Slaves in the Asylum System

Jeff Morgan

Honorary Research Fellow

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.

Jeff Morgan, one of our newest Honorary Research Fellows, is a Trustee of the City of Sanctuary Movement and former Medical Officer to Hull University. In this blog he offers his thoughts on attitudes to asylum in Britain.  

It has often been claimed that Britain has a ‘proud historical record’ of welcoming refugees. There are instances when such a boast is justified. It is possible, though, to lift the veil of patriotic smugness to reveal a rather different reality. Thus, it is not too great a surprise that current attitudes across the UK to those seeking sanctuary are found to be nuanced.

In the light of conflicting beliefs, consequent legislative controls and media responses, I contend that the lot of those seeking asylum here now fulfils many of the criteria defining ‘modern slavery’.

As far back as 1517, angry Londoners rose up against refugees lodged around St Pauls, where they had sought a new chance in life. The Evil May Day Riot of that Spring ended with scores beaten and burned out of their homes by over a thousand unemployed apprentices. The fiery preaching of a Dr Bell had lit the fuse. Claiming that foreigners ‘eat the bread from poor fatherless children’, he beseeched all Englishmen ‘to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens.’  

Evil May Day Riots in Cheapside, London, in 1517

In the seventeenth century, King William III floated the idea of free naturalisation for refugees. Sir John Knight, MP for Bristol, thereupon declared: ‘Let us first kick the Bill out of The House – then the foreigners out of the Kingdom!’ Mr Speaker did order this particularly xenophobic speech burnt, while its prime victims, the industrious Huguenots, mostly went on to prosper in England. Nevertheless, the English nursed mixed feelings, some offering a genuine welcome to the incomers while others harboured deep resentment.

There are also numerous twentieth century examples in which the attitudes of the British can be called to account. While Britain held the Palestine Mandate (1920-1948) the entry of Jewish refugees into ‘The Holy Land’ was fiercely restricted by our maritime patrols and British agents based in Greek and Italian ports. Measures intensified once war broke out and the flow of persecuted Jews fleeing Europe swelled.  A confidential memo prepared by the Foreign Office & Colonial Office in January of 1940 reveals the objective then at hand ‘As it is obviously impossible to touch the main source of the traffic which is in German territory, the objective of the countermeasures must be to prevent the transit and embarkation of parties of Jews in countries bordering on Germany.’(D. Scott Fitzgerald, Refuge Beyond Reach, 2019, pp 25-32)

In 1951, in the wake of the enormous wartime displacements, Britain signed the UN Refugee Convention. Its core principle was ‘non-refoulement’. We committed never to return an asylum-seeking individual to a country where he/she has a well-founded fear of persecution.Yet years of involvement in the lives of very many sanctuary seekers have led me to a personal perception of the thrust of our nation’s Asylum System. In the effort to prove that applicants’ well-founded fears have no basis, it would seem that subtle means are employed to configure them as ‘lacking in credibility’. Such allegations are frequently based upon matters unconnected with, or only indirectly related to, the main incidents of persecution suffered in their homelands.

UN Refugee Convention, 1951

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. When a decision is long delayed, however, they can apply for a ‘Shortage Occupation’. For the jobs so listed, (famously including ‘Male Ballet Dancer’, ‘Senior Nuclear Waste Engineer’ and ‘Paediatric Neuro-Radiologist’), they are invariably unqualified. Refused leave-to-remain, they usually fall into destitution and homelessness. Despite the modest payments under Sections 98, 95 and 4, they exist in a state of legal, social, occupational and psychological limbo. ‘Contingency’ and ‘Dispersal’ accommodation can be shifted at short notice to anywhere in the country. A substantial drifting population of hopeless, rootless and unintegrated victims awaits final decisions on status, detention or deportation. Such decisions can sometimes take fifteen years to resolve.

Meantime, individuals lack agency over so many freedoms taken for granted by the rest of us. Their destinies lie totally in the gift of the Home Office. They can choose neither their billets nor control their daily lives. They endure the ‘unfree labour’ of forced unemployment. They are effectively denied access to education, banking and elements of state healthcare. Their dignity is eroded by institutional disbelief in their accounts of maltreatment, lack of appreciation for their former social or professional positions, achievements, skills and qualities and by the politically-generated ‘hostile environment’.

The proposed Nationality & Borders Bill will tighten the grip of that hostile environment. It will add criminality to the burden borne by those who enter by non-legal routes. It will demand of terrified new arrivals the full disclosure to British officials of every shameful detail of their torture, because  delayed revelations will become inadmissible. For the entire period while their claims are determined they will be confined to substantial ‘Accommodation Centres’, excluding any understanding of British culture or integration into local communities otherwise willing to welcome them.

Furthermore, I believe that those seeking sanctuary in this country are potentially at risk of exploitation and abuse by those who would take them into enforced servitude ‘under the radar’.

It is my contention that those seeking sanctuary in this country have much in common with the slaves of previous centuries. Displaced far from their homelands and robbed of any agency over their present or future existence, they are rigorously controlled over periods of unpredictable duration by all-powerful and uncompassionate authorities.