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From the file

Immigration & Asylum | As the post-Brexit era begins, what does Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s vision of “global Britain” mean?

Further reading

Further reading

The causes, the data and the long view on migration trends


Ever since humans have existed, they have moved. As Khalid Koser, author of ‘International Migration: A Very Short Introduction’ puts it: “The history of migration begins with the origins of mankind.” The Encyclopedia Britannica provides a readable run-through of key periods in migration history, while the Smithsonian magazine offers a deep dive into the one of the earliest and most important of them; the moment 80,000 years ago when our species first travelled out of Africa. Migrant communities have had a profound influence on host countries wherever they have settled, and The Guardian has produced a profile of several of them over the centuries, from the ancient Israelites to the modern-day Balkans.

For a more up-to-date picture of global migration, the world’s major refugee agencies and civil society organisations all offer an overview of key statistics and trends, including Amnesty, the International Organization for Migration, and UNHCR. The drivers of migration, typically are conflict, oppression and environmental catastrophes such as drought or flooding. Two-thirds of the world’s 79.5m refugees come from five countries: Syria; Venezuela; Afghanistan; South Sudan; and Myanmar. UNHCR has a useful operational portal displaying current data on many of the planet’s refugee hotspots; try zooming the map in on areas such as the Mediterranean, Venezuela or Bangladesh to find out more.

Quite a lot has been written about the risk that millions of ‘climate refugees’ fleeing the consequences of climate change will head to more developed nations. This piece by a group of academics based on their writing for Nature Climate Change busts a few myths and makes clear that most movements of displaced people do not involve crossing a border.

Similarly, the Syrian conflict, now almost 10 years old, has displaced more than 6.6 million people, but overwhelmingly they have remained in neighbouring countries – Turkey is home to 3.7 million Syrian refugees.

Migration to the UK

The excellent ‘Refugee History’ website, run by a series of academics in Britain and Europe, features a number of useful resources for anyone looking to learn more about the UK’s long entanglement with global migration – start with their history of refugee settlement in Britain, and the accompanying briefing on successive attempts by governments to control it. The modern-day history of border enforcement begins with the 1905 Aliens Act, predominantly designed to keep out Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe, and ‘Our Migration Story’ has a helpful overview of the legislation here (as well as many fascinating stories of British immigrant populations ranging from the Roman Empire to the Windrush generation).

Those in search of reliable information on British immigration today need look no further than the University of Oxford’s ‘Migration Observatory’, a goldmine of contemporary resources on this topic. Their briefing on asylum and refugee resettlement in the UK has the definitive statistics, while Refugee Action’s Q&A on the topic presents much of the same data in a slightly more accessible form. As explored in much of our reporting this week, there is a growing sense on all sides of the political spectrum that Britain’s existing asylum policy is broken, and on that front both the Open University’s timeline of official attempts to criminalise asylum, and Freedom from Torture’s 2019 report into the realities of the current asylum process make for valuable reading.

Much of the public discourse surrounding asylum-seekers in the UK is shaped by misinformation – not least an exaggerated idea of how many refugees attempt to reach Britain in the first place. Eurostat, the official statistics office of the EU, has all the relevant data to enable comparisons between European countries (scroll down and click on the subheading links to jump to specific graphs and tables). Meanwhile, bureaucratic insecurity and economic precariousness remain a fact of life for many migrants even after they are given permission to stay in the UK. Daniel Trilling – author of the highly-recommended ‘Lights In The Distance’, a book about refugee flows through Europe – used a recent opinion piece to interrogate the changing nature of what it means to be a citizen or non-citizen in the UK, and the Home Office’s attempts to police that distinction, while Minnie Rahman, campaigns manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, has examined the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on migrant workers.

Crossing the Channel

Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry at the moment into the ‘small boat’ crossings phenomenon, the subject of our main story this week. You can see all the evidence they have collected so far at the inquiry’s website here, and you may be interested too in the National Audit Office’s damning report last year on the Home Office’s general performance when it comes to immigration enforcement, as well as the recent findings of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons regarding migrant processing facilities in Kent (although this does not include Napier Barracks).

The Institute for Race Relations has published a sobering report detailing the known deaths of people attempting to reach Britain by water over the past twenty years and the related trend of border militarisation, a subject that prominent sociologist Hein de Haas has written about at length. At the LSE’s blog, academic Tabitha Baker traces the historical relationship between the English Channel and constructions of national identity – and the way that irregular migration over the sea plays into all this – while at Hope Not Hate, researcher Joe Mulhall has an insightful breakdown of current far-right activity in Kent where most of the small boats are landing.

Migrant stories

One thing notably lacking from much of the public debate surrounding migration are the voices of migrants themselves. Iranian-American novelist Dina Nayeri meditates on how it feels to navigate society’s complex and capricious dividing lines between insider and outsider status – one of several essays by refugee writers that feature in Viet Thang Nguyen’s book ‘The Displaced’. There are more reading suggestions in this Guardian list of book recommendations by writers on migration, many of which feature migrant authors. MSF, an organisation which supports displaced peoples in many parts of the globe, have published a series of testimonies by refugees who have settled far from their original homes, while the Detained Voices blog features contributions from some of the more than 20,000 people held indefinitely inside UK Immigration Removal Centres.