‘Stop the boats!’ The political football of the ‘immigration debate’ in Britain

How the ruling class divides workers against one another and distracts our attention from the true causes of our misery.

The concepts of ‘real’ versus ‘bogus’ asylum-seekers, the distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ immigrants are aimed not at really stemming immigration flows but at reinforcing the myth that immigrants are the cause of British workers’ poverty, and that our rulers are trying to protect us from these ‘invaders’. Anti-immigration legislation and its associated public debates and punitive enforcement mechanisms aim to tie British-born workers to their own ruling class and to divide them from their fellow workers.

In Britain, as in every other imperialist country today, there is an increasingly heated and vitriolic debate around the question of immigration. The more that living standards for British workers fall, the louder and more insistent this debate becomes.

While some debate is focused on the relatively larger numbers of migrants who come legally to study and work (a proportion of whom then go on to become ‘illegal’ by overstaying their visa limits), the majority of hysteria is centred on the small minority of migrants who have arrived in Britain via ‘illegal’ means from the start – very often in the hope of claiming asylum once they get here.

As legal methods of entry for asylum seekers using official international mechanisms have been choked off, a significant number of refugees are forced to travel by dangerous underground routes. In the last few years, a clamp-down on alternative means of entry has led to an increase in the numbers of migrants arriving on small boats across the English Channel.

According to the Refugee Council: “The majority of people crossing the Channel in small boats are fleeing war-torn or oppressive countries where no safe and formal routes exist for making an asylum claim in the UK.” Four in ten who cross the Channel come from just five countries – Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan – which currently have asylum grant rates of between 82 and 98 percent.

Despite the fact that so many who come by boat are genuine refugees who can find no other way to make an asylum claim, the much publicised shift in their method of entry has been used to justify a further ratcheting up of the heat surrounding the topic of immigration, and to the promotion of the demand to ‘Stop the boats!

The threat of numberless “floods” or “hordes” of what are often ominously described as “military aged men” arriving on our shores to ‘steal jobs’ and/or ‘sponge on our benefits system’, ‘occupy our council houses’ and otherwise use up ‘our’ valuable and supposedly limited resources forms a daily background hum in Britain’s media – especially in those popular media designed for consumption by the broad mass of poorer working-class people.

Politicians and media compete with one another to be toughest in this regard, claiming (as in the days of the Napoleonic invasion scare) to be working on a plan to keep Britain’s 11,000 miles of coastline “protected” from this foreign “invasion”, and castigating their opponents for being soft on this question (if in opposition) or for having “lost control” (if in government).

A drop in the ocean

To put this rhetoric in context, the population of Great Britain is around 65 million people, most of it centred in the south-east and central areas of England. The numbers of migrants coming to Britain on small boats, around whom so much incendiary debate has been centred, is thought to have been less than 50,000 at its peak two years ago. Available statistics show this number falling considerably since November 2021. Last year, the number is thought to have been around 30,000.

Official statistics are often sketchy and incomplete, and government methodology has recently changed, making comparisons difficult, but official figures indicate that the number of migrants arriving in Britain via legal channels from outside the European Union has been rising since Brexit, alongside a parallel movement of European workers out of the country. There have been particularly large spikes in visas for students (as deregulated universities seek to maximise their income by actively recruiting overseas students and charging them astronomical international fees) and for skilled workers (who have been asked to plug gaps in the British workforce, it being cheaper to use labour trained elsewhere than to educate and train skilled workers at home).

In terms of the number of asylum applications per head of population, the UK ranks 22nd in Europe (just eight per 10,000 of the population, as against 23 for Germany), despite being one of the richest counties in the region (and the world), and despite its obligations under the Geneva conventions. In contrast to the deliberately “hostile environment” that greets most asylum seekers to Britain, however, more than 200,000 applicants from Hong Kong and Ukraine have had their claims expedited in the last three years – clearly because their admission was in line with propaganda supporting British imperialist aggression against China and Russia.

In their case, no pogroms were whipped up and the usual discussion about floods, hordes and overstretched services was quietly dropped. On the contrary, financial incentives were paid to British families prepared to host Ukrainians fleeing the war, communities were urged to provide support and a warm welcome, and refugees were immediately able to collect benefits and look for work. As a result of having safe legal channels through which to claim asylum in the UK, none of these Ukrainian or Chinese migrants had to risk the dangers of (or pay the fees for) a small-boat Channel crossing.

Since most migrants to Britain have homes to go to and are permitted to work, they quickly become invisible, merging into the workforce, sending their children to local schools etc.

The treatment of migrants who arrive by illegal means, by contrast, makes their presence very much more noticeable to the local populations amongst whom they are housed, although their absolute numbers remain small. In 2019, just 0.6 percent of the population consisted of people who had come to Britain as an asylum seeker. Over half of these had been living in the country for more than 15 years, putting into context the alarmist notion that Britain has been inundated by a recent ‘flood’ of such people.

