The United Kingdom and the European Migrant Crisis 2015/16. Public Dialogue and Government Action

Bachelor Thesis 2016 36 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The European Migrant Crisis Starting in 2015

3. Legal Situation of the United Kingdom Immigration Law

4. The UK's Role within Europe in Regard to the Crisis

5. Public Dialogue on Refugee Policy in the UK during the European Migrant Crisis
5.1 Critics of the UK Government's Strict Approach
5.2 Voices Supportive of Strict Immigration Policies

6. Influence of the Public Dialogue on Government Action

7. Classification and Distinction of Refugee Discussion from Overall Immigration Debate

8. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Since 2015, Europe has faced the biggest migrant and refugee crisis since the Second World War (Travis). Due to refugees primarily from the Middle East, many European countries have to cope with challenging burdens. The countries on the southern and eastern borders of the European Union (EU) unwillingly receive enormous numbers of refugees, and have to register, shelter and redistribute them. Other countries with generous asylum systems find themselves with monumental numbers of asylum applications. All of this challenges not only security forces and authorities of European states but the local population as well.

One of the EU countries that rather insulates itself from these problems is the United Kingdom (UK). Although the UK has been a country of mass immigration since the end of the Second World War at the latest, the UK Government approaches the current refugee crisis differently. On 25 March 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron made the following statement:

Of course, we'll welcome asylum seekers genuinely seeking asylum and take them to our hearts as we have over centuries. [...] But we do need to send, frankly, a clearer message to people that we're not a soft touch in terms of people coming here who are looking for bogus colleges or false roots or all the rest of it. (Cameron)

And Cameron does succeed in sending exactly that message. The UK has one of the toughest asylum systems in the world and more than half of applications are rejected ("Refugees in Britain"). On the one hand, the Government's tough position is certainly supported by anti-immigration activists and other Britons who regard asylum seekers as unwanted strangers threatening social order and national security (Stewart et al. 1024). On the other hand, however, the United Kingdom is coming under increasing pressure to take in more refugees ("Refugees in Britain") and be of more assistance to the European Union during the crisis. David Cameron's approach has been criticised by other European countries, by EU institutions, by the Official Opposition, by British citizens and even by some members of his own party.

Pressured from so many sides, the Prime Minister has made a few first commitments to take action also in Europe and not only in Syria. Nevertheless, the Government still makes deprecating decisions as well. As current events in the United Kingdom show, the public dialogue on immigration and the refugee crisis does have an impact on political decisions indeed. Accordingly, this paper focuses on analysing the debate as well as its influence on British Government action in the years 2015 and 2016. First of all, the European migrant crisis, the history and legal situation of UK immigration law and the UK's role within Europe concerning the crisis will be presented. Afterwards, the public dialogue between September 2015 and May 2016 will be analysed by means of newspaper articles, commentaries and petitions, because these are the media in which political opinion finds expression most frequently. Establishing connection between the dialogue and resulting government action in the United Kingdom will follow on the debate analysis. For this purpose, political decisions made in 2015 and 2016 will be examined for pressure by public and political players. Within all the controversy, one has to draw a line between the discussion about overall immigration to the UK and about the refugees that are currently entering Europe so numerously in particular. This distinction will be made in the last chapter before finishing off the paper with concluding thoughts.

2. The European Migrant Crisis Starting in 2015

The number of illegal border crossings into the European Union already started to surge before 2015, namely in 2011. Due to the Arab Spring, many North Africans started to migrate to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. However, the detection of illegal migration along Europe's maritime borders to the south further escalated in 2015 (Park). Illegal immigration means entering and staying in a country in violation of immigration laws, that is without valid visas or other permits of residence. Refugees usually migrate illegally because they lack the time and means to apply for asylum beforehand. From 2015 onwards, illegal migrants and refugees entering Europe were mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea. Syrians, which made up the largest group of 2015 immigrants to the EU by far, fled their country because of the civil war, Afghans and Iraqis looked to escape Taliban violence, and Eritreans fled forced labour and abuses (Park). In total, more than 1,011,700 migrants arrived in Europe by sea and almost 34,900 by land in 2015 as estimated by the International Organization for Migration. The EU's external border agency Frontex even evaluates the number at more than 1,800,000 immigrants in 2015 ("Migrant crisis: Migration"). Directly following the financial crisis, this enormous, legal and illegal influx of migrants presents European leaders and policymakers with the next great challenge (Park) and creates tensions among EU countries ("Migrant crisis: Migration").

