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From Criminal to the ‘Rule of Law’? Johnson’s border policy on refugees

Photograph by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images in The Guardian

Britain has a very proud history of taking refugees and migrants from war-torn and destabilised areas of the world – this is a fact which has been made clear from all sides of the political spectrum. What is concerning, however, is that this statement has since Brexit been continuously added as a precursor to every new border policy blunder made by the UK Conservative government in an attempt to ‘soften the blow’ of public perception. It is the paradox of Boris Johnson trying to appeal to those sympathetic to migration, but to also appease hard-line anti-immigration Brexiteers. This paradox was inevitable, given (a) the close split between Leave and Remain votes in the 2016 EU Referendum, and (b) the amount of lies told to both sides of this debate by Johnson and his ‘mates’ in a desperate attempt to gain political power in 2019…leaving the British public in permanent limbo as whether or not ‘Brexit’ (in the way it was described) had even taken place at all; a state of ‘technically we’re out, but we’re not really out’.

Given the ease of shaping and reproducing ‘empty signifiers’ (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Torfing, 1999) within this discursive limbo, Boris Johnson’s latest border policy disaster relating to refugee border crossings was announced yesterday. The new “genius” idea will be to deport those who are single men crossing the Channel in boats or lorries from France to Rwanda for ‘processing’. Of course, as per usual, this was seemingly quite a surprise to the Minister of State for Refugees who claimed on LBC just over a week prior to the announcement that he had no knowledge of any new plans to send anyone to Rwanda.

Before going into the details of the hypocrisy associated with this policy in the light of the war in Ukraine, what I fail to understand is the entire point of this process. Boris Johnson’s announcement seemed to focus most of his rhetoric on the ‘illegality’ of the status of people entering UK borders, as well as the need to curb ‘people smuggling’. He merged this part of his speech with Ukrainian refugees in an attempt to, once again, appear to seem more sympathetic to the struggle of fleeing populations than he is in reality…’whether you are fleeing Putin or Assad, our aim is that you should not need to turn to people smugglers or any other kind of illegal option’. It is important to note that we shouldn’t be confusing (as often happens) the term ‘people smugglers’ with ‘sex traffickers’, whose motives are wholly different than merely receiving money to aid someone’s journey across nation state borders. People smugglers tend to take advantage of those who are in sheer desperation. This desperation is normally grounded in a combination of multiple factors: (1) destabilisation in their home country, (2) fear for their life, safety, or future (or that of their family), (3) strong desire for liberation or freedom and, most importantly, (4) a practical inability to actually escape their current borders.

With this in mind, it is astonishing to hear Johnson trying to justify this policy on the grounds that he is somewhat of a rule-of-law fan, wishing to drive out illegal behaviour from UK borders, given that he has recently become the first ever serving UK Prime Minister to have been sanctioned for breaking the criminal law. As with many similar approaches to these types of policies in the past (the obvious being the so-called ‘war on drugs’), the core motivation has very little to do with the actual human safety, and more rooted in neoliberal frustrations of the (and I deliberately use this term in its loosest possible sense) ’tax-paying’ Eton schoolboys at others, within UK borders or otherwise, earning any kind of money from which they are not directly benefitting. This ties in closely to, what I mentioned in a previous post, as the UK Conservative Party’s lazy response to sanctioning oligarchs linked to the Putin regime…for obvious personal reasons.

Most striking here is the level of hypocrisy between who is considered part of the in-group of migrants and refugees, and who is the ‘other’; the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ (Cottle, 2000; Van Dijck, 2000; Quinsaat, 2011; Reed, 2017). Without deflecting from Putin’s responsibility in reproducing anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia and surrounding former Soviet nations, and framing the ethnic group as some kind of leeching parasite on the Russian people, we have seen both overt and covert racism at play in Ukraine and other parts of the world in relation to this idea of ‘ideal’ refugees. The UK is no exception to this. Not since the aftermath of the Second World War have we seen the type of outpouring of sympathy by the British public towards a persecuted ethnic group, with hundreds-of-thousands opening up their homes to house refugees expected imminently. Of course we should be proud of every hand extended to any human in need of help, but where was this reaction when Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans were fleeing their countries due to botched UK military operations in their sovereign territory? Where is this reaction when innocent Yemeni people are calling on the world to help while we are funding Saudi Arabia’s genocidal campaign in their sovereign territory?

It is too simple to claim that this issue is purely related to skin-colour-based racism or another type of xeno-racism, because we know this not to be the case. Perhaps due to the personal nature of the conflict in the Republic of Artsakh in late 2020 which killed thousands of Armenians and displaced around 90,000, and the rhetoric of neutrality from the UK Conservative government (due to their close monetary ties with the aggressor and his oligarch friends), the mainstream media and near-total silence from prominent celebrities…all of whom seem to now scream for action in response to Ukraine (rightly so), but I can’t help but echo a question asked by another Armenian, Tatev Hovhannisyan: Where was the outpouring of empathy when my country was at war?

Photograph by Areg Balayan, Government of Armenia, from The Armenian Weekly

Perhaps to understand the nature of this hypocrisy we need to focus more on the complex interplay between the nation state, power and discourse. I would add another element into this equation: money. In a neoliberal, populist political model, dictators seemingly pay vast sums of money to other nation states in exchange for the unyielding, unchallenged and unregulated power to produce and reproduce dominant discourses which ground their version of hegemony within those states.

References

Cottle, S. (Ed.). (2000). Ethnic Minorities and the Media. Open University Press.

Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso.

Quinsaat, S. M. (2011). ‘Everybody Around Here is from Somewhere Else’: News frames and hegemonic discourses in the immigration debates in the United States, 2006 and 2010 [MA Thesis]. University of Pittsburgh: Kenneth P Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Reed, H. (2017). Framing of Immigrants and Refugees: A content analysis of mainstream and partisan news coverage of immigration [MA Thesis]. University of Missouri: Faculty of the Graduate School.

Torfing, J. (1999). New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Žižek. Blackwell.

Van Dijk, T. A. (2000). New(s) Racism: A Discourse Analytical Approach. European Journal of Political Economy, 33–49.

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