Meanwhile, what can appear to be ‘significant numbers’ of unprocessed asylum seekers are routinely placed in extremely impoverished ‘post-industrial’ communities of low employment and high social deprivation. In this context, where education, healthcare and housing provision, along with other social services and community facilities, have been cut to the bone and are now totally inadequate to the needs of the population, even the presence of a fairly small number of immigrants in a run-down hotel can easily be made to seem inflammatory.

The system of placing asylum seekers in neglected areas, of denying them the right to work and of keeping them dependent on beggarly hand-outs (£7 per day for all expenses) while their applications are bogged down in a process that might take years, can be and regularly is used as an excuse to drum up outrage about ‘scroungers’ and to whip up pogroms based on supposed (usually entirely fabricated) ‘threats’ to local women and children. The fear of Asian and African men in particular has been stoked by decades of dehumanising islamophobic propaganda that has accompanied British imperialist aggression against the people of Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Palestine, Yemen and elsewhere.

Election year bidding war under way

At any time of political or economic difficulty for the ruling class, it is noticeable that the background hum of immigration chatter is ramped up. In an election period (and the pre-election campaigning period is getting longer with each election cycle), this hum acquires the volume of a symphonic finale, complete with double brass fanfare and a full chorus. The framing of the ‘debate’ means that discussion of immigration is presented as part of a ‘culture war’ that creates plenty of heat but very little light.

It is an accepted trope amongst bourgeois commentators that migration controls are a ‘demand’ that originates spontaneously amongst the poorer members of the working class, and that in making this demand workers must be acting from an inherent racist backwardness. Politicians, so the story goes, then find themselves compelled to act on this demand in order to placate the public. The fact that three generations of workers have been endlessly informed that immigration is the cause of their problems while their living standards declined is left out of this convenient narrative.

Members of the liberal intelligentsia, meanwhile, are presented as being far more enlightened in their attitude and in their opposition to the racism of the poor. Their ‘supportive’ arguments for immigration focus on the idea that migrants ‘do the jobs we don’t want to’ (ie, that they are prepared to subsidise British living standards by working for very low wages in very poor conditions).

Those from the privileged classes who join the debate on the anti-immigrant, supposedly ‘working-class’ side (and there are very many of these) present themselves as representing ‘common sense’, as wanting to defend a ‘shared British culture’, and as ‘defenders’ of the rights of indigenous British-born workers. Britain’s ‘way of life’ is described as being ‘under threat’ from what former prime minister David Cameron described in 2015 as a “swarm”.

But a closer look reveals that whether avowedly liberal or openly racist, all sections of the British bourgeois political spectrum are in agreement that immigration is a ‘problem’ that ‘strains our services’, and that measures must be put in place to curtail it. Media from the rabidly reactionary Sun tabloid newspaper to the liberal Guardian, politicians from the left wing of the Labour party as well as the right wing of the Tory party all routinely agree that ‘something must be done’, and the only real question is exactly what form anti-immigrant measures should take.

As elections approach, the roar of the media that ‘something must be done’ becomes deafening and bourgeois political parties, who have no answers for the real material problems facing working-class people, get into what amounts to a bidding war regarding who can be relied upon to be ‘toughest’ on immigration.

As an adjunct to this process, the entire debate is endlessly shifted to the right by steady normalisation of openly fascistic approaches to the poor of the world. On the one hand, the constant stream of anti-immigrant hysteria in the ‘mainstream’ press and from ‘mainstream’ politicians normalises the idea that immigration is a big problem. This gives fuel to the rabid utterings of the fascistic right wing, who merely take these talking points to their logical extreme. On the other hand, the ‘mainstream’ justifies the constant shifting of its discourse to the right by claiming that if it doesn’t, it will lose ground to open fascists. By means of this carefully choreographed ballet, the fascistic discourse and most overt institutional racism is increasingly presented as ‘normal’.

It is particularly ironic that anti-immigrant demagogues try to scare British workers with the narrative that there is a ‘British gene pool’ and a ‘British culture’ that are under threat as a result of mass migration to our shores. As a small island on the edge of Europe, our whole history has been one of waves of migration. There is no ‘British’ genotype and no eternal ‘British culture’. Britain has always been a melting pot, and its culture and people have always been in flux. Moreover, the culture of the British ruling class is in many respects quite different from the culture of the British working class, who have more in common with workers elsewhere than with their exploiters at home.

