Fox News host Tucker Carlson seemingly endorsed the “great replacement” conspiracy theory – the false claim, which has motivated fascist mass murderers from El Paso, Texas, to Christchurch, New Zealand, that governing elites have conspired to undermine majority-white populations by encouraging immigration.
The idea of a “border crisis” with Mexico remains central to the populist right. Something similar is true in Europe, where governments nominally of the centre still allow their policies to be shaped by the populist backlash to the refugee crisis of 2015, even though the number of refugees entering Europe today is far lower.
Authorities in Italy, Malta and Greece continue to obstruct rescues at sea, while Denmark, whose centre-left government was elected in 2019 after stealing its rightwing populist rivals’ platform on refugee policy, has revoked the residence permits of some 189 Syrian refugees, on the spurious grounds that it is now “safe” to return to some parts of Syria, such as Damascus.
The UK government, meanwhile, has unveiled a draconian new plan to restrict the rights of asylum seekers who enter the country without permission, in response to last year’s moral panic over small boats crossing the Channel.
The right defend such positions on the grounds of security, but it is based upon xenophobia and racism.
The economist Branko Milanović has argued for the importance of seeing citizenship – not just for who it excludes, but for the benefits it confers on the holders – as a crucial factor in shaping the way that the rich world relates to the rest of the globe. According to Milanović, your place of birth has become an increasingly important predictor of your income.
Since 2008, as the top 1% have hoovered up increasing amounts of wealth while the living standards of most people in the west have stagnated, defending the relative privileges conferred by citizenship has become an increasingly attractive proposition to many voters. For the top 1%, citizenship is literally a commodity to be bought and sold: the global trade in passports is now worth an estimated £20bn a year.
The current UK government is a case in point: its attack on the human right to asylum has unfolded at the same time as it makes a show of offering a safe haven to Hong Kong residents with overseas UK citizenship who want to flee China’s dismantling of liberal democracy within the former British colony. As many as 300,000 people from Hong Kong are expected to be resettled in the UK in the next few years under a special visa scheme that launched in January.
Emigrants from Hong Kong have a genuine need for protection – only recently the former politician Nathan Law was rightly granted asylum in the UK – but so do people from other countries with what are euphemistically described as “historical ties” to Britain, such as Iraq. One reason the government has been so open in the case of Hong Kong may be because of the wealth and skills that people are expected to bring with them: one survey found that a typical emigrant has a university degree and an average salary of £33,270 a year. Home Office guidance for the visa scheme states that an emigrant from Hong Kong must be able to support themselves in the UK for six months without access to public funds: wealth barriers are a typical condition of UK visas.
The reason this apparent openness coexists with the authoritarian posturing on boats in the Channel is because the government is treating citizenship as an asset whose value on the global market needs to be maintained.