The wars that most fuel the refugee crisis in Europe are the Syrian civil war, the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan. The latter has been going on since the end of 2001, the civil war in Syria started in 2011 and the Iraq war started in 2014. Although the first two wars have been going on for several years, and Eritrea has been one of the most repressive countries in the world ("European Migrant Crisis") for years as well, migration to Europe only started to peak in 2015. There are three frequently cited reasons for this surge: Firstly, in June 2015, Macedonia changed its migration policy. While all migrants were prohibited from transiting Macedonia beforehand, from June on they were given three-day transit permits. This change enabled migrants to take the short and cheap route from Turkey to Greece and then through Macedonia instead of the more perilous and expensive way via Italy. Especially disastrous shipwrecks on 13 and 19 April 2015 made it more unpopular to cross the Mediterranean heading for Italy ("European Migrant Crisis"). Secondly, refugees were persuaded to move north-westwards from Turkey even more by German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly pledging to offer temporary residence to all refugees. In addition to this, pictures of welcoming Germans spread across the media. Thirdly, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made an announcement in April 2015 that facilitated Syrians inside and outside of Syria to obtain passports and therefore also apply for asylum in Europe more easily ("European Migrant Crisis").

The first big problem in Europe as of 2015 was to distinguish between political refugees and economic migrants. A person fleeing political, ethnic or religious persecution or conflict is considered an asylum seeker or a refugee according to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. In contrast, an economic migrant is a person migrating to a wealthier country for economic gain. As these two groups of migrants both enter Europe, it is crucial to distinguish rigorously. Refugees are of course entitled to assistance and protection under international law while economic migrants are not (Park). Consequently, twelve EU countries introduced so-called "safe countries of origin lists" especially declaring potential EU candidate countries like Albania, Serbia, Turkey and Kosovo safe countries. The lists enable faster returns of the declared economic migrants to their home countries ("European Migrant Crisis").

Italy, Greece and Hungary are the European countries on the frontline of the immigration wave because they are situated on the southern and eastern borders of the EU. Hit hardest by the economic crisis, Greece struggles even more with the migrant crisis as it is the preferred entry point of migrants travelling from Turkey. Italy is the first EU country most African refugees arrive in. Later on their route, most migrants coming through Turkey, Greece or Serbia enter Hungary. As illegal migration through Hungary accumulated, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had a barbed wire fence built along the border with Serbia in July 2015. Furthermore, emergency laws were adopted in September 2015 that made illegal border crossing punishable by prison in Hungary (Park). Nevertheless, throughout 2015, Hungary had the highest proportion of asylum applications in relation to its population in all of Europe ("Migrant crisis: Migration"). In total numbers, however, Germany recorded the highest number of first time asylum applications with 35% of all 1.3 million applications received in the EU, which makes Germany the number one destination country of refugees ("European Migrant Crisis"). These figures might still be misguiding because not all of those arriving in Europe actually claim asylum. Officials state that in Germany alone more than one million migrants arrived in 2015 ("Migrant crisis: Migration").

Resulting from the uneven distribution of refugees divisions between EU member states have emerged. Originally, there is an EU law that is supposed to regulate the whereabouts of refugees in Europe. It is called the Dublin Regulation and stipulates that asylum seekers must apply and get fingerprinted in the first EU country they enter. If migrants travel further they face deportation back to the first country of EU entry. Obviously, this rule would put even more of a burden on the countries on the frontline that were mentioned above. Therefore, most of these countries practically abandoned the Dublin Regulation and let migrants pass through to EU countries further north and west. This is also why Germany and Sweden, which offer the most generous asylum policies in Europe, record such huge numbers of asylum applications despite their location (Park). Although 22 EU member states and four other European states form the free travel "Schengen Area", which has eliminated border controls between those countries since 1995, many European countries reintroduce border controls due to the migrant crisis (Park). All in all, European countries are rather moving further and further away from each other than collectively working on a solidary solution.

Several proposals have been made as to how Europe could possibly manage the crisis. In September 2015, the EU made an effort to start relocating 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy across other member states ("Migrant crisis: Migration"). Also, more financial aid shall be granted to countries like Turkey and Lebanon which at least three million Syrians have fled to since 2011 according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Park). On 20 March 2016, an agreement between the European Union and Turkey came into effect. The agreement says that all refugees who came from Turkey, illegally entered Greece and did not apply for asylum in Greece or were rejected, will return to Turkey. Every returning refugee will be replaced by a legal one that will be resettled from Turkey to the EU ("European Migrant Crisis"). Further proposals for coping with the mass immigration are a common European "safe countries list", quotas and naval operations against smugglers (Park). However, the only way to prevent asylum seeking in Europe over the long term will be putting an end to wars and conflicts in the Middle East and restoring political and social stability in the states of sub-Saharan Africa (Park).

3. Legal Situation of the United Kingdom Immigration Law

Before the Second World War, there were no clear rules about immigration to Britain. Merchants, seamen and soldiers from the British Empire, China and Europe casually came to the United Kingdom to live and work. Immediately after World War 2 however, continental Europe was short on work and the UK faced a shortage of labour. Consequently, the British Government tried to attract immigrants. Many Poles and Italians settled in the United Kingdom in the years following the end of the war, but they were insufficient to meet the labour needed ("Short History of Immigration"). With the British Empire dissolving in addition, the British Nationality Act of 1948 distinctly affirmed the UK's role as leader of the Commonwealth and therefore also the right of Commonwealth citizens to unrestrictedly settle in Britain (Somerville et al.). Especially people from the West Indies were then allowed to immigrate en masse. This was when the UK started to become a country of immigrants ("Short History of Immigration").

