Race in the Asylum Debate

To mark the official Refugee Week 2015, Coventry University’s researcher Dr Simon Goodman discusses the role that race plays in the debate on asylum seekers. 

There is ongoing controversy about how race figures into this debate. In my research I’ve focussed on the way that anti-asylum arguments are made and how opponents of asylum can be seen to be strongly rejecting the idea that this opposition is due to racism. I’ve found that where accusations are racism are made, they tend to be presented as problematic and unfair, so much so that making accusations of racism in the asylum debate can be more problematic than saying arguably racist things.

It has been demonstrated that wherever issues of race may be relevant, speakers will go to trouble to ensure that they do not appear to be racist. The reason that this happens is because damaging accusations of racism can be made, and even if they are not actually made, there is always the possibility that they will be, so speakers are pre-empting possible accusations. In recent examples of actual accusations UKIP were accused by all three main British parties of being racist and an anti-immigration campaign came to be referred to as the racist van. However, accusations like this have come to be seen as problematic themselves, mainly because they are presented as unfair and as attempts to stifle and censor debate and as ‘playing the race card’. So for example, talking about asylum, the Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens said that “the issue has been suppressed for a very long time … and has smeared those who did try to raise it repeatedly as racist” and has more recently said the same of immigration as have other commentators.

And it’s not just political commentators who make this point; in my research I have also seen students pick up this idea of accusations being unfair ways of preventing free speech, with examples being: “‘oh you don’t want asylum seekers oh you’re just racist’ … that’s why people don’t want to comment on it cause it’s sort of like you’re looked at in a negative way” and “I think it is a lot harder for white [people] … to put their view across even if it’s a fairly reasonable view and it’s plausible, there’s nothing racial about it”.

Simply criticising accusations of racism in the asylum debate, however, would not be enough to deflect accusations of racism. Instead alternative and supposedly non-racist reasons for opposing asylum are presented. The most common of these are that opposition to asylum is based on economic reasons, fairness and ‘common sense’. Even these non-racist reasons can still be qualified with a disclaimer of racism, as was the case with the Conservative party’s 2005 election poster campaign stating “It’s not racist to impose limits to immigration”, although this saw many graffiti responses claiming the opposite.

So, accusations of racism in the asylum debate can be made, but tend to be problematic because they have been criticised as being a form of censorship. Instead, non-racist reasons for opposing asylum, and the closely related issue of immigration, are presented, often alongside direct denials of racism. The final part of this picture is that those who argue for asylum seekers’ rights are now left in a situation where making accusations of racism is problematic. As a result they tend to avoid them altogether, but when they are made they tend to be made in very delicate ways that attempt to avoid counter accusations of censorship and preventing debate. In my analyses two representatives of the refugee council can be seen disclaiming that they are trying to stifle debate by making accusations of racism: “I certainly agree we should have a proper debate about this and that isn’t racist” and “there is a real public debate that needs to happen … I have no doubt about that at all”.

It seems therefore that ‘race’ plays an interesting part in the asylum debate. There remains a ubiquitous idea that opposition to asylum can be racist, which can be seen by the common and constant need to deny that racism is relevant. However, it also seems that there is widespread acceptance that opposition to asylum is not racist, and that it is opposed for other more practical reasons. Those making accusations of racism are opened up to challenges of unfairly censoring proper debate, so that supporters of asylum seeking are left in a situation where they have to deny that they are making accusations of racism, which may make it more difficult for them to speak up for asylum seekers’ rights.



Coventry University