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‘Illegal’ migration and the Othering of activist lawyers in the UK

Updated: Jan 2

Judith Beyer, University of Konstanz

In the United Kingdom, the relationship between im/migration lawyers and the government has become fragile. Aggressive political debates and restrictive law-making center around preventing ‘illegal’ migrants from entering the UK and deporting those who already managed to arrive. Human rights solicitors, who pride themselves in fending for their marginalized clients, have become targets of state officials who began to call them “activist lawyers” in 2020. In doing so, I argue, lawyers are increasingly becoming marginalized themselves.


Rendering migrants illegal

Following the transition from the EU (aka ‘Brexit’), the British Home Office developed new immigration rules that introduced a point-system and now classifies im/migrants according to groups, differentiating those it actively invites and those it seeks to keep out. Whereas “global talents” are encouraged to apply for work permits, others are aggressively labelled as “illegal immigrants”. The Dublin III Regulation that laid out which country was supposed to deal with an asylum claim as well as other elements of the Common European Asylum System no longer apply to the UK. The very right to claim asylum, enshrined in the European Convention, which the UK has signed and ratified, is now also deliberately being put at stake. On 7 March 2023, Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who followed after Priti Patel, introduced the so-called “Illegal Migration Bill” (UK Gov 7 March 2023) in the House of Commons which specifies from the outset that “[t]he Bill creates a system in which anyone arriving illegally in the United Kingdom will not have their asylum claim, human rights claim or modern slavery referral considered while they are in the UK, but they will instead be promptly removed either to their home country or relocated to a safe third country to have their protection claims processed there” (UK Gov Explanatory Notes 7 March 2023).

The crux of the entire bill hinges on the usage of the concept of ‘illegality’. Like her predecessor Patel, Braverman frequently invoked her own parents’ migratory background who, as she does not tire to emphasize, entered the country ‘legally’. In an interview, she described herself as “proud of the British empire” (The Telegraph 2022), but consistently ignored the British state’s colonial role and the tremendous impact it continues to have in regard to why it is that people are trying to reach the UK in the first place.


In 2022, according to the Office For National Statistics, almost 74.500 asylum applications were registered, which makes this “the highest number of applications for almost 2 decades” (ONS 2022). People keep arriving despite the measures and laws already in place precisely to prevent them from doing so, even risking a longer and dangerous journey and possible incarceration and deportation. Regardless of why and whence immigrants might have come, fast-forward to 2023, it has become entirely unclear what a “safe and legal” way of entry would be at all.

The only option to entering the country ‘legally’ for people at risk would at the moment be through resettlement schemes in which refugees are preselected by the government, or if migrants manage to obtain tourist or work visas in advance. But even those currently deemed eligible to enter the UK ‘legally’ might end up stranded, such as people from Afghanistan, who were left in limbo in Pakistan (Independent 2023). Those who are most vulnerable, however, who had to flee war zones, or were born en route, who have no documentation or are de facto stateless, have no other way than entering the UK in what are now called “illegal” ways.


In a BBC news interview Braverman said the quiet part out loud, amplifying the earlier concern over activist lawyers:

''We've dramatically reduced the avenues for legal challenge. Because what we found is people use legal avenues in a vexatious and frivolous way to thwart our ability to remove them or detain them. (S. Braverman, BBC Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, 2 April 2023, emphasis added)

As this quote shows, the British government no longer shies away from actively blocking people’s right to access to and rightful use of the law, including the right to asylum (Beyer 2024).''


Illegalizing human rights law/yers

In contemporary Britain, it is no longer only migrants who are being targeted by the government, but those who fend for them just as well. The current populist atmosphere in British politics regarding the topic of “illegal migration” not only others those who seek asylum, but also their immigration lawyers and NGO workers who are committed to supporting their clients in their asylum claims. Those lawyers who began to publicly reclaim the term “activist lawyers”, a term initially hurled at them as a slur, effectively managed to strip the state’s vocabulary of its negative attributes. What makes the term “activist lawyers” and the way it is being handled by im/migration and human rights lawyers particularly interesting is that it is no longer exclusionary words about others that lawyers are dealing with here, but words about themselves. Through this reversal, lawyers brought the former slur in line with their profession’s ethical stance as well as their own personal biographies.


While the current political elite is pushing towards ever harsher anti-immigration laws, “activist lawyers”, sometimes with a similar background as those in power, sometimes stemming from marginal communities themselves, are increasingly becoming aligned with their marginalized clients. As lawyers, they, too, are now being othered since the state regards their knowledge of the law, their legal skills and particularly their personal involvement as a threat to the state system which relies increasingly on illegalization.

The threat of being othered lurks just around the corner for everyone, keeping people in check and on the lookout. The ultimate long-term results of such “disaster nationalism” (Bhattacharyya et al 2021, 199) remain to be seen and call for further (ethnographic) study, but at this point it is safe to say that there is a shift in who becomes marginalized, excluded or – ultimately – deprived of rights. As I have shown, those who are being othered by the state no longer include only im/migrants, the poor, or other minorities, but also those speaking out in their names.

About Judith Beyer:

Judith is Full Professor of Social and Political Anthropology at the University of Konstanz in Germany. She specializes in legal anthropology and is currently carrying out a long-term ethnographic research project on statelessness and expert activism in Europe. She also serves as a country of origin expert for First and Upper Tier Tribunals in the UK.

Literature cited

Beyer, Judith. 2024. Unsicheres Wissen. Die asymmetrische Ko-Konstruktion von Plausibilität in britischen Asylverfahren. In Vorläufige Gewissheiten, edited by Thomas G. Kirsch and Christina Wald. Bielefeld: Transcript.

BBC Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, 2 April 2023.

Bhattacharyya, Gargi, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Sita Balani 2021. Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State. London: Pluto Press.

Independent.  2023. “Abandoned by the Country They Served: Hundreds of Afghans Eligible for UK Stranded in Pakistan.” 1 April 2023.

Office for National Statistics (ONS), Statistical Bulletin, Long-Term International Migration, Provisional: Year Ending June 2022. 24 November 2022.

UK Gov. “Explanatory Notes to the Illegal Migration Bill (262).” 7 March 2023.

The Telegraph. Interview Christopher Hope With Home Secretary Suella Braverman, 22 October 2022.


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