About a decade after the Second World War, two basic trends in British migration changed. On the one hand, Irish nationals and citizens of the United Kingdom, in other words Northern Irishmen, Scots, Welshmen and Englishmen, have self-evidently enjoyed free movement. As the United Kingdom also deepened its relations with what are now European Union countries after the war, other European citizens were exempt from immigration control likewise. On the other hand, for nationals of former British colonies like India and Jamaica, as well as for all other foreign nationals immigration to the United Kingdom gradually became more and more difficult. In opposition to the British Nationality Act 1948 granting the unrestricted right to immigrate to Commonwealth citizens, the UK Government started to restrict immigration from Commonwealth countries in the 1960s. Henceforth, the new migration policy model focused on two pillars - namely limitation and integration. The limitation pillar pursued the goal of "zero net immigration" meaning that the annual numbers of immigrants and emigrants should be equal, and it was enacted by three laws (Somerville et al.). The first law in this context was the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, which was amended by the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Both laws restricted the right of Commonwealth citizens to extensively migrate to the UK and instead only permitted a limited number of immigrants to settle ("Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962"). The third law with the objective of limitation was the Immigration Act of 1971. This was the year when Commonwealth citizens finally lost their right to settle in the United Kingdom entirely. Since 1971 they have faced the same restrictions as all other foreign nationals, so they are only allowed to remain in the UK unlimitedly after having lived and worked there for at least five years. The Immigration Act 1971 also introduced the "right of abode" which means that immigrants with direct personal or ancestral connections to the UK were exempt from the restrictions ("UK immigration acts"). The second pillar of integration was enforced by three laws as well. These antidiscrimination laws called the Race Relations Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1975 were inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States of America (Somerville et al.).

In the 1980s and 1990s, migration policy in the UK put even more emphasis on limitation and restriction. In 1981, the British Nationality Act automatically provided all British citizens with the right of abode whereas it could no longer be acquired by non-British citizens. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later, and the Yugoslav Wars also starting in 1991, asylum seekers became a greater concern than Commonwealth immigrants. In the following years, two further immigration laws approached this challenge. The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 implemented new fast track procedures for asylum applications, it permitted detention of asylum seekers while waiting for their claims to be decided and it removed several benefits from refugees. Three years later, the Asylum and Immigration Act of 1996 established even tighter restrictions to further reduce the number of asylum claims (Somerville et al.) and it made employing anyone without a UK employment permit a criminal offence ("UK immigration acts").

More changes in migration policy occurred when the Labour Party came into power in 1997 (Somerville et al.). Under Tony Blair, English tests and citizenship exams were introduced for immigrants seeking permanent residence ("UK immigration acts"), and visas for highly skilled economic immigrants were granted for the first time in UK history (Somerville et al.). Furthermore, the UK Borders Act 2007 made biometric identification cards compulsory for non-EU immigrants and it enabled the UK Border Agency to deport foreign nationals imprisoned for specific crimes or for longer than a year ("UK immigration acts"). In direct response to increasing levels of economic immigration at the beginning of the 21st century, the Labour Government under Gordon Brown then introduced a five-tier points-based system for labour migrants from outside the European Economic Area in 2008. Tier 1 is aimed at highly skilled applicants and does not require them to have a job offer on hand to receive visas. Tier 2 represents the main section of work permits and is aimed at applicants with a confirmed job offer in a sector of labour shortage. Permanent settlement is only possible for applicants in Tier 1 or 2. Lower-skilled workers of Tier 3 will not receive employment permits. For filling lower-skilled jobs the United Kingdom instead relies on workers from inside the European Union. Tier 4 is dedicated to student visas and Tier 5 to exchange programs, both of which are only temporary visas (Somerville et al.). Additionally, the Border, Citizenship and Immigration Act of 2009 stipulates that non-EU immigrants need to have had residual status for eight years before becoming naturalised and naturalisation through wedlock is only possible after five years of marriage ("UK immigration acts").

As previously mentioned, the five-tier labour migration scheme only applies to migrants from outside the European Economic Area but does not regulate intra-European migration (Somerville et al.). Inside the European Union citizens have the right of free movement, which means that they can work and live in any EU country of their choice. The United Kingdom therefore only has limited control over immigration from other EU member states. There merely are a few exceptional cases in which the UK can refuse entry or even deport EU citizens, and some nationals like those of Romania and Bulgaria face separate restrictions because they joined the EU as recently as 2007. All in all, these latest regulations made UK immigration policy become decreasingly employer-led and increasingly controlled by the government (Somerville et al.).



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Title: The United Kingdom and the European Migrant Crisis 2015/16. Public Dialogue and Government Action