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'We shall fight on the beaches': invasion rhetoric and the anti-asylum discourse in Boris's Britain

When Boris Johnson introduced the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 he spoke of Britain being a ‘beacon of openness and generosity’, with refugees having contributed magnificently to the ‘amazing story of the UK’. Yet many questioned the contradictions between this pronouncement and the Act’s powers, which effectively criminalise any asylum seekers coming to the UK without valid entry clearance and allow these to be sent to Rwanda.

Justifying such draconian measures, Johnson argued “It’s a striking fact that around seven out of ten of those arriving in small boats last year were men under 40, paying people smugglers to queue jump and taking up our capacity to help genuine women and child refugees.” For good measure he added, “Uncontrolled immigration creates unmanageable demands on our NHS and our welfare state, it overstretches our local schools, our housing and public transport, and creates unsustainable pressure to build on precious green spaces”.

This conflation of environmental, economic and social justifications for new, ‘Australian-style’ refugee control is telling. It suggests that this legislation is far from a considered response to changing geopolitical realities, but a somewhat knee-jerk reaction borne out of a ‘moral panic’ in which asylum seekers are being figured as an existential threat to post-Brexit Britain.

This is a panic which has been informed by increasingly visceral images of asylum seekers arriving on the beaches of Kent. With the UK media’s fixation with images of asylum seekers abandoning their dinghies on the shore, walking past bemused sunbathers, routinely deployed as evidence of the ‘threat’ posed by a rising number of refugees.

Except these are rarely referred to as refugees. Usually, they’re described as economic migrants, or worse, ‘illegals’ - a dehumanising category that ignores the factors that have pushed people from their homes.

‘Border spectacle’

Geographer Nic De Genova argued that the state and law uses such ‘border spectacle’ to reaffirm sovereignty, making those who dare to cross borders through unapproved routes hyper-visible via surveillance and media coverage, illegalising them in the process.

This ‘spectacle’ became relentless in 2020 as the number of refugees crossing the Channel increased – on one day alone in January 2020, there were 102 refugees picked up by the Border Force. With the suspension of ferry crossings during COVID-19 lockdowns and calm conditions, the numbers continued to grow throughout the summer of 2020.

As Joseph Maggs notes, a standard news report during this period would lead with a headline identifying a particular crossing as another episode in a ‘summer of crossings’. It would then explain in cold bureaucratic language the number of people who had been ‘intercepted’, ‘found’, or ‘caught’ by the authorities, with the English Channel depicted as a veritable battleground where migrant boats played cat and mouse with border patrols.

At times, refugee boats were circled by the media, with migrants cowering away from cameras as journalists asked them where they were from. This grotesque reality TV was fuel to the fire, helping to whip up moral panic about the crossings.

A shift in tone

As the year went on, something started to shift in the coverage of the sea crossings. Before 2020, most of the coverage was on the boat rather than the individual asylum seekers. Images of dinghies crowded with a huddled, faceless mass of migrants supported the narrative of a ‘flood’ heading to the UK.

This changed as names were put to those whose journeys ended in tragedy. Most notably, the death of a family of five Kurdish-Iranians, which included 15-month-old Artin Iran Nejed, was given prominent media coverage in October 2020. Headlines quoted charities who argued the channel risked becoming a ‘graveyard for death’, evoking compassion among those otherwise unsympathetic to the plight of those seeking asylum in the UK.

However, this was immediately countered by coverage blaming these deaths on the unscrupulous people-smugglers ‘forcing’ refugees onto crowded boats at ‘gun-point’. Little attention was devoted to the UK’s securitisation of the border or the broader geopolitical factors making crossing the channel by boat the best possible option for those wanting to seek asylum in the UK.

A so-called ‘invasion’

As increasing numbers evaded cross channel patrols and were then pictured standing on Kent beaches, some sections of the media labelled their arrival a de facto ‘invasion’. For example, one article in The Sun carried a photo that claimed to capture ‘The Moment Migrants Storm Kent Beaches’, suggesting England’s national defence to have been breached.

Asylum seekers landing on the beaches of Kent is particularly significant in this respect given the county’s depiction of its beaches as the ‘frontline’ in times of military conflict - not least in World War Two when the Battle of Britain raged above it.

The frequent deployment of invasion metaphors, and the invocation of Britain’s ‘finest hour’, was perhaps not so surprising in the febrile atmosphere engendered by COVID-19 and the anxieties that circulated about the permeability of the post-Brexit border.

Notably, in the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, the spirit of 1945 was regularly invoked by those arguing it was time for Englanders to ‘take back control’: a facile equation was often drawn between the Nazi threat and contemporary politics in which the white working class were forgotten by a cosmopolitan Remainer elite who embraced the idea of open borders.

As such, Brexit was fuelled by subtle cultural manipulation of ideas of Englishness which embraced both the nostalgia for the British imperial project as well as the class resentments emerging in an era of austerity. Brexit was then a vote against London, globalisation, and multiculturalism as much as it was a vote against Europe, a combination with particular appeal to many older, whiter voters living outside the capital.

As subsequent coverage of the ‘boat people’ in Kent shows, images of immigration were then manipulated to suggest that everything that is good about England is threatened by everything that comes from elsewhere.

Remembering why people make the journey to Britain

Britain is a nation built on a mythology that it shelters those fleeing persecution. But this depiction of asylum seekers as parasites on the nation’s hospitality suggests important shifts have occurred in the imagined relationship between ‘host’ and ‘guest’.

The welcome extended to the stranger is now more conditional, with those coming ‘without invitation’ now subject to sanction and suspicion. The media’s representation of a ‘migrant crisis’, coupled with the Conservative government’s creation of a hostile environment for undocumented migrants, has created fear and mistrust.

In this respect, the distinction sometimes made between the ‘genuine refugee’ and the modern-day ‘economic migrant’ seems to ignore the factors that encourage people to make the hazardous journey to Britain across the English Channel in the first place. The continuing wars and religious persecution, natural disasters exacerbated by environmental exploitation and capitalist processes of exploitation that require illegal migrants to perform precarious, expendable, and compliant labour. The processes that encourage people to flee to the UK in the search of a better life have then not changed in the last few years, but sadly the reception they receive has.

About the author

Phil Hubbard's book Borderland: identity and belonging at the edge of England is published by Manchester University Press. All royalties are donated to the Kent Refugee Action Network.

You can watch Phil speak about his book on his YouTube channel.

In this story

Philip Hubbard

Philip Hubbard

Professor of Urban Studies

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