The UK's Anti-Immigration Agenda

The public outrage to Trump’s Executive Order banning entry for 90 days to 7 Muslim-majority countries and suspending refugee resettlement programmes is a much-needed change to the often lukewarm action against anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment steadily growing throughout Europe and the wider West. The outright discriminatory and radical action on behalf of the new President is the culmination of years of discursive vilification and politicization of a population whose subjectivity and rights have been called into question time and time again, and instrumentalized to serve political interests. Intersectional feminists have urged the movement to make migration a priority in the fight for substantive equality for all, yet the rhetorical war on ‘multiculturalism’ as a threat to Western values has seen some feminists co-opted into an anti-immigrant agenda through the promotion of Muslim stereotypes (1), particularly embodied in strict, unprogressive masculinity and submissive femininity.

it is vital to look back and deconstruct the more subtle ways in which rights for certain individuals have been challenged, and where our silence should have been protest.

While Londoners took to the streets this past Monday to demand some kind of action from Prime Minister Theresa May in the face of such an extreme act, the UK and the EU’s track record in upholding refugee and migrant rights should have and should continue to be on the top of the agenda for intersectional feminists and the wider public. Such engagement with the reality of policies being implemented across Europe in response to the sea of migration of people into Greece and Italy is a necessary precondition to continuously hold governments accountable for their treatment of individuals whose rights have steadily been denigrated, but who have increasingly been subjected to the immigration and criminal enforcement law of domestic and international regimes. As Home Secretary, Theresa May certainly has a track record in creating such conditions. We have arrived at this point not through the actions of one man alone, but through the development of a global system based on the exploitation, both physical and discursive, of racialized ‘Others’. To understand how we got here and where we are heading, it is vital to look back and deconstruct the more subtle ways in which rights for certain individuals have been challenged, and where our silence should have been protest.

The UK is still one of the few remaining nations that has indefinite migrant detention systems, detaining victims of torture, rape, and sexual violence. Under May’s watch as Home Secretary, the UK continued a controversial asylum decision known as “detained fast track”, placing asylum seekers from certain countries immediately in detention, and giving just seven days to compile appeals for asylum seekers whose initial claim had failed. The system was suspended following the tireless intervention of charities and rights group, yet the damage had been done. Just recently, the High Court ruled that the rules on the asylum appeals processes in place until 2014 were unlawful and may have caused great harm to those forcibly removed under such rules.

The official policy to make the UK “a hostile environment” for irregular migrants allowed the Immigration Act of 2016 to be passed, which saw the state roll out immigration control responsibility to landlords, instituting a ‘deport first, appeal later’ scheme, freezing assets and affecting migrants’ rights to access justice. What’s more, as Home Secretary under the previous government, May was directly responsible for furthering the marginalization of immigrants and creating a wealth divide in which type of migration Britain was interested in, by “rolling out the red carpet” for wealthy migrants but imposing severe restrictions on others, such as the highly unreasonable minimum income requirement for non-EU nationals wishing to reunite with spouses or family members based in the UK. As Prime Minister, she has sent a strong message of how she views the so-called “migration crisis” by categorizing the movement of people as a “threat” together with war and terrorism.

Not allowing [migrants and refugees] relocation places sent a clear message to Europe and the global audience: those seeking a better life can do so on UK terms only.

Under the previous government, the UK claimed that search and rescue operations at sea would create a ‘pull factor’ for more migrants and refugees to risk their lives, and thus suspended support for such life-saving missions. In the wake of increased deaths on the Mediterranean, the UK’s response under David Cameron, supported by then-Home Secretary May, was to provide aid to refugee ‘hosting’ nations neighboring Syria to ‘tackle the crisis’, while simultaneously announcing their plans not to take part in relocation programmes into the UK for refugees stranded in southern Europe. This form of punishment for those who attempted to transgress European borders by not allowing them relocation places sent a clear message to Europe and the global audience: those seeking a better life can do so on UK terms only. The aid provided also signaled a strategy to present vulnerability within a simplified binary: if you are able to be smuggled to Europe you are less vulnerable than those who remain in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. All of this has been legitimized by claiming the UK was making such decisions on the basis that by providing assistance in Europe, a pull factor was being created which was was causing more people to ‘put their lives at risk’, manipulating and at times erasing the reality in which such individuals were willing to take such actions.

Lastly, development aid which seeks to address the “root causes of irregular migration” represents a growing trend within Europe in which the focus is on spending to manage migration, rather than implementing other types of development projects. A recent report from the European Court of Auditors on European aid spending on migration issues showed that “security and border protection were the predominant element in European migration spending.” Even more worrying is the leaked documents, reported by the ECRE in October 2016, that saw the EU pressuring Afghanistan to accept their nationals who had their asylum claims refused, and had not returned voluntarily from Europe, in exchange for aid.

Make no mistake, while the UK under May’s leadership, and the European Union at large, may not be as outwardly as discriminatory as a Trump presidency, the perpetuation of racist and anti-migrant policies will persist if the public does not act, constantly and unperturbed. The past has shown us that the direction we are going in Europe is as bleak as the current US context.

This nuanced understanding is needed in order to stay informed and engaged with the reality of migrant and refugee existences; it is the only way to battle the large scale forces of discrimination, racism, and sexism which make policies like the Muslim Ban a reality.

Some resources to stay informed and take action.


Fekete, L. (2006) ‘Enlightened fundamentalism? Immigration, feminism and the right’, Race & Class, 48(2), pp. 1–22. doi: 10.1177/0306396806069519.

Chiara Gnoli is a gender and migration specialist, currently working with refugees in Greece.