Strife Series on British Security Post-Brexit, Part III – Security implications of post-Brexit asylum laws

By: Felix Manig

The United Kingdom has remained largely unaffected by the refugee crisis which has rocked the Middle East and much of Europe over the last few years. As the UK has one of Western Europe’s most stringent refugee policies in place already, the Guardian recently placed Prime Minister Theresa May ahead of Donald Trump in her attempts to undermine the global refugee system.  Now, post-Brexit negotiations and political messaging of an anti-refugee nature have the potential to further shift European refugee policy to the right and result in tangible security risks for Britain’s military and counterterrorism strategies.

‘Refugee’ System in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has always retained opt-out clauses for most EU asylum policies, including the 2016 relocation quota of 160,000 asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and North Africa. Post-Brexit statements by Theresa May on asylum policies now point to a clear refusal to accept more refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, pledging a meagre number of 20,000 resettlements into Britain over the next four years. Instead, the PM believes that strengthening capacities and resources directly in the affected regions would help refugees more than bringing them to Europe. This February, the Government ended its commitment to the so-called ‘Dubs’ scheme, an agreement under which Britain pledged to take in vulnerable lone child refugees from camps in France, Italy and Greece. May also announced a campaign to leave the European Court of Human Rights, a separate entity from the EU, but representing a move which would discharge Britain from the special appeal rights and legal protections the Court extends to refugees.

Shifting European Refugee Policy

Perhaps the more far-reaching implications for refugees will manifest themselves in how Britain’s departure from the EU has the potential to further shift asylum and immigration legislation to the right of the political spectrum in remaining member states. A particular danger lies in the scapegoating and conflating asylum seekers and refugees, who are protected by international law under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention vis-a-vis more structural European problems such as economic marginalisation of rural areas and questions of national identity. Politicians in Europe already cater heavily to nationalistic and identity-driven sentiments to gain votes. This year, it is likely that far-right populists will gain votes in important elections such as in Germany, the Netherlands, and particularly in France. Most EU states have already passed sweeping legislation to strictly limit refugee inflows for the next few years. Anti-immigrant sentiments and hate crimes against refugees have reached all-time highs throughout the EU. A recent European-wide Chatham House study found that 55 per cent of respondents would like to see all future migration from Muslim-majority countries stopped. The prime victim of such developments is inevitably the asylum seekers who flee armed conflict and persecution.

UK Security risks for military and counterterrorism strategies

From a strict national security perspective, barring refugees from entry and catering to islamophobic sentiments in the population may create both immediate and more long-term security risks for Britain in its military operations overseas and counterterrorism efforts.  In August 2016, the BBC obtained pictures showing British special forces operating in Syria. While the UK Ministry of Defence declined to comment on the presence of personnel in the region, it should not come as a surprise to see limited ground operations taking place to complement the air campaign against Islamic State in Levant (ISIL) and other jihadist groups. However, the success of such missions often hinges on effective intelligence sharing and cooperation with local partners from host governments and their respective intelligence agencies. Extreme anti-immigration laws and the appeasement of nationalistic constituencies will lead partners to question the sincerity of their cooperation and the sustainability of their relationships with the United Kingdom.

On a more basic level, soldiers may also depend on translators and guides, who put themselves and their families in danger for assisting foreign troops. In 2015, a number of MPs warned that Britain will struggle to recruit interpreters in future conflict zones if it declines them shelter and asylum after completing their missions. Should tighter immigration and asylum legislation result in a culture of suspicion and alienation, the repercussions for the British military and the success of their operations would be considerable.

Constricting refugee flows and engaging in political messaging of an anti-refugee rhetoric nature also directly plays into the hands of groups like ISIL in two distinct ways. For one, refugees fleeing the region represent the inherent failure of the Islamic State and its envisioned society. By closing avenues and opportunities to escape violence and persecution, keeping civilians confined to the territory of ISIL will allow the group to continue to target non-combatants and extort money for arms and recruitment through taxes.

According to the UK’s counterterrorism strategy CONTEST, individuals within the United Kingdom who are at risk of radicalisation currently pose the biggest threat to national security. ISIL and other jihadist terrorist organisations directly benefit from Western anti-refugee rhetoric and legislation because it appears to reinforce their narrative of ‘Islam versus the West’. Adding fire to the propaganda messages of ISIL by contributing to the marginalisation and implicit criminalisation of mainly Muslim communities may pose a serious danger and contribute to radicalisation at home.

Accepting well-vetted refugees can have national security benefits when dealing with global terrorism as it pushes back against the idea of a cultural and religious war between the West and Islam. Incoming individuals may become part of a counter-narrative which is needed to push against transnational terrorist networks and their developing recruitment strategies.

Felix (@felix_manig) is a postgraduate in International Relations at King’s College London. He focuses on conflict resolution strategies, political violence, and human rights. He is Series Editor at StrifeBlog and advocates for human rights defenders across the world at Peace Brigades International. 

This Strife series focuses on British Security Post-Brexit and will have contributions by Dr Samir Puri; Felix Manig on the security implications of post-Brexit asylum laws; Christina on the UK-USA relationship; and Alfonc Rakaj on British defence commitments. 

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