The capitalist class, however, while ruthlessly pursuing its own selfish interests at the expense of the working class, seeks to portray its own exploitative interests as being ‘national’ and therefore in the interest of both rulers and workers. Anti-immigration sentiment, love of king or queen and country, reverence for the armed forces and their imperial escapades, respect for the police force and its oppressive actions against the working poor, Union Jack worship at every sporting and cultural occasion – all these are examples of the ‘values’ British workers are asked to imbibe in order to tie them to their ruling class.

As the 2024 general election approaches, Britain’s political parties are mired in a new version of the same old bidding war. In the 1960s, the Tory party scared voters with the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” and Labour in government responded by instituting virginity tests for Asian brides. In the more recent past, the Labour government of Tony Blair built detention centres (prisons) on British soil in which asylum seekers, including young children, continue to be held for unlimited periods in horrendous conditions while their claims are processed.

Today, not only are some asylum seekers being returned to countries through which they have transited without their claim even being assessed by Britain, but the remainder are being threatened with a third-country processing regime that Britain’s supreme court has ruled as unlawful and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has condemned as a violation of Britain’s international responsibilities.

As this article was being written, the present Tory government was passing new legislation through Parliament that aims to offshore the asylum process altogether by paying a designated third country (Rwanda) to assess asylum claims from afar and to offer successful applicants a home there rather than allowing them to come to Britain.

The morning after the Rwanda bill was passed through Parliament (Monday 22 April), news came in of yet another disaster in the Channel. Five of the 112 people on board an overcrowded boat had fallen overboard and were drowned – three men, one woman and a seven-year-old girl.

While shedding crocodile tears for this entirely preventable tragedy and claiming to be acting from motives of “compassion”, British prime minister Rishi Sunak used the news as an opportunity to present the new legislation as a ‘solution’ that will create an atmosphere of “deterrence”. According to the logic of Sunak and his government, deaths at sea are not the result of refugees having no safe or legal routes through which to apply for asylum in Britain, but are entirely the result of the unscrupulousness of the human trafficking operations that organise the boats.

What is this really all about?

Despite the huge hype around the Rwanda bill, the scheme is expected to end in homes for just 200 migrants initially. Clearly the real aim is not to house but to deter and criminalise asylum seekers – and to promote the idea that the government is indeed (and quite rightly) ‘getting tough’ on immigration.

The ruling class’s agenda becomes clear when one considers that the cost of imprisoning refugees is far higher than the cost of settling them and allowing them to work and support themselves.

Meanwhile, the provisions of the new legislation are removing altogether the right to asylum in Britain and criminalising those who attempt to come here, creating an inhumane machinery of scapegoating, imprisonment and deportation that the United Nations has repeatedly pointed out are a violation of the 1951 convention on refugees and the right to asylum.

It is clear that people will continue to be forced to leave their homes to escape wars, hunger and other crises that threaten their existence. These problems – war, underdevelopment and impoverishment – have their roots in imperialist exploitation and domination; no government measure can ‘stem the tide’ of mass migration around the globe without addressing these root causes.

So what is the real purpose and actual effect of the refugee policy of Britain’s government? Clearly, it seeks merely to divert attention from the failings of the capitalist-imperialist system, under which the oldest imperialist country, which remains one of the largest hubs of accumulated wealth in the world, is unable to provide a decent living for a large and growing proportion of its people.

The latest and much-hyped ‘stop the boats’ immigration legislation seeks to stigmatise refugees from war as ‘fake’ asylum seekers by penalising them for the fact that they are unable to apply for asylum in their countries of origin. Not only do wars inevitably make this process impossible, but now the new act is deliberately and brutally closing off whatever was left of the ‘legal’ asylum routes into Britain.

The concepts of ‘real’ versus ‘bogus’ asylum-seekers, the distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ immigrants are not actually aimed at stemming immigration flows but at reinforcing the myth that immigrants are the cause of British workers’ poverty, and that our rulers are trying to protect us from these ‘invaders’. Anti-immigration legislation and its associated public debates and punitive enforcement mechanisms aim to tie British-born workers to their own ruling class and to divide them from their fellow workers.

This is particularly clear when one realises how small a proportion even of ‘illegal’ migration to Britain will be affected, since most ‘illegals’ in Britain entered the country on a student or tourism visa and stayed on without permission. Clearly, the Rwanda bill cannot possibly have any effect on this, by far the largest, number of ‘illegal’ migrants in Britain.

The entire immigration ‘debate’ should therefore be understood as a smokescreen to divert workers from recognising the fundamental systemic issues that cause their problems. Instead, it offers them a seductive ‘solution’: If only the foreigners were removed from Britain, our lives would be better – there would be jobs, houses, school places, doctor’s appointments and hospital beds for all and the stress of our present precarious existence would be done away with.

Unfortunately for those who are taken in by this narrative, it is pure fantasy: a chimera with which to hypnotise and misdirect the attention of those who have not yet understood that problems of unemployment, inequality and poverty, that housing and health crises and all their associated miseries are a feature of the capitalist system of production for profit.

