The Impact of Brexit on Asylum Seekers in the UK

Robyn Moffat explores the harmful impacts that Brexit and the subsequent law-changes have on Asylum Seekers settling in Britain, as well as the catastrophic effects that COVID-19 has on the process of immigration.

Last year, deportation flights from the United Kingdom to the European Union increased threefold as the home office rushed to maximise its use of the Dublin Regulation before the UK’s official departure. But what does deportation look like and what might change now that the United Kingdom has officially separated from the European Union?

Displaced people, constructed as asylum seekers and refugees, are able to legally claim asylum under the 1951 Geneva Convention, if fleeing persecution. In the last twelve months, according to the UK’s Refugee Council, 31,752 asylum applications were made but only 49% of those were granted refugee status; it is important to note that asylum applications in the UK are just a third of the average number seen in most European counterpart countries. At present, it’s not uncommon for asylum seekers to wait beyond six months for a decision, and, during this time, asylum seekers are effectively criminalised within detention centres where they are unable to work and are given just £5 per day to cover their basic necessities. Just recently, the UK’s Folkestone detention centre came under scrutiny after asylum seekers marked its conditions as unsafe; it was reported that overcrowding and poor sanitation facilities marked the centre as dangerous, where the control on transmission of COVID-19 was impossible.

Controversial detention centres in the UK, where everyday borders are employed to monitor and police asylum seekers, compound asylum seekers’ existing vulnerabilities through practices of confinement, dehumanisation and criminalisation, particularly when asylum seekers are largely from minoritised communities. Asylum-seeking women of colour, women and non-binary people are disproportionately at risk of sexual assault and racial or gender-based violence within the confines of detention centres. This experience, in conjunction with asylum seekers’ experience of trafficking, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, forced marriage and sterilisation, according to Human Rights Watch, goes largely unaccounted for under the UK Border Agency’s fast track procedure. The fast track detainment procedure employed in the UK is enigmatic of Britain’s highly discriminatory immigration system, heightened by Brexit discourse; asylum seekers’ minoritised identities compound their multifaceted experience of prejudice within British geopolitics embedded within power structures of race, gender, class and capitalism. When an asylum application is denied, practices of deportation, reminiscent of the discriminatory treatment of the Windrush generation, leave many asylum seekers homeless or left to navigate the precariousness of refugee camp environments.

Academic literature has indicated that the 2016 referendum and result was largely centred on discussions of race and immigration. Coupled with the implementation of the Hostile Environment Policy in 2012, the United Kingdom’s migration policy is inherently racialised. While the United Kingdom is still bound to the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 Protocol, Brexit has meant that Britain is no longer able to deport asylum seekers to other European Union countries under the Dublin Regulation; encouragingly, some experts have suggested that in the short-term, changes in regulation may benefit asylum seekers and make it easier for them to arrive in Britain.

It is too early to determine the exact implications of Brexit for asylum seekers hoping to settle here in the UK. Yet, under the Hostile Environment Policy, now understood as the Compliant Environment, the UK’s practices of bordering including the EU-Turkey Deal and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency will continue to create a complex and hostile route of asylum. Post-Brexit, the overall framework of asylum seekers’ rights protection is impacted as the UK will no longer be part of the EU’s system of shared responsibility. Student Action for Refugees have suggested that we should expect the government to propose a Sovereign Borders Bill, where hostile measures will be heightened to further increase asylum seeker’s legal precarity. As a result, this move, lowering the human rights protection of asylum seekers, could further feed distrust between the UK and the EU.

Attuned to the government and Priti Patel’s “Take Back Control” rhetoric, bolstered by a discussion of Britain as a lone, island nation where the British channel is used to construct a mythical conceptualisation of British identity, bordering measures are likely to be intensified this year. COVID-19 has stunted the mobility of asylum seekers to the UK via Calais-Dover crossings. Instead, these previous relatively ‘invisible’ modes of travel are unachievable, leaving many asylum seekers with no option but to cross the British channel through more ‘visible’, life-threatening boat crossings. Brexit, characterised by discussion of migration, identity and borders, signifies the government’s inhumanity; small boat arrivals are evidence of our broken system and the governments political and moral failure.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission concluded that the Home Office’s hostile environment immigration measures were unlawful and discriminatory. Despite this condemnation, the conservative government are continuing to create a virtually impossible environment, intensified by Brexit, for asylum seekers to settle here in the UK; asylum seekers are left to navigate the political, economic, legal and geographical barriers of the Compliant Environment. This experience is compounded by asylum seeker’s marginalised positionality. Border governance is embedded within a system of racialised politics; this system is a contemporary re-imagination of the racial state rooted in Britain’s colonial histories.

While Brexit and British policy signify a move towards greater intolerance and stricter bordering measures, the cumulative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are forecast to increase the numbers of those seeking asylum in the coming years. Increased government precarity and instability, in culmination with the rising frequency of extreme climatic events, will force greater outward migration. Due to COVID-19, where geopolitical borders are in constant flux, asylum applications and resettlement programmes have plummeted. Brexit, largely overlooked amongst the events of the COVID-19 pandemic, is likely to exacerbate existing inequities and complicate an already precarious political and legal landscape for asylum seekers and refugees.

If you would like to act, sign the Student Action for Refugee’s ‘Digital Divide’ campaign promoting improvements in digital accessibility and connectivity for refugees and asylum seekers at: STAR | Student Action for Refugees (star-network.org.uk). Refugee Action has identified two areas of need for technology in the asylum seeking and refugee community: Students and schoolchildren who require devices to continue home-based education while schools are closed under COVID-19 measures; highly isolated asylum seekers with little to no internet access where a smartphone or data can help them keep in touch with family, friends and support networks. Isolated asylum seekers are experiencing a multitude of damaging effects on their mental health that add to trauma they may have experienced in the past and the stress of awaiting the outcome of an asylum claim. The pandemic has reduced asylum seekers’ access to charitable support networks who might have provided a listening ear or even counselling support at drop-in centres around the country.

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