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Sun 25 October 2020
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The UK Government is deploying legal dupery to criminalise vulnerable asylum seekers while taking the moral high ground, argues Amina Shareef

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“We’ve got a problem,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in response to the recent arrival of displaced people in rubber dinghies crossing the English Channel. “This isn’t a good idea. This is a very, very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do.”

Johnson’s rhetoric has echoed – and been echoed by – the immigration hardliner Home Secretary Priti Patel, as well as the hysterical anti-immigration provocateur and Brexit Party Leader Nigel Farage.

Their public statements are heavily worded through the language of legality: ‘illegal migrants’ are coming here ‘illegally’ through ‘illegal trade’ and ‘illegal migration’.

The law is being used as a rhetorical tool and this has enormous power to shape who is seen as ‘guilty’ and who is seen as ‘innocent’ in the court of public opinion.

The clandestine entrant who crosses into Britain is acting outside the boundaries of its law and is hence cast as ‘illegal’ and therefore ‘criminal’. The notion of criminality acts to radicalise the incomer in the eyes of the indigenous – making it seem as though they are ‘incompatible’ with the nation’s values. This can be seen clearly with Muslims, who are framed as an ‘enemy within’ or an ‘enemy at the gate’ poised to corrupt the purity of the nation.

The victim of the entrant’s crime is the ‘soft-touch’ nation, unconsciously gendered as feminine. As Sara Ahmed argues, ‘soft-touch’ evokes white skin, female skin, bearing pores, making porous. The porous nation is, by her very anatomy, at risk of ‘invasion’ by foreign, pathogenic agents: dark, young men. Her pores must thus be urgently blocked by making certain ‘routes unviable’.


Legality and Hypocrisy

The use of the law as a rhetorical device isn’t without its complications.

For example, let us say that the entrant is in fact ‘illegal’. Then it would logically follow that such an individual would encounter a legal apparatus designed to cast them out of the nation. Instead, in a complete inversion, the “illegal immigrant” has at their disposal a “panoply of laws” that “allows them to stay” in Britain, according to the Prime Minister.

In Johnson’s conception, illegal immigrants are equated with asylum seekers – a wilful distortion of the law.

If an ‘illegal migrant’ is given the right to remain by the array of legal provisions that Johnson mentions that is because the individual was never ‘illegal’ to begin with.

The Prime Minister’s comments expose his views on asylum seekers – who have the right to seek refuge in a foreign country, as dictated by international law – believing that they are already and always bogus, criminal, seeking only to live in the UK to reap economic benefits.

Yet, from a different perspective, it is the UK that is in fact criminal.

How else would we characterise a nation that derides and reviles humans legally and justifiably seeking peace and stability? How else would we characterise the imperial body that rejects the repercussions of its colonial exploitation, proxy wars, climate vandalism and surrogate occupation? How else would we characterise the global power that militarises its assault against the orphaned and abandoned?

Legal language is the facade that sustains the image of a besieged nation that is civilised and humane, in contrast to foreign invaders. This is not the case.


Crusade Against ‘Criminal Gangs’

“We are all working night and day to dismantle and arrest the criminal gangs who trade in people smuggling,” said Chris Philp, Minister for Immigration Compliance and the Courts. “Criminals are abusing vulnerable men, women and children by trafficking them across the Channel.”

‘Criminal gangs’ function as a smokescreen to deflect attention away from the culpability of the UK.

By pursuing ‘criminal gangs’, the Government is attempting to claim it isn’t harassing those in need of refuge, but is clamping down on “cruel” and “ruthless” organised criminals, human traffickers and smugglers who exploit human misery for economic gain.

In this sense, the UK’s tireless struggle is against the human trade of vulnerable men and women and children by loathsome gangsters who endanger human life. Focusing on ‘criminal gangs’ allows the nation to be portrayed as benevolent and caring, rather than ruthless and punishing.

Using the power of legal language, real criminality is obscured.


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