As a UK citizen, I want to apologise to all the asylum seekers in this country. The way they are treated is an absolute disgrace.

They receive £5.50 a day from the government. This has to cover food, toiletries, cleaning materials, bus fares, phone top-ups, you name it. Most live in accommodation that is squalid and rat-infested. I have seen the broken windowpanes, and I’ve smelled the smells. I have chased the agents who ignore the contracts they’ve signed – contracts that promise to fix your appliances, your windows, your roofs, within so many days of a complaint. I have sat for hours at the end of an unanswered phone.

In 2012 Theresa May set up an inter-ministerial group called the Hostile Environment Working Group. Based on the principle of deterrence, it was initially kept secret because its aims were so embarrassing. As barrister Colin Yeo describes it:

The essence of the policy of deterrence is to make life as miserable as possible for the refugees who do reach the UK, in the hope that this will somehow deter others from following suit.

Not only were refugees in the UK expected to endure humiliating living conditions. From 2014, they came under the official scrutiny of UK citizens, who were expected to act as border guards in hospitals, schools, workplaces, rented accommodation. Following two consecutive immigration acts, there was an NHS data-sharing agreement by which the Home Office could legally access non-clinical information in order to find out who had ‘rights’ to health treatment. A new criminal offence, renting to an illegal immigrant, came into force, so that landlords had little choice but to check the status of people who ‘looked’ like illegal immigrants. Similar duties were imposed in other institutions.

Luckily, this struck many of us as going too far. It demanded vigilance around culture and skin colour, echoing ideologies that, officially at least, most people abhor. Reacting to protests, the government placed curbs on these intrusions, and in 2018 the word ‘hostile’ was replaced with ‘compliant’. The £5.50 a day allowance remained, and accommodation continued to be atrocious. Agents still neglected their promises. But citizen surveillance had to be withdrawn.

This relabelling of the UK’s immigration policy reminds me of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, after the Presidential election. He argued in court that the plaintiffs had been “denied the opportunity to have an unobstructed view and ensure opacity.” Giuliani hesitated when he said this. “I’m not quite sure I know what opacity means. It probably means you can see, right?” 

“It means you can’t,” replied the judge.

Turning language on its head does nothing to advance understanding. Our immigration policy is anything but compliant; it harshly punishes the wrong people. There isn’t a problem with deterrence per se; it’s part of education and socialisation. But there are limits to the forms it may take. You may deter people from driving into central London by handing out fines, but not by planting landmines in the streets.

Nor may you deter some by framing others, ignoring their innocence, their rights, their vulnerability. You cannot legitimately use human beings in this way. Some societies do this kind of thing, but we are better – or so we think.

The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant put it well:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end. 

This explains the horror we feel about slavery, rape, extortion, hostage-taking and other forms of abuse. You cannot be a decent human being and use other human beings purely to serve your own ends. To do so is to treat them as less than human. It’s to deprive them of the dignity and respect that are their due.

Kant’s injunction isn’t a moral opinion you can blithely reject. It’s a principle that limits meaning. I can’t claim that I’m respecting your dignity or humanity if I use you as a means to my own ends, without any reference to your interests or desires. To say this would be to misuse language, and it would push morality off a cliff.

Morality is a troubled concept in the modern world. Yet faced with brazen exploitation, the instrumentalisation of human beings, how can we doubt its importance? How can we question Kant’s principle or be complacent about a policy that seeks to deter some by imposing misery on people who are in most cases entitled to our protection?

We have a UN Convention (1951) that offers this to people who are fleeing persecution, as many UK asylum seekers are. The United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also recognises a wider concept of “persons of concern.” You don’t have to be fleeing persecution; you may come from a country that is, in some other way, seriously unsafe for you to live in. In either case, you have a legitimate reason for seeking refuge and should be treated with respect.

“A decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate people,” wrote political philosopher Avishai Margalit. We can’t admit everyone into the UK on a permanent basis; this much is obvious. But we can reject a policy that uses the misery of humiliation as a weapon against battle-worn human beings.

Shame on us, UK citizens.