The State and the control of refugees

By Gareth Mulvey


The ways in which states categorise populations have tended to have both raced and classed dimensions for those inside national borders, but most viscerally for those outside. Whiteness and the size of ones bank balance play a large part in whether somebody is considered a desirable migrant or not.  This has a long history in the British case and plays out directly in how the British state performs its bordering practices, that is, in its immigration control. While these practices have been subject to research, there has been less attention to another key part of the state’s construction of the good and the bad migrant, and that concerns the degree to which it is controllable. The search for control is, of course, a key aspect of how states behave. States tend to seek an equilibrium and are fearful of change. Such continuity creates more optimal conditions for capital accumulation, the key aim of state activity in capitalist societies [1].

This desire for control is evident in the way the British state has long constructed migrant populations. When newly independent African states embarked on their Africanisation programmes the fleeing Asians, who had British passports, were quickly stripped of their rights to come and live in the UK. When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule the Government balked at any idea of openly allowing Hong Kong Chinese open access to the UK, instead allowing only 50,000 of the wealthiest to do so. And so on.

However, this is also clear in terms of how the British state has constructed refugee movement, with small and controllable resettlement programmes favoured over those who manage to arrive in the UK of their own volition. There are some limitations on state behaviour, in the form of international law. Those arriving ‘spontaneously’ have a right to submit a claim for asylum. Hence the UK governments repeated activities aimed at the prevention of arrival. The logic behind circumventing international law was made clear by David Blunkett when he was Home Secretary;

“It was not until people reached our soil that our border controls came into effect so, by the time that they did so, they were entitled to claim asylum. By moving our border controls to France, operating pre-embarkation controls, photographing documentation and having liaison officers at airports across the world, we are beginning to be able to screen people before they reach British soil” (Hansard 26 October 2004 Col 1304).

Where prevention of arrival has not proved possible, internal controls have been sought, by stripping those in the asylum system of many of the social rights that they once enjoyed. While this principle is therefore evident in the broad issue of refugee movement, it is perhaps more curiously also to be found in the more specific case of Syrian refugees in the UK.

Syrian refugees in the UK

It was not until autumn 2015, with pictures of the migrant trail through the Balkans allied to images of Alan Kurdi being washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean that the UK Government finally agreed to allow any Syrian refugees into the UK. Public and political pressure led to what became known as the Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). The Government set a new target of resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years but they would do so directly from refugee camps, and so would not resettle any populations already in Europe. Control of numbers was a key rationale behind this practice[2].

Resettled refugees in the UK receive a personalised, state-funded integration package upon arrival in the UK, which provides them with access to accommodation and social services. By contrast, there is no state-funded, tailored support for refugees not ‘chosen’ by the government. Unlike resettled refugees, asylum route applicants live in the UK for the duration of the application process without the right to work or any choice in housing, and receive statutory support that meets very basic needs, just £36.95 a week, a level widely viewed as leading to poverty (Lindsay et al 2010).

What this means is that the desire for control can play out in the very different settlement experiences of Syrian populations (and of course others) who could be from the same street, merely because of their mode of access to the UK. It is not based in any way on the reason for flight or any notion of their objective need, meaning refugees become caught in a series of state performances. Wishing to be seen as in control leads to an unevenness of international protection. Small populations in need are tolerated so long as they can be organised, while the much larger numbers on the move are vilified, portrayed as ‘bogus’, as ‘clandestines’, as ‘illegals’ and as ‘swarms’.

What this leads to is what Fassin (2016) describes as a move from protection as a right to protection as a favour. With similar dimensions to many aspects of welfare state retrenchment, the conditionality imposed on populations leads to those populations being characterised according to Victorian notions of the deserving and undeserving. De-legitimising the protection needs of populations based solely on how they come to be in the UK rather than what they are fleeing contributes to the undermining of the refugee protection regime, but also contributes to the broader forms of chauvinism being exhibited by governments.

There are no easy solutions to this, particularly given the rise of xenophobic populism over recent years. Opposition to the categorisation of refugees has too often focused on the individualised and de-politicised human rights of specific refugees, which can further the creation of these binaries. I plead as guilty as anyone to sometimes particularising issues or groups who should be included within broader political struggles, anti-racist, anti-imperialist and for me also anti-capitalist. The fight for refugees must be part of this broader approach if it is to have any chance of success.



Fassin, Didier (2016) From Right to Favor; The refugee question as moral crisis

Lindsay, K, Gillespie, M and Dobbie, L  (2010) Refugees’ Experiences and Views of Poverty in Scotland


[1] I do not mean to imply here that states are monolithic, merely that their main focus historically has been on the needs of capital

[2] This practice follows that of the British government in Kosovo, where then prime Minister Blair argued that to accept any ‘spontaneous arrivals’ would have meant facilitating Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing



Dr Gareth Mulvey is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow and works on issues of migration, migration policy and the impact of policy on diverse migrant communities. Before working at the University of Glasgow, Gareth spent five years as a researcher at the Scottish Refugee Council where he worked on a study of refugee integration in Scotland, work on refugee poverty, and refugee attitudes to citizenship.

This post was first published in June 2019.