Justice for immigrants: a reply to Kwasi Kwarteng

I made the mistake of opening the Evening Standard on the Tube and was confronted with this thoroughly disingenuous editorial from Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng. As an immigration lawyer and activist, I felt obliged to respond to several assertions which don’t reflect the way the immigration system actually works, or the cruelty it inflicts on marginalized people.

In the past, French Huguenots and Russian Jews came to London to escape religious and ethnic persecution. Today’s migrants are largely economic.

Really? How does he think he knows this? Many people, in fact, come here to claim asylum – fleeing religious, ethnic or other persecution, including rape, sexual violence and torture, just as past groups of refugees did. (And people with a mindset similar to his were making anti-immigrant arguments in those days, too.) He might retort that he thinks many of those asylum claims are ill-founded. But there’s no way of knowing that. One certainly can’t measure it by Home Office decisions, which, as any immigration lawyer could tell you, are frequently entirely arbitrary, and proceed from the unfounded assumption that every asylum-seeker must be lying. (Has Mr Kwarteng read anything about how hostile Home Office officials treat LGBT asylum-seekers?) Nor are immigration judges in the Tribunal much better. People like Jackie Nanyonjo face a culture of disbelief and hostility, and forcible return to countries where their lives are at risk. The asylum system is a cruel farce which victimises migrants, especially women and LGBT people; it certainly can’t be relied upon as a barometer of how many asylum claims are truthful.

In any case, even if today’s migration *were* wholly economic, why would this be an argument against it? Why should people from countries where the average wage is $10 a month, countries where they can’t feed their children, countries which have been exploited and plundered for centuries for the benefit of the West, not be allowed to come here to seek a better life? Why should anyone be consigned to poverty because of the circumstances of their birth? Why do British people deserve a vastly higher standard of living than Congolese, Zimbabwean or Afghan people?

And those he would consider “economic migrants” no doubt also encompasses those who are reliant on health care in this country and would die on return. The Home Office has repeatedly fought in the courts to deport severely ill people to countries where they will receive no medical care and die within weeks or months – and it has almost always won.

The real problem with immigration comes with the perception that people are coming to Britain simply to benefit from the lavish welfare state Britain provides… The Left are appalled at such a suggestion but the evidence suggests that this actually happens.

No it doesn’t. Non-EEA migrants without immigration status don’t actually qualify for social security benefits. At most, those who have claimed asylum and are not detained get NASS support of £36 a week, far less than a British person on benefits would get – and they are dependent on this not because they don’t wish to work but because they aren’t allowed to. Failed asylum-seekers get no cash at all, just “section 4 support” which is deliberately designed to be impossible to live on. Many end up homeless and destitute on the streets, a deliberate policy of government to deter migration.

As for EEA and other migrants, the evidence has consistently shown that most come here to work and earn money, not to live off the state – and that migration is a net contributor to public finances. “Benefits tourism” is a myth.

Most people intuitively understand this.

Which is an elegant illustration of the problem with relying on intuition and uninformed public opinion rather than facts.

The problem, as is often the case, has been with the enforcement of existing rules. People are denied the right to remain in Britain and then, in many cases, they simply disappear… People, like Mark Harper’s cleaner, bluff and defy court judgments and simply stay in Britain illegally.

Because the existing rules are so arbitrary, brutal and uncompromising that they have no other choice. Plenty of people who don’t succeed in an asylum claim do in fact have a fear of persecution on return – like Jackie Nanyonjo, the Ugandan lesbian woman whose asylum claim was refused and who was brutally beaten by her security escort on her removal flight to the point that she died of her injuries after return. Plenty more have family ties here but don’t succeed in an Article 8 claim because the bar is set so high. Plenty more would simply face destitution and starvation on return – which, under the current law, is not treated as a justification for remaining here.

And he says nothing about the harsh and brutal enforcement of existing rules – the institutionalised abuse and neglect of detainees in privately-run detention camps like Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth, the forcible deportations, the spot checks and racial profiling. No one familiar with Britain’s immigration enforcement apparatus could justly say it was not harsh enough.

A points system for immigrants, like that practised in Australia, has always seemed to me a good idea. Rather belatedly, the Labour government between 2008 and 2010 introduced such a system. The problem with it was that it didn’t have a cap on numbers.

There are few things more patently classist than the points-based system – which is set up to exclude the poor and those without higher qualifications, while providing easy routes of entry for “entrepreneurs” and “high net worth individuals”. In no other context would we accept institutional, systematic discrimination on the basis of wealth. Yet somehow immigration is exempted from every liberal idea about equality.

They see no reason why people should come to Britain without any prospect of employment and simply live off the state.

And yet no one does so by choice. Those on NASS or section 4 support are forced to “live off the state” because they are not legally allowed to work. Overwhelmingly, migrants who are allowed to work do in fact do so – at a higher rate, indeed, than British nationals.

The public’s hostility to immigration is, sadly, informed by myths and misunderstandings such as those peddled by Mr Kwarteng. I hold out little hope that many people will seek out the true facts

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One Response to Justice for immigrants: a reply to Kwasi Kwarteng

  1. llewelly says:

    Excellent response.

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