time, the campaign to leave the EU went into full swing, and pro-leave politicians and the UK media continued to pursue their agenda to leave the EU by pushing the issue of immigration. A study into media coverage by King's College London following the referendum found that coverage of immigration more than tripled during the campaign and that this coverage was overwhelmingly negative, blaming migrants for many economic and social issues. And when the public did vote to leave the EU, the issue of immigration remained on the top of the political agenda as Brexit negotiations began.

However, in March 2020 coronavirus began to spread across the UK and in April, as the pandemic continued to devastate the country, immigration dropped off the agenda all together as it disappeared from the Ipsos Mori Issues Index for the first time in over a decade. In fact, attitudes towards immigration both by the public, politicians and UK media began to take a turn. As it was revealed that the first 8 doctors to die from Covid-19 in the UK were all immigrants, the country began to realise the important role that immigrants play and the sacrifices they make. Immigrants have made up much of the country's frontline response to the pandemic, with around 170,000 foreign nationals working for the NHS. Non-EU workers make up about 10% of the labour force in the UK but are over-represented when it comes to key worker occupations. For example, they make up 23% of health professionals, 19% of nurses and midwives, 21% of basic security jobs and 16% of care jobs.

The vital role that immigrants played, including treating the Prime Minister himself when he was sick with Covid, meant that the UK government and press had to cease their attack on immigration. The government were even pressured into introducing pro-immigration policies, such as scrapping the immigration health surcharge for immigrant NHS workers.

And whilst many hoped that this change in perception would be a long-term one and that we would always remember the importance of immigrants in the UK following the pandemic, it was unfortunately short-lived. In July, immigration was pushed back to the top of the agenda once again as we saw an increase in migrant small boat crossings across the English Channel. What resulted, was the government and tabloid media resuming their vilification of asylum seekers. In her speech at the Conservative Party conference, Priti Patel claimed that the asylum system was "fundamentally broken" and accused asylum seekers of "shopping around", whereas the Prime Minister referred to the desperate asylum seekers crossing the English Channel as "stupid" and "criminal".

Despite the Home Secretary and Prime Minister's attempts to blame asylum seekers for making the dangerous crossing, the increasing numbers can be seen as a direct result of the Home Office's decision to close the few safe and legal routes to the UK during the pandemic, leaving many in limbo and desperate to escape the worsening situations at migrant camps. As well as this, claims by both the Home Secretary and Prime Minister that those crossing the Channel were acting illegally are wrong. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is not illegal to use irregular means to enter the UK providing you are claiming asylum, of which 98% of those who entered the UK via small boat crossings in 2020 did.

Despite the governments and tabloids framing of the increasing number of Channel crossings in the latter half of 2020 as an "invasion" of asylum seekers, the latest statistics that were recently released paint a very different picture. They show that in 2020 asylum applications actually fell by 18%, and the number of people offered protection in the form of asylum, humanitarian protection or alternative forms and leave and resettlement fell by 52%, the lowest level since 2014. Given what these statistics show us, why then are the government and tabloid media so consumed with painting a different picture?

Back in March, when the pandemic first hit the UK and perceptions towards immigrants began to change as we read the stories of hero immigrant doctors and selfless refugees, no one could have imagined where the country would be a year later. Still in lockdown and with over 100,000 deaths, the UK government's mishandling of the pandemic has been clear. Billions have been spent on a track and trace system that doesn't work, the government has repeatedly failed to source adequate PPE and have continued to act too late when cases began to rise, most recently, the high court even ruled that Matt Hancock acted unlawfully when it came to handing out Covid contracts. The government's answer to these significant issues has not been to apologise for their mistakes, but to deflect. Immigrants have once again been used as scapegoats as the government looks to distract the public from the real issue that this country faces, that our government has failed us at the most important time.