Immigration: the ugly face of Brexit and beyond

Drawing a line: across Europe anti-immigrant sentiment is growing and anti-immigration populists are gaining power.

A growing tide of desperate people seeking sanctuary and a surging anti-immigrant sentiment among the native populations of some nations will lead to an even greater crisis in Europe, writes Geoff Kitney.

The ugly dark side of the Brexit story – the anti-immigrant paranoia that was the reason for a significant proportion of the yes vote – still remains in the political shadows as Theresa May’s government and the European Union joust over the terms of the UK’s separation from the EU.

It surfaced briefly with the Windrush scandal which forced the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to quit the government but the connection between her excessive zeal on this issue and the deep underlying community dislike of foreign immigrants that propelled the Brexit vote was barely acknowledged.

The immigration issue, however, lurks just below the surface in British politics. It would almost certainly be as strong, or even stronger, if the turn of events in the Brexit saga lead to a second referendum.

And it will be there in the event that Brexit does finally happen and the government is required to deliver that part of the promise of Brexit which was about “taking back control”.

While polite discussion about the meaning of this phrase has always tried to cast it as being about lots of things to do with Britain’s membership of the EU, you don’t have to dig too far with Brexit voters to find that what they mainly had in mind when “taking back control”. It was the prospect of being able to assert control of the UK’s borders, to drastically slash the numbers of foreigners arriving on its shores, be they the citizens of other EU countries seeking opportunities in Britain or people seeking refuge from conflict and oppression from outside the borders of Europe.

That will mean the government will have no choice but to deliver on the commitment made during the Brexit campaign – and repeated since – to reduce from hundreds of thousands to “the tens of thousands” the number of foreigners being allowed to enter and work and ultimately settle in the UK.

This will set the UK on a collision course with the grim reality of people movements in the European hemisphere, and beyond.

The past few years of growing tensions over uncontrolled immigration are not going to be temporary. They threaten to become an ongoing and dangerous problem for not just years but decades.

What Britain will be doing will be pulling back dramatically from its place among the world of responsible, civilised nations to which a never-ending – and quite possibly growing – flow of people seeking sanctuary from war, conflict, persecution and poverty is headed.

Two divergent forces are working to create an ever-greater crisis in Europe: a growing tide of desperate people wanting to come in and a surging anti-immigrant sentiment among the native populations of European nations.

Third country nationals found to be illegally present in the European Union. Source: Eurostat


The past few years of growing tensions over uncontrolled immigration are not going to be temporary. They threaten to become an ongoing and dangerous problem for not just years but decades.

With the certainty that conflict in the Middle East, northern Africa and much of Asia is a permanent problem, with swelling populations in much of the developing world, and with the prospect that climate change will add to the pressure for people to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere, Europe is going to be dealing with a potentially never-ending crisis.

The Brexit slogan “take back control”, which sounded so simple and so appealing because it sounded like it meant closing the doors and only allowing in those the British people felt comfortable about giving permission to enter, is going to become ever more problematic as the pressure on rich countries to help the oppressed, the displaced, the poor and the hungry increases.

Britain as an island cutting itself off from an increasing troubled world seems to be an unsustainable idea.

In fact, for a rich nation to turn its back on the desperately needy, facing grim prospects for themselves and their children, would be a derogation.

However, bad examples don’t make for bad domestic politics.

In fact, the opposite appears to be true.

Across Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment is growing and feeding – and being fed – by opportunist political leaders. Anti-immigration populists are gaining power. Italy, a country with a proud tradition of Christian charity, now has a far right, anti-immigration party as part of its government.

It has quickly shown its colours, this week turning back from Italian ports a ship carrying hundreds of asylum seekers rescued at sea.

It’s a decision – welcomed as far away as Australia where “turn back the boats” has been adopted as policy by the main political parties for years. Australia has operated a ruthless policy of intercepting boats carrying asylum seekers, taking off the passengers, putting them into “unsinkable” lifeboats then forcing them to go back to where they came from – mostly Indonesia where there are tens of thousands of refugees stuck in camps with no-where to go.

There is little evidence of public concern [in Australia] about the conditions in which those in detention centres are held or about the length of time detainees have been held.

For those who have made it to Australian waters the stay has been brief because they have been quickly transferred to detention centres on islands beyond Australia’s borders. Many have been languishing in these camps, deprived of their liberty and living in terrible conditions, for years.

The Australian government says this policy deprives the “people smugglers of their business model” and protects Australian sovereignty by ensuring it keeps control of its borders and who is allowed to cross them. It even has a humanitarian justification, arguing that it saves asylum seekers from drowning.

Yet, the Australian public has little sympathy for those who have tried to get to Australia and seek asylum. There is little evidence of public concern about the conditions in which those in detention centres are held or about the length of time detainees have been held.

Not even the left-of-centre Labor Party is prepared to risk unpopularity by opposing the centre-right government’s treatment of asylum seekers.

The same public sentiment is obviously strong in Europe. And politicians are tapping into it, regardless of the consequences for those who are on the receiving end of such ruthless policies.

With another summer ahead during which the flow of those seeking to enter Europe from troubled regions nearby is certain to increase, the brutal populist politics of tougher treatment of this human tide seem unlikely to harm the political parties that adopt them.

European Union leaders are due to meet at the end of this month to make another attempt to agree a common approach to the immigration issue.

But, ahead of the meeting, the differences between governments are wide and the prospect of the gaps narrowing to make a consensus achievable seems remote.

Which means that the immigration/border protection/humanitarian crisis that has been basically out of control since 2015 seems certain to continue poisoning European politics.

Brexit might mean that Britain will succeed in cutting itself off and walking away from taking on a degree of responsibility commensurate with its economic power and its humanitarian obligations.

But far from being seen as a pariah, the ugly truth of this issue is that there will be many in the European Union who would wish they could do the same thing and who, at the very least, will be trying to make as much political capital as they can from voters increasingly hostile to the plight of people seeking sanctuary and a better life for themselves, their children and future generations.

It is hard to see any reasonable prospect of anything good happening on this vexed issue for the foreseeable future.



Headline Image Credit: Janossy Gergely/
Refugees in Breznice, Slovenia, wandering towards Germany. 25-10-2015