There are some subjects that everyone knows a lot about, but the “knowledge” they have is instead received opinion which bears only a passing resemblance to the truth. As a non-profit which deals with refugees we’re right in the thick of just such a subject, because everybody has a lot of received opinions about asylum seekers. If we had ten dollars for every hot take we’ve heard on the subject we’d probably be better funded, but as it is we’re still operating on a shoestring. So perhaps it’s time to look at the subject from our perspective. We’re not asylum seekers but we deal on a daily basis with the system on a global scale, and we know something about how it works from a first-hand perspective.
First, A Little History
So, just why can people claim asylum? The answer to that in today’s form goes back to the years after World War II, when the inconvenient truth for many countries was that before the war they’d turned away people who later became victims of the Nazis. That and the legal status of huge numbers of refugees from the war all across Europe and elsewhere led to the UN adopting the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1951, which defines a refugee and sets out a list of provisions to ensure their protection. The important point to take away from the 1951 convention is that a refugee has the right to claim asylum in a country if they are standing on that country’s soil. This protection was put in place to stop states merely pushing refugees back over their borders, instead they have to process their asylum applications. This forms the basis of the asylum system, however there are other treaties such as the Dublin Regulation which limit so-called asylum shopping around European countries, that modify the framework under which it operates.
A country then has to process the applications of the asylum seekers who arrive, and to do that they stick those people in camps or hostels or asylum seeker centres while they do it. The purpose of processing the application is to determine whether or not the person is a danger, and whether or not they are a genuine refugee, as of course a percentage applying for asylum are under no threat and are just seeking a better life. The problem with all this though is that the process takes a while. It’s not unusual in European countries for someone to spend years in the system without a decision, and thus you’ll find those asylum seeker centres overflowing with people. As an example according to the Refugee Council in the last year the UK has had a shade under 80000 applications, and holds a little over 175000 people awaiting a decision in an array of camps, contracted hotels, and even ships. This in turn becomes something for politicians to make their capital from, and here begins the problem with the way countries deal with asylum seekers.
Why Asylum Seekers Are Great For Politicians
Having tens or hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in camps is a great tool for politicians, because they can use the prospect of lots of foreigners to scare pearl-clutching middle-class voters and secure their votes. This is universal, whether politicians are left or right, in government or in opposition, they all wave the asylum seeker stick when it suits them. This creates a sense of threat from asylum seekers in the population that’s way out of proportion to their real numbers, but perhaps more importantly for the asylum seekers themselves it gives the politicians few incentives to do anything about the problem. Put simply, there are votes in having a bunch of asylum seekers to scare people with, but no votes in spending money to deal with them.
All those hot takes build up then, about how the flood of people is unsustainable and the asylum seekers are being given five star accommodation at the expense of hard working people, or that they’re all economic migrants anyway and none of them are real refugees.. It’s compounded by an intentionally-curated lack of understanding of the 1951 convention or the Dublin Regulation, and the inevitable result is a more authoritarian and rightward political shift. It’s not as though something can’t be done about the problem, but it suits the politicians for it to remain.
So. What’s The Fix?
If there’s a fix for the asylum problem then, what is it? Certainly not abandoning parts of the 1951 convention as the British Conservatives are toying with doing, as tinkering with basic human rights law affects everyone, not just the people you don’t like. Instead there are two fairly straightforward policies which can deal with it. The first is to pour money into asylum processing such that it becomes much faster and that economic migrants can be more readily identified, and the second is to invest in overseas aid with the aim of improving the prospects of people who might otherwise try the asylum system as economic migrants. Sadly neither of these can be used to scare voters, so the chances of either of them happening are slim.
We hope then that this piece has given you something to think about. If you hear one of those uninformed hot takes or perhaps you might have been tempted to give one, maybe now you know who really wants you to hold those views. You probably don’t consider yourself a supporter of the far right and neither do your friends, so if you hear anyone tempted by this gateway drug it’s worth knowing something about what lies behind it.