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A Myth-Busting Guide to Migration to the UK

Is there really a "swarm" of benefit scroungers trying to get into soft-touch Britain?
August 17, 2015, 8:48pm

People waiting around at Calais's migrant 'Jungle.' Photo by Jake Lewis

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

In Britain today, there's almost nothing that doesn't get blamed on immigrants and asylum seekers. On top of stealing jobs and houses and causing an epidemic of ATM thefts, it's foreigners—we're told—who are clogging up traffic on the M4 and slowly killing off the great British boozer. There's even a bloke in Wigan who has to sit "on his own" during tea breaks because nobody wants to speak to him.


Often ridiculous to the point of self-parody, as the panic over migrants in Calais intensifies, the language is getting more and more inflammatory. With all the jargon, spin and just plain bullshit, it can be hard to get a clear picture of what's really going on.

So what does the crisis in Calais really entail? And what about the asylum seekers and immigrants already here? How much of a "soft touch" is Britain? Are immigrants really stopping our sweet kids from playing football in the streets?

Here's a guide to some of the myths you might have seen bandied about.


It's more of a humanitarian crisis. What's happening in Calais has dominated the news over the past few weeks as migrants make thousands of attempts to reach the UK through the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles. Politicians and much of the press are keen to portray them as "economic migrants," or otherwise some grasping freeloaders who need to be fended off.

In fact many migrants are from places like Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Sudan, and cannot return to their home countries for fear of death or persecution. With no safe, legal passage into the UK and are forced to make incredibly dangerous journeys, from which many are dying. So who is this really a "crisis" for? British holiday-makers—as David Cameron suggested—or refugees? Having your jaunt across the channel delayed sucks, but let's get some perspective.


Though worse than ever before, the current crisis in Calais is in fact nothing new. In 2002, a refugee camp called Sangatte—set up by the French Red Cross to provide emergency accommodation—was closed and since then migrants have been forced to sleep rough. Today they are staying in a new state-sponsored slum commonly known as "the Jungle."

Photo by Jake Lewis


The terms "migrants" and "asylum seekers" are often used interchangeably, often for cynical reasons. The logic seems to go that it doesn't matter why they're coming here, we have to keep them all out.

In reality, these terms mean very different things. Migrants are people that have moved to the country for a variety of different reasons, some economic, some social. Your mate who popped over to Berlin for the cheaper rent is a migrant—and nobody's calling that a "crisis."

Asylum seekers, on the other hand, are people that have escaped political, religious, ethnic, or some other kind of persecution and are seeking protection from the state. If their application for protection is accepted—in 2014 41 percent of cases in the UK were—asylum seekers are offered citizenship and awarded refugee status.

Photo by Natalie Olah


The British press likes to paint a picture of border agents standing at the White Cliffs with their arms open and hands out, their big warm hearts bleeding through Amnesty International t-shirts.

In reality the country's asylum system is a maze of abuse and injustice. Initial decisions are often wrong and are regularly overturned. Cases such as Majid Ali—who was forcibly deported to Pakistan in June and is now feared dead—are frighteningly common. And when it comes to LGBT asylum seekers, 99 percent are forced to return home according to Research by the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) with many suffering horrific abuse from border officials in the process.


It's even the stated aim of the government is to make the UK a "hostile environment" for illegal immigrants. Under last year's Immigration Act, mandatory immigration checks were introduced for people trying to rent a flat, open a bank account, or access healthcare.

Meanwhile, Britain has been less than helpful to people before they reach the UK. In October the government axed funding for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean to avoid what Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay called an "unintended pull factor." Last month it withdrew HMS Bulwark, a large warship that had rescued over 3,000 refugees from the area, replacing it with HMS Enterprise, a much smaller vessel that is yet to rescue a single person. The government also refused to accept plans, since scrapped, for an EU-wide refugee quota system, and has opted out of a voluntary plan to resettle some migrants, which other European countries agreed to.


Between 3,000 and 5,000 people are thought to be living in the Calais Jungle—a sizable number but only a fraction of the 185,000 people that have arrived in Europe in the first few months of this year. Most arrive in Greece on the East Mediterranean route from Turkey, and Italy on the Central Mediterranean route from Libya. Many then make onward journeys through Europe.

Outside Calais, the UK's role in the wider humanitarian crisis has been anything but magnanimous. In terms of total numbers offered sanctuary, the UK lags well behind many of its neighbors. Last year it granted refugee status to 14,065 people, trailing Switzerland, Holland, France, Italy, Sweden, and Germany.


Someone walking in the Calais 'Jungle' camp. Photo by Jake Lewis


In a debate that desperately needs some compassion, the language being used against migrants has become steadily more dehumanizing. David Cameron called them a "swam," Nigel Farage has been hankering for the army and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond thinks they constitute a threat to our "standard of living."

Leaving aside the trifling matter of the British Empire, for a continent as wealthy and large as Europe to think resettling 185,000 people would cause the fabric of society to collapse is pretty damn stupid. And in the UK—where just 0.24 percent of the population are refugees—you'd think welcoming a few thousand more from Calais shouldn't be too big a deal. If we let every migrant in Calais come to Britain, we'd be letting in about the same numbers of an average League 2 football gate.


These asylum seekers from Libya—sure, they're risking their lives and leaving their homes to flee the horrors of living in a failed state, but what they're really after is that City-Trader-sized golden hello that all asylum seekers are entitled to—a briefcase stuffed with £50 notes that they all get handed as soon as they get to Kent, right?

Wrong. In fact asylum seekers have no access to ordinary benefits and are prevented from working while they wait for months and, in some cases, years for the outcome of their claims. Instead they rely upon a separate Home Office program. With cuts to asylum rate support introduced earlier this month, all asylum seekers now get a flat rate of £36.95 [$57.63] per person per week, which is not a lot when it's your sole source of income and you're trying to make a new life having escaped a war-zone. Asylum seekers are also offered housing but usually in "hard to let" council properties, which means they suck and nobody who wasn't completely desperate would want to live in them.


Despite popular perceptions, other non-EU residents subject to immigration control have no recourse to public funds like tax credits and Job Seeker's Allowance until they are granted permanent residence. Then they get the same level of benefits as other UK citizens which, in case you've missed the last five-or-so years of government, is not a lot.

Migrants from within the EEA—the European Economic Area—are often portrayed as benefit tourists: those Romanians you read about sneaking in to live it up on the dole. In fact, various studies show they make a net contribution to the country's balance book and various restrictions are also placed on their access to welfare.


We do, unfortunately. Immigrant removal centers are one of the most controversial features of immigration policy in the UK. They're basically like high-security prisons, except many of the people there have done absolutely nothing wrong.

As well as locking up foreign national offenders and people it wants to deport the UK also holds thousands of asylum seekers in detention while it processes their claims. The scheme—known as Detained Fast Track—came into being in 2000 as a way of quickly processing "straightforward" asylum claims but was suspended last month after the high court judged it so "unfair as to be unlawful."

Not only does the country have one of the largest networks of detention centers in Europe, it is the only country on the continent that sets no statutory time limit on how long asylum seekers can be detained for. People that are refused entrance by their home countries can be left in limbo, denied citizenship in the UK, and unable to return to the country they have fled from, locked up indefinitely despite having committed no crime.

Many of the country's secretive detention centers have been plagued by scandals over the years. Yarl's Wood, one of the most notorious of the country's 13 removal centers, is run by a private company called Serco. There have been allegations of sexual abuse, racism, and poor healthcare standards over the center's 14-year history.

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