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Tough but Humane? The Hypocrisy of Migration Control in the UK and Beyond

1 Comment 🕔02.Dec 2015

This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

Graffiti outside the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in the UK. Photo credit: Darren Johnson / iDJ Photography.


by Bastian A. Vollmer

Policy discourses on migration control in the United Kingdom, especially irregular migration, had a relatively straightforward main message up until the early 2000s: get it under control! Legislative developments can be traced back in UK history, and show that hardly any legislation restricting migration was in place until the 1960s and early 1970s. Historically, the UK hardly regulated migration flows from its colonies. Instead, the UK’s primary goal was to maintain the British Empire (Joppke 1998).

To explain how the UK policy regime, and that in so many other ‘affluent’ countries, has ended up with today’s paradigm of restriction and control, I have argued in my recent book that three hegemonic shifts in policy discourses are in part responsible. These shifts took place between the early 1970s and the beginning of the 21st century, and laid the foundation for the current policy situation. A conceptual shift of urgency, necessity, and speed occurred, demonizing certain categories of migrants, along with an earlier than expected shift of securitization (Vollmer 2014).

Nevertheless, current policy discourses are still highly influenced by these hegemonic shifts. Many of the identified narratives and effective policy mobilization strategies can still be found in currently dominant policy discourses, but meanwhile, the political terrain became even more heated and far more diversified. Thus, the former main message with its underlying discursive undercurrents of ‘Get it under control!’ is not nuanced and sophisticated enough. It lacks flexibility. Policy discourses grew in complexity and in ambiguity.

The public profile of immigration and border issues has attained high political importance in past decades.[1] Polls show that immigration is not only broadly unpopular in Britain, but also one of the most important issues for members of the public. 77 percent of respondents who had an opinion favored reducing immigration, including 53 percent who preferred reducing it “a lot,” a result firmly in line with previous polling over many years (Blinder 2011, 2012).

This public barometer is once more evidently reflected in the most recent publications of party manifestos for the May 2015 general election. The focal points as regards future immigration regulations include stricter controls by strengthening the UK border. All four ‘main parties’ (Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and United Kingdom Independent Party) include this claim as one of their very first points of concern about migration. For instance, the Labour Party’s manifesto states: “For our country to stay strong, with the confidence to look outwards rather than inwards, people need to feel secure in the strength of our borders, our communities, and in the workplace . . .  We need much stronger action to stop illegal immigration.”[2]  As a future policy measure, Labour suggests a plan that “starts with stronger borders,” and continues, “We will recruit an additional 1,000 border staff.”[3] The United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) takes this measure a step further and suggests 2,500 additional border staff. Does this mean that the politics of migration control have moved from ‘tougher’ to ‘even tougher than tough’? Yes and no.


Yarls wood protest graffiti

Protesters outside the Yarl’s Wood Centre. Photo credit: Darren Johnson / iDJ Photography.


A slightly better informed public discourse on irregular migration and asylum seeking needs to be considered. One might observe a better understanding among a broader public of what it means to leave one’s place of origin under threat of political or military conflict or living conditions of plight and destitution. The rationale of human rights has, to some extent, entered broader public spheres. Newly introduced legislation addressing the living situation of at least some vulnerable migrants, such as the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, point to this development. At the European Union level, some changes in the EU’s language can be seen: instead of ‘apprehending illegal immigrants’ on the Mediterranean Sea, it speaks about ‘rescuing refugees.’ A difference between discourses and practices seem to exist as people continue to die in the Mediterranean on an increasing scale.

Yet some changes in political discourses have changed in irregular migration policy. For instance, the Home Office’s managerial approach (under the incumbent Conservative administration) has been transformed to a seemingly ‘cooperative approach.’ Enforcement agencies such as the UK Border Force and the Directorate of Immigration Enforcement at the UK Home Office envisage a combined approach of understanding and sympathizing with the issues surrounding irregular migration, including human rights issues, but at the same time, being tough on ‘illegal immigration.’ There are institutional trends of seeking out and collaborating with undocumented migrant communities and migrant communities. Initiatives have started to reach out and foster ‘voluntary’ return programs. In other words, these initiatives gently ask, “please go home; please leave our country of your own accord.”

Politically, they are designed to embrace tough enforcement and humane understanding. This hypocritical cooperative or seemingly benign approach is mainly driven by the need to demonstrate the effectiveness and efficiency of policy-making and policy implementation. A ‘tough-only approach’ is difficult to justify ethically, and it is politically implausible, but a combined ‘tough but humane’ approach is much more effective in political and public discourses. Whether or not it is hypocritical, it needs to be effective in the political and public discourses; thus, we can read also in the oppositional party manifesto of the Labour Party: “we will enforce immigration rules humanely and effectively.”


Know your rights sign

Poster in Old Kent Road, London. Photo credit: alister.


However, not to blame only the Labour Party for this hypocritical but persuasive political move, a very similar attempt of including humane practices in irregular migration control measures can already be observed for some time at the EU external border.  In an upcoming journal article, I will argue that some changes have taken place at the eastern EU external border (at least for the snapshot that my research has recorded). Evidence suggests that areas of institutional cooperation, access to territory and complying with principle of non-refoulement – protecting migrants from being returned to their country of origin – have improved at the eastern EU external border. While seemingly positive, upon closer examination, this combination of humane treatment with de facto refoulement would fail to effectively improve the situation for people seeking protection. I have called this practice “humane refoulement,” a strategic tool employed by the responsible authorities to enact improvement and heightened ‘border performance.’ This indeed perverts the underlying humane foundation that is laid down in the principle of non-refoulement.

Coming back to political tools of current discourses, these developments appear highly similar: humane treatment combined with de facto tough practices garners enforcement results. These results are crucial since they are the benchmark of performance and efficiency in UK politics and at the EU external border. Meanwhile, the ‘get it under control’ approach combined with a performance that communicates efficiency, power, and deterrence, occupies a high moral ground but is ultimately hypocritical. Policy discourses and practices have changed, but in quite a disguised and skewed manner; therefore, in the UK, the EU, and across the world, there is an urgent need for in-depth analysis of discourses and practices at various levels in the field of migration control.


Bastian A. Vollmer is Leverhulme Fellow University of Oxford. His main research interests are migration processes, control regimes of migration, border theory, discourse theory and discourse analysis. He has published in various academic journals and his most recent book Policy Discourses on Irregular Migration in Germany and the United Kingdom and forthcoming book Ukrainian Migration and the European Union – Dynamics, Subjectivity, and Politics are published by Palgrave Macmillan.


This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

[1] I address these in my current project looking at the UK border, for more details see:

[2] See:

[3] idem


Blinder, Scott, “UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Determinants of Attitudes, Briefing, The Migration Observatory. Oxford: University of Oxford Press: 2012.

Blinder, Scott, “Public Opinion and Public Policy: Complexities of the Democratic Mandate, Policy Primer,” The Migration Observatory. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2011.

Joppke, Christian. (ed.), Challenge to the Nation State – Immigration in Western Europe and the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Vollmer, Bastian, Policy Discourses on Irregular Migration in Germany and the United Kingdom. New York/Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.



  1. 🕔 5:01, 27.Jul 2016

    Emploi a domicile

    Comme ma mére disait! l’objectif renouvelle les facteurs
    stratégiques de la problématique

    reply comment

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