4. The political role of the asylum system

obviously [the] government target is for controlling immigration, and to control asylum and refugees, to stop them coming in here…now if your asylum claim is rejected they stop your benefit and they evict you from your house…the main reason I think is to discourage people who are not in Britain, and who intend to come to Britain…because the news spreads fast…[that] you get homeless, you don’t get status, and obviously it has an impact on other people and discourage them from coming to Britain…The other reason is to change [the minds of] people who are already here to [force them to] get back to their country…I’ve seen people who prefer to live in their own countries, within war zones or difficult situations, but not stay here and be destitute or lose their reputation…I’ve seen people from Iran, from Baghdad, who is still under heavy control of the military, they prefer to go back (refugee man, arrived in Britain in 2000)

Within the international division of labour outlined above, refugees pose an implicit threat, both because they bring experiences of some of the worst consequences of imperialist exploitation in oppressed countries to within the imperialist heartland and because they move regardless of demand for their labour. This threatens the smooth-running of imperialism, creating pressure for the British state to take action to reimpose the labour market discipline of the international reserve army of labour.

As the metaphor implies, once refugees have ‘put down roots’ in Britain, with access to resources and networks of support, they are in a stronger position to resist the demands of the capitalist state and employers. Refugees’ ability to put down roots and rebuild their lives in Britain was increasingly obstructed from 1999 by policy interventions, which combined to undermine resistance to being re-incorporated into international divisions of labour on terms that benefit British capital. Key interventions included increased used of immigration detention, forced dispersal across Britain, a prohibition on paid work, and an asylum decision-making process seemingly set up to fail all but the luckiest and most resourceful refugees. These policies need to be viewed in the light of wider efforts over the same period to tailor migration ever more tightly to the needs of British capital, justified through a discourse of ‘managed migration’ and a policy strategy outlined in the 2005 White Paper Controlling Our Borders: Making migration work for Britain, which set out a system of four tiers ranking ‘highly-skilled’ English-speaking migrants above ‘low-skilled’, non-English speaking workers, and only allowing settlement after two years for the top two tiers.[1] This was further refined with the introduction of the Points-Based System in 2008, which has been retained by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government but combined with a ‘cap’ on migrant numbers which has been used to justify even more aggressive policing of migration.


[1] Cheong, P. H., et al. (2007). ‘Immigration, social cohesion and social capital: a critical review’. Critical Social Policy, 27(1), 24-49.

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