The Anti-Motherland

By deterring asylum seekers, Britain is "taking back control" of her glowing reputation
March 8, 2021

A strong justice system

After months of protesting conditions in Napier Barracks where he lived with 400 other asylum seekers, Abdo was arrested when protesting escalated into a fire. Held in immigration detention for three weeks, a routine bail hearing saw him released without charge and given his own accommodation. In short, Abdo had to get himself detained in order to become free.

It muddled his impression of the famous British justice system he’d been raised to believe in. Back home in Sudan, BBC-watching elders had praised the human rights ethos underpinning British culture. “If you must leave home, that is where you go,” they told him when militia recruitment became inescapable. The UK’s cultural colonial legacy has turned it into a beacon of hope on the forced migrant trail. Now, British policymakers are deliberately undoing it.

A photo sent by a resident of Napier Barracks to People Who Do Things: Nima says the floor is more comfortable and private than the beds provided

The barracks being used to house asylum seekers may feel like detention to some, but they are not officially classed as such, meaning safeguards like bail hearings – designed to prevent traumatized adults from being detained – are neither mandated nor happening. This is the latest battlefield between Home Secretary Priti Patel and her “lefty lawyer” nemeses. She says facilities that once hosted “our brave servicemen” should suffice for “illegal immigrants,” but her department lost their legal battle with six resident asylum seekers.

A “soft touch for migrants”

While protests and suicides make messy PR, the barracks send a carefully curated message. 2020’s dinghy arrivals may have been less frequent than 2019’s lorry arrivals, but they were also more visible. That did not bode well for “taking back control” – the mantra that put this Cabinet in power. Compared to “relaxing hotel stays” – as The Sun described asylum accommodation in 2016 – barracks sit easier with many of the voters behind the blue wave.

The message abroad is just as deliberate. A Daily Mail op-ed cheered the barracks for rebutting Britain’s reputation as “a soft touch for migrants”— one the government is keen to shed among visitors as much as voters. Since 2015, Britain has given France £114 million to erect 30km of fencing, infrared detection and human-sniffing dogs around Calais’ exit points. This trend of militarizing Britain’s borders dates back through Labour and Conservative governments to the early 1990s.

Double fencing topped with barbed wire and connected by infrared sensors line Calais’ port and Eurotunnel | Credit: Flickr

A strategy of deterrence

The logic is deterrence, says Frances Webber, Vice-Chair of the Institute of Race Relations which chronicled this timeline. Between anti-boat wave machines and military confinement, “the government is sending a message to would-be arrivals that this is no land of milk and honey”.

The cost? Reputation. In “taking back control” of its borders, Britain is also saddling its image, rebranding itself as the anti-motherland.

Deterrence relies on creating negative impressions, so is ethically sticky as a general rule. Countless testimonies claim the barracks are having a detrimental impact on residents, especially those who’ve experienced torture and imprisonment. For Abdo, the barbed wire fencing, constant surveillance and overcrowding have triggered upsetting memories of captivity in Libya. When escorted inside, he says he wished he had died at home.

Does deterrence work?

If the truth may have deterred Abdo from coming, the data doesn’t give him safety in numbers. UK asylum applications reached a 16-year high in 2019, having initially fallen after 2015. These numbers correlate more closely with global displacement than they do with Britain’s borderland spending or hostile environment legislation (although lockdown has diluted that trend).

The UK may be chipping away at its own historical pedestal, but it hasn’t solved displacement.

Things you can do

On March 19th, a #CloseTheBarracks day of action is being organised by Freedom from Torture, Asylum Matters, Refugee Action, Choose Love and Detenton Action.

UK charity Freedom From Torture is heading a campaign to #CloseTheBarracks

They have produced a lobby guide for supporters here, inviting people to schedule face-to-face meetings with their MPs. There is a standard email to MPs that can be accessed here. The coalition is also organising a virtual rally which is likely to take place midway through the day on the 19th. We’ll post more info on Instagram when we have it!

If you want to email your MP but don’t feel cut out for a face-on lobby, you can do so via Freedom From Torture’s Act Now page.

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