Throughout the pandemic, we saw a surge in the spread of disinformation. Some of those with a platform and influence told lies about the origins of Covid or the consequences of the vaccine that spread widely and caused harm. The same tactics have been used in an attempt to discredit climate scientists and the MeToo movement.
Disinformation does not happen by accident, it is manufactured with great care to create a lie that appears reasonable whilst eliciting an emotional, visceral reaction from its intended audience. Online disinformation campaigns have been a common feature of US politics, and the UK is not immune. Indeed, it has become such a prevalent tactic that the UK Government appears to be actively using it to create division and promote harmful policies that dehumanise vulnerable people.
We expect spin from governments, perhaps some questionable interpretations of unfavourable data, but we do not expect to be actively, purposefully lied to. Over the last few weeks, it seems to me that we have been as the UK Government has gone into overdrive in an attempt to legitimise its so-called “Illegal Migration Bill”, an incompetent and immoral piece of legislation.
Such is the level of their anti-migrant and anti-asylum-seeker misinformation, it has even caused an intervention from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in response to remarks made by Home Secretary Suella Braverman. She stated, live on air, that those fleeing conflict in Sudan had “various" legal ways to enter the UK to seek asylum. For the vast majority of Sudanese refugees, this is untrue. She went on to say that those feeling violence can present to the UNHRC to apply for asylum. Again untrue. Given her senior role in government, with its specific focus on migration and asylum, it is hard to think that these falsehoods were anything other than downright lies.
The UNHCR was forced to issue a statement to explain there was no route through them to apply for asylum in the UK and that the “overwhelming majority” of refugees do not have access to enter the UK through a resettlement scheme regardless of the dangers in their home countries.
The UK Government is forcing vulnerable people fleeing persecution and conflict onto small boats, only to then demonise and criminalise them for trying to seek a safe life for themselves and their families. The Illegal Migration Bill is an attempt to put their dehumanising rhetoric into legislation. It will criminalise those who seek to claim their legal right to asylum, give a green light to deporting those who enter the UK “irregularly”, regardless of their circumstances, and create an environment which encourages trafficking and modern slavery. All to stir up hatred and blame towards a vulnerable community and distract from those who are actually to blame for the current declining state of the economy and public services: the UK Government.
Disinformation and misinformation around migration and asylum have been circulating for decades within UK politics, and have long seeped into the media and opinion poll results, creating a full circle where a manufactured problem becomes an apparent public concern, which then becomes ‘necessary’ for the government to respond to. This cycle needs to be broken and this can only be achieved through robust accountability and calling out lies when they are said.
That was recently attempted on Channel 4 News. The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, claimed the UN Refugee Convention insists that asylum seekers must seek sanctuary in the first “safe” nation they arrive into. This is not true. News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy called him out, stating that this was inaccurate and the idea of “asylum shopping” is a false narrative. The minister backpedalled but, most importantly, his lie – that is what I believe it was – was caught and exposed. More of this is needed to counter the falsehoods emanating from government and stand up for marginalised communities being used as scapegoats.
The half-truths, untruths and lies need to be countered. Asylum seekers are not required to seek sanctuary in the first country they arrive in. There is no such thing as an “illegal” asylum seeker. The UK is not overrun with asylum seekers: it hosts significantly fewer than France, Germany or Italy. Globally, the vast majority of refugees remain in countries neighbouring the one they have fled, and more than 75 per cent of these countries are in the Global South.
Asylum seekers do not have access to the benefits system beyond a very limited, specific, allowance. Asylum seekers are not being housed in luxury; they are disproportionately more likely to be living in inhumane conditions, with risks to their health and unable to afford everything they need.
So far gone are some ministers and MPs that they have been attacking anyone who speaks out against the Illegal Migration Bill. This includes the Archbishop of Canterbury who told the House of Lords that the proposed legislation was “morally unacceptable”, a comment both correct and well-evidenced.
So comfortable are some members of the UK Government with their dangerous ideology that the Home Secretary and multiple ministers spoke out on this issue at the recent “National Conservatism Conference”. The speakers included JD Vance, a US senator accused of supporting white-supremacist conspiracy theorists and endorsed by Donald Trump, along with an array of others who used disinformation and fear to suggest the biggest threat to the UK is any step towards social justice, no matter how small.
The UK is no longer moving to the far-right. We are there. We cannot allow this to continue. We cannot allow cruel, inhumane legislation to be enacted, shrouded in a fog of inaccuracies and far-right rhetoric. This has consequences for the most marginalised people in our communities and across the world. And if that does not move you, then a government willing to do this now will be one that is unwilling to support you when you need them, next.
Talat Yaqoob is an equalities consultant and campaigner