It is worthwhile noting here that the welfare-state concessions made to British workers in the special period after WW2, the loss of which we are now told is owing not to a shift in the balance of class forces or the return of the global overproduction crisis but to an ‘impossible strain’ caused by ‘too many immigrants’, were largely funded through the increased exploitation of Britain’s colonies – a fact tacitly understood and accepted by labour movement leaders.

The plain truth is that the problems which plague working people would exist even if every worker of foreign origin was removed overnight from British soil. The export of capital in search of ever-greater profits (and the consequent deindustrialisation of the home territory) is a process that was already underway at the turn of the 20th century. Notwithstanding some temporary reversals in the position of the working class during the postwar reconstruction boom, this process continues to accelerate, and to underpin much of the misery of British workers.

Today’s ‘harsh measures’ of immigration control, while designed to terrorise migrants and create an easily-identifiable scapegoat in our midst, do not and cannot work – and they are not even really meant to. The capitalists of Britain benefit greatly from the existence of an intimidated ‘illegal’ migrant workforce, which puts very little demand on the state machinery but contributes mightily (through its slave-labour pay and conditions) to capitalist profit margins, enabling rates of superexploitation usually only available in the oppressed countries.

Some people have been confused about the essence of the latest legislation because of the skin colour of those proposing it (both the current prime minister and his home secretary have Asian/African family origins). But racism doesn’t have to come from a white man; brown-skinned people are quite capable of serving the system of imperialist rule. The concerted attempt to rebrand the imperialist west as a ‘defender of human rights’ by placing black faces in high-profile public positions is simply PR cover for the system’s continued colonial, racist and anti-working-class nature.

What needs to be understood in this context is that racism is not inherent to people of any particular colour; it is a necessary tool of a minority exploiting class that needs to keep workers divided in order to stay in power. Using dark-skinned people to promote and implement racist policies is just one of many ways our ruling class tries to hide its true nature.

Mass migration in the modern world is a phenomenon that has been entirely created by the activities of global capital – in particular by the financiers’ need for a cheap and mobile workforce that can be brought to wherever it is needed. The first mass migrations in Britain took place from the countryside to the newly-forming industrial cities. The next wave came from Britain’s Irish colony. Throughout the 19th century, ‘excess’ European populations were transported to settle and control its ‘new world’ colonies. After WW2, large numbers of workers were moved from poor colonies to the imperial heartlands to reinforce the supply of cheap labour as demand for labour-power was increasing.

Socialists and trade unionists who support an anti-immigrant position in the name of ‘defending workers’ pay and conditions‘ have misunderstood the nature of both capitalism and imperialism. Since so much of the world’s wealth has been transferred to Britain, it is inevitable that people will migrate from their ravaged homelands in search of the decent living that has been denied to them by imperialist looting.

Those countries in the oppressed world that try to keep their wealth where it is – by nationalising their core industries, for example – routinely find themselves targeted by imperialist war or sanctions (or both). This inevitably creates a further flow of refugees and asylum seekers as the infrastructure and economy of entire countries are laid waste by economic strangulation, B-1 bombers and depleted uranium rounds.

One of the pitfalls some on the left fall into when opposing immigration to Britain is to conflate the conditions of capitalism and socialism, referencing the border controls exercised by socialist countries that are surrounded by aggressive imperialist powers. But since we don’t have state power, we are in no position to construct an immigration policy based on how we might run a future socialist society, whose possible internal or external conditions we have no way of predicting.

The job of socialists in the present conditions is to promote demands to our class that will facilitate its unity and strengthen its struggle for socialism. Once we understand that the immigration debate is not aimed at stopping immigration but only at promoting racist divisions and diverting workers’ anger away from the capitalist ruling class and the capitalist-imperialist economic system, we can see that our primary duty is to bring this fact to workers’ attention.

We must help to popularise the demand for an end to all divisive immigration legislation, which simply helps the ruling class promote racism, weakening our ranks and creating a superexploited underclass into the bargain – one that is extremely difficult to unionise or to bring into the wider working-class movement.

Many communists and socialists allow themselves to be drawn into such fruitless ‘policy-making’ discussions on all kinds of topics. In doing so, they forget that the job of a Marxist is not to imagine how they would run capitalism better than the capitalists, but to use socialist science and the workers’ own experience to demonstrate the need for a revolutionary socialist transformation of society.

Only by this means can we introduce the rational planned economy that will enable us not only to solve such grievous problems as racism and poverty that capitalist production for profit has created, but also to build a society fit for human beings, in which the real needs of working people, rather than the drive for profit, decide all.


Further reading

H Brar, Capitalism and Immigration, CPGB-ML party pamphlet, second edition published 2022.