20 February 2023: Years of refugee policy failure laid the grounds for the Knowsley riot – the government should be made to own it
The scene outside The Suites hotel in the Liverpool suburb of Knowsley earlier this month provided a powerful summary of where the politics of immigration are in the UK at this moment in time.
It is sadly a feature of anxious times that segments of the population will look to simplistic explanations for the threats to their living standards which place the blame on ‘foreigners’ and other minoritized people.
Crafty politicians will have no objection to this tendency, particularly if it helps get them off the hook when it is their policies which have plunged people into hard times. Prime minister Rishi Sunak gave us an example of this when he included a pledge on stopping refugees entering the country via the ‘small boat’ route in a five point plan outlined as the basis of his government’s programme in January.
His home secretary, Suella Braverman, has also worked hard to project the refugee issue as something which has to be placed on the same level as double-digit inflation and a stagnating economy in accounting for the woes of the nation. Her description of refugee arrivals as ‘an invasion’ in a speech in the House of Commons last year has been one of the low points of the British political scene in recent times.
But the harm arises for reasons which go far beyond political rhetoric. The administration of refugee receptions policies over the course of the last few years has been a disaster which has contributed to the inflaming of public opinion.
Over the course of the past five years the asylum determination process has ground to an almost complete halt as home office officials have sat on ever-growing piles of applications for refugee status without bringing them to a conclusion. The backlog has quadrupled over the course of the past five years, from just under 30,000 at the end of 2017 to around 150,000 at the present time.
People caught up in this backlog are required to subsist, sometimes for years, on Section 95 payments from the home office which barely cover minimum food costs. Unable to move on and support themselves independently through work, they are dependent for accommodation in whatever accommodation can be scrapped up for them in hotels and hostels. As the availability of rooms becomes scarcer in big cities, the authorities move ever outwards into smaller towns, even villages, looking for rooms where the refugees can be warehoused.
This is the story behind The Suites hotel in Knowsley, a district on the eastern edge of Liverpool which has been severely hit over the years by the decline of local industry and lack of opportunity for its young people. The hotel, long regarded as an amenity frequently booked for the celebration of weddings and other occasions by people in the community, ceased to have that function as refugees caught up in the backlog were moved in.
The refugees in the hotel should not have been put in the situation of a long-drawn out wait for recognition of their status. Had the merits of their applications been acknowledged at a much earlier stage they would have moved on from being dependents on home office handouts, entering in paid work and paying rent for their own accommodation. Local hotels would cease being commandeered in the way they have, setting up tensions with people who had been used to using them for other purposes.
Most importantly, the terrain on which refugee policy must operate, which requires empathy with the plight of displaced people and a willingness to show solidarity, would not have been poisoned by years of politicking by top level politicians. The far right organisations, which played a significant role in the Knowsley riot, would have been deprived of the triggers which brought hundreds out onto the streets on that Friday evening and which have added to the national paranoia about a so-called refugee crisis. Responsibility for the Knowsley riot lies with the failures of the national government: it should be made to own it.