Wail Qasim | A Beacon of Openness and Generosity · LRB 19 April 2022

I don’t remember my parents bringing me to London as an infant asylum seeker, but I do know we arrived in relative safety by plane. There were risks in coming to Britain to flee war in Somalia, but physically crossing the border didn’t put our lives in danger. Last year, at least 44 people died trying to cross the English Channel in small boats to seek asylum in the UK. Boris Johnson’s recent announcement that the processing of asylum seekers will be outsourced to Rwanda promises to make the journey to safety yet more dangerous for those looking to gain refuge in Britain.

The plan is the latest volley in a succession of cruelly devised Home Office schemes. Priti Patel’s ministry has in the past considered using nets and water cannon to hamper boats trying to cross the Channel. Places as various as North Sea oil rigs and Ascension Island in the South Atlantic have been touted as potential processing stations for migrants seeking asylum. Now the government has settled on a ‘new migration partnership’ with Rwanda, where tens of thousands of refugees from neighbouring states are already trying to make a home. Orphans of the 1994 genocide are apparently going to be evicted from the hostel where they live in Kigali to make way for people seeking asylum in the UK.

All these profferings from the Home Office may seem both immoral and absurd to many onlookers, but they are in keeping with the ministry’s long history of prioritising hostility over welcome. Since at least the early 1960s successive home secretaries have imposed ever stricter border controls while crafting the racist public opinion they claimed to serve. The Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962 stripped citizenship rights from subjects of the former colonies and laid the groundwork for the ongoing Windrush scandal.

The ‘hostile environment’ long precedes Theresa May’s tenure at the Home Office, let alone Patel’s. A gradual ratcheting up of hostility by successive governments, Labour as well as Conservative, has been evident for decades. There is seldom any relaxation of border policy, with each Home Office regime instead building new restrictions on top of the schemes of past administrations. Yet they easily could provide safe and open routes for those in need.

In recent weeks, when public opinion grew too vocal, a semblance of compassionate policy was introduced for those escaping war in Ukraine. Even though this has been a feeble effort, it points towards the reality that we need not choose between deadly Channel crossings and offshoring to Rwanda. If the outsourcing deal with the government in Kigali is allowed to pass unchallenged, the way to Britain will only become more dangerous. If we don’t want people to risk their lives crossing the Channel in small boats, we need to make it easier for them to come by safer routes.

In many ways my family was lucky to enter Britain in the 1990s, not least because now this is home. The suffering my home seeks to inflict on those in the same position a few decades later is brutal. ‘Our compassion may be infinite,’ Johnson says, ‘but our capacity to help people is not.’ The lack of capacity is entirely of his own making. If Britain really is a ‘beacon of openness and generosity’, it will draw back from the unusual cruelty of its current hostile trajectory.

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