The Tories concocted the myth of the ‘migrant crisis’. Now their survival depends on it

<span>Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Britain exists in an imaginary state of crisis about immigration. Nothing soothes this anxiety – not facts, not real numbers of arrivals, not the distinction between migrants in general and asylum seekers in particular. In the past week alone, reports have emerged of illegally detained migrants at overcrowded centres falling ill, of underage sexual assault, and of others being dropped off in the middle of cities and promptly forgotten about. These appalling failures have occurred not because there are too many migrants, but because the government has broken its own asylum system.

This is a crisis by design, not of arrivals. The government is keen to stress the recent increase in Channel crossings, yet asylum applications are half what they were 20 years ago. The real and only cause of the debacle at Manston and other failing centres is this: the number of asylum applications processed within six months has fallen from almost 90% to about 4%. It’s not that more people are arriving than ever before, it’s that more of them aren’t being processed, and so are stuck in the asylum system for years. Efficiency has been dropping sharply since 2014, one year after Theresa May established the “hostile environment” and in the middle of George Osborne’s austerity programme. The intersection of those two forces created an underfunded, cruel Home Office, and with it Britain’s immigration “crisis”.

And it is a crisis that the government has every interest in maintaining, or at least no pressing interest in resolving. The Tories have finessed a narrative in which the country is under a migrant siege that the government is trying valiantly to rebuff, but is frustrated in its efforts by a string of culprits – “activist” lawyers, human rights law, tofu eaters, the Labour opposition. It is that tired fallback of failing rightwing government: plead helplessness in the face of a ubiquitous fifth column, an abstract leftwing blob that only last week the Sunday Telegraph editor, Allister Heath, promoted to the status of wielding “near total intellectual hegemony”.

This pretence is most fruitful with immigration. The government’s failure to maintain living standards and public infrastructure, from health to housing, can be disguised – with the help of the rightwing press – by presenting migrants as a constant drain on those resources. As a bonus, the fear of more of these imaginary parasites pushes voters to the only party that seems appropriately appalled by the threat. Immigrants provide such a valuable alibi for political dereliction that it makes no sense for the Conservative government to fix its broken immigration system. And so the state of emergency must be fostered and, if need be, escalated. In this country, there has never been an immigration crisis and there has always been an immigration crisis.

The illusion of deluge is more easily maintained at certain times than others, giving the false migrant crisis a rhythm that feels genuine as it ebbs and flows in and out of the political and media agenda. But that pulse hasn’t correlated with arrivals – indeed, concerns about immigration waned for a period after Brexit, even as the number of arrivals rose.

Sometimes it is a reflection of shifting patterns of migration. Covid made travel by road – in which migrants are less visible – more challenging, thereby increasing travel by sea. A landing on a shore is much more evocative of the “invasion” of a vast, impossible-to-police border than an unseen stowaway on a truck. At other times, all it takes is a particularly volatile or incompetent person at the top. The framework is so rickety that a loose cannon like Suella Braverman need make only one bad decision, such as failing to find alternative accommodation for those in overcrowded detention centres, for the entire structure to collapse.

But the other reason these landings are high on the government agenda, first under Priti Patel and now under the clumsier Braverman is, well, everything else. Brexit is spent, the economy is in shreds, the Tory party has imploded and there’s no one to blame. The government could never deliver the transformative Brexit it had promised, but what it could do was pretend it was being blocked from delivering it. With the end of EU free movement and the “taking back” of our borders, the Conservatives are exposed. They got what they wanted, and are now in the position of the dog who has caught the car. What use is all this new “control” if it means the government now has to take full responsibility for immigration? Enter Dover, a vast vulnerability.

Asylum seekers have become the government’s own refuge. In them, there is an evergreen problem for which a Tory crusade is the only solution. This is a valuable asset for a government that has run out of road, but can play on everything from fears of terrorism, sexual assault, economic drag and cultural overwhelm to extend its relevance. Like Donald Trump’s wall, or the windmill in Animal Farm, our borders will always be vulnerable and sabotaged by enemies, while our government fights like hell to build them back up.

Related: Sealed borders are a fantasy and talk of invasion is toxic. There is an alternative | Kenan Malik

The only way for progressives to dispel this mythology is to create a competing one. If Britain’s attitudes towards migration could be summoned in a word cloud, the phrases that loom largest would be negative – “hostile environment”, “invasion”, “swarm”, “legitimate concerns”, “illegal migrants”. Not to forgive xenophobia, but when you are constantly barraged by this sort of rhetoric from most of the press and the government, it’s unrealistic to expect any other outcome. The panic strengthens and recedes in line with public messaging and perceptions of how compromised our borders are.

These concerns are not logical. They are based not on the premise that numbers are too large but on the hysteria that when we have no control, no numbers are small enough. So Labour can try to win the immigration argument from the right and stick “Controls on Immigration” on crockery again, but unless the party is willing to crack down and go full-on fascist in its language and policies, the Tories will always be seen as the stronger party on a border that they have successfully painted as weak and porous. In this regard, as well as on patriotism and British identity, Labour has taken a defensive position and simply borrowed from the right rather than created its own distinct, ambitious imagining of a better country, a different border – its own word cloud.

British patriotism and values are not restricted to the flag, the anthem, the royal family, the military and abstract notions of hard work and fairness. They can be about compassion – about a place that we never hear about, one that is welcoming – not full up, but punching above its weight as a refuge and safe harbour. This country isn’t even an aspiration: it is already here, sketched out, waiting for the colours and details to be filled in. It is the same country that, when politicians and the press were cowed by circumstance and withheld their poison, turned up for people from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong, whose numbers dwarf arrivals on the southern coast. Kindness has been so stigmatised, rebranded as “virtue signalling”, that people forget it’s out there.

Yes, the risks of openly challenging the immigration crisis myth are high in a political and media culture so utterly hooked on the lie’s benefits. But the result could be the disarming of the right’s most powerful, and, perhaps soon only, political weapon. With a payoff so huge and a lead in the polls, is it not worth a shot?

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist