On Outsourcing

The idea that Britain is “overcrowded” is an oft-repeated mantra for those who want to see massive reductions in the numbers of immigrants arriving in the UK.  Now, Julian Brazier – the MP for my home town, Canterbury — has offered the latest thinking on how to rid our “Overcrowded Land” of unwanted immigrants, including outsourcing asylum.
Certainly, some facts are true.  In the first decade of the 21st century, the UK population grew by 7%.  Between 1991 and 2010, half of the UK population’s increase could be directly attributed to the effects of migration, an extra 2.4 million people.
Yet while growth undoubtedly demands better governance – more investment in infrastructure, better public transport, the building of new houses – it is laughable to suggest that land is a “zero-sum game” or that overcrowding is an absolute truth.  We aren’t the Malthusian peasants of the 14thcentury: as others have pointed out civil engineering, public health and modern architecture are powerful tools for development.  Nor do we actually live in the concrete jungle of our imaginations: in fact, only 10% of England is currently urban (and 80% of those urban areas aren’t built on).  Brazier’s polemic twists half-facts with unfounded assertion to arrive at a dystopian vision that ignores the economic realities of how much the UK needs immigration. The demographics can’t be ignored. Unless we all start having many more expensive (in both environmental and economic terms) children, that positive net migration figure is what will prop up your pension and pay for your state-subsidised care in old age (never mind staff the care home).[1]
Brazier’s claims are spurious and ill founded. Yet what has made me most angry in reading this particular “Conservative Way Forward” are his conclusions. In particular, the assertion that:
This measure is necessary, apparently, because new plans to prevent people being able to appeal immigration decisions until after they’ve been deported are going to lead to ‘all detected illegal immigrants pos[ing] as asylum seekers’.
For now, I’ll leave aside the baffling leaps of logic required to arrive at this claim. I want to focus instead on the suggestion that we can – and should – ship our Somali asylum seekers to Kenya. Such a move ignores the fact that the vast majority of Somalis in the UK are not illegal immigrants or even asylum seekers (only 663 Somali asylum claims were submitted in the UK in 2012), but instead are legal residents and even British citizens. However it also displays a real lack of understanding about either Kenyan politics or the current sufferings of Somali refugees in Kenya.
Although Britons may believe that we host a disproportionate number of refugees and asylum-seekers, they’re wrong. 80% of refugees are hosted by developing world states. Kenya alone currently hosts close to a million refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons and internally displaced people (a reminder that Kenya’s democratic peace is a fragile one). That’s around 2.35% of the total Kenyan population. It hosts 568,000 registered Somali refugees.  Dadaab – the world’s largest refugee camp – is also the third-largest city in Kenya. Refugees and asylum seekers comprise just 0.33% of the UK’s population.
The market evangelists may argue that this proposal wouldn’t add to Kenya’s refugee “burden” (although Dadaab actually contributes $14m into the regional economy each year), because in Brazier’s terms, it’s a mutually beneficial economic transaction, with UK development cash flowing in alongside UK asylum-seekers.  Yet the objections are obvious. Turning refugees into commodities stretches the moral capacity of market-based solutions beyond what is reasonable. And while neither the proposals nor the objections are new – Australia’s Malaysia deal, struck down by its High Court on human rights grounds, would have operated on pretty similar principles – the choice of Kenya, whether framed as ‘dumping ground’ or ‘migration management partnership’ suggests an extraordinary level of ignorance on Brazier’s part.
For Kenya is a country where anti-migrant – and especially anti-Somali – sentiment is virulent. I first learned of Brazier’s plans when a friend sent me a link to an East African news site.  Many of the comments below the line would make Britain’s far-right proud.    It seems like Kenya is already “full” too.
Refugees and migrants – particularly Somali refugees – have for over 20 years been a convenient scapegoat for Kenya’s ills.  This is in part a reflection of Kenya’s own national history and lingering suspicion about the allegiances of its own Somali minority.  Somalis are subject to suspicion, discrimination and exploitation, particularly at the hands of corrupt Kenyan police. In December, the Kenyan government announced that all urban refugees would be required to leave the city and live in (severely overcrowded) camps.  Though this decision has not been enforced, several thousand Somalis have fled Kenya in fear of forced relocation and possible returns to a still insecure Somalia. Given the disruption to the billion-dollar Somali economy centred in Nariobi, it appears to be another case of migration politics trumping global economics.  I suspect Brazier knows very little of this.
And while Kenyans may agree with Brazier about the malevolence of asylum-seekers in general, they are opposed to his plan in particular. Britain doesn’t want them: we don’t want them either.  The sun set on Empire fifty years ago.  To suggest that Kenya should take those we do not want – even for a price – is unavoidably tainted by the wrongs of the colonial past.
The easy response, of course, is that “it will never happen”. Brazier is a backbench MP: his comments aren’t intended to lead to actual policy, only to pull the current UK debate on immigration still further to the right and persuade UKIP voters to back the Conservatives. Yet Brazier’s comments will fuel already toxic fires, both at home and abroad. For they confirm the idea that asylum seekers are the “scum of the earth”: people to be detained, contained, deported, whose value can be calculated – like some form of human toxic waste – in their safe removal and storage. And in having an impact in Kenya, they also underline how the poisonous potency of “overcrowding” myths – peddled here by petty nationalists for Daily Mail readers — actually form part of a global anti-migration narrative that should shame us all.

[1] This is not to suggest that migration can cure the social system – for that, we’d need one million migrants a year.  But it does suggest that cutting the working-age population isn’t exactly rational policy…