The language of labelling and the politics of hostipitality in the British asylum system

Published date01 August 2016
Date01 August 2016
The British Journal of Politics and
International Relations
2016, Vol. 18(3) 599 –617
© The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1369148116631281
The language of labelling and
the politics of hostipitality in
the British asylum system
Gillian McFadyen
Since 1990 when Britain witnessed a spike in asylum applications, consecutive governments have
adopted a stance towards asylum, whereby the interests of the state supersede those seeking
asylum. By employing Jacques Derrida’s notion of hospitality and the politics of labelling, the article
identifies five ways in which Conservative, New Labour and Conservative Liberal Democratic
coalition governments have sought to establish the label of a genuine asylum seeker. Drawing
upon parliamentary archives, the article presents a narrative of an idealised refugee figure that
has been created through consecutive British governments, at the expense of the asylum seeker.
Individuals who do not meet the genuine criteria are branded as failed, bogus asylum seekers, or
more recently, immigrants, who abuse the system. The article argues that what we are witnessing
within the British asylum system is the politics of hostipitality, whereby hostility is the overriding
reaction to the asylum seeker.
asylum, Britain, hospitality, hostipitality, labelling
The figure of the asylum seeker in Britain has occupied a precarious position throughout
the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Since 1990 when asylum figures had their first
spike with 26,205 applications annually (Hawkins, 2014),1 consecutive British govern-
ments have been caught between positioning the asylum seeker as an economic threat
to society and, at the same time, presenting the asylum seeker as a humanitarian figure
in need of refuge, in what Matthew Gibney (2014) terms a ‘paradoxical response’.
Governments have been open to providing hospitality to the asylum seeker, an individual
who can apply for asylum ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of
race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’ and
who is seeking to attain refugee status (UN High Commissioner for Refugee Convention,
Aberystwyth University, UK
Corresponding author:
Gillian McFadyen, Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University, Penglais Campus,
Aberystwyth SY23 3FE, UK.
631281BPI0010.1177/1369148116631281The British Journal of Politics and International RelationsMcFadyen
600 The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 18(3)
Article 1.A) But, governments have been offering sanctuary under specific terms and
conditions, despite being concerned that the guest—the asylum seeker—is in fact, abusing
their position (Gibney, 2004: 122). Through consecutive governments, asylum policies
have emerged that have adopted the approach of deterrence and increased border controls
in the quest to reduce ‘abuse’ of the asylum system. As a result, an idealised genuine asy-
lum seeker has been created by consecutive governments, who seeks the label of refugee
within the state, but this is offset by the bogus asylum seeker—a fake asylum seeker per-
ceived to be abusing the system for economic reasons. With the emergence of this fractured
hierarchy of ‘refugeehood’, consecutive governments have pinpointed through legislation
what qualifies as a genuine asylum seeker: an idealised notion of what it takes to be clas-
sified as a genuine asylum seeker in need of refugee status. Those asylum seekers who do
not meet the strict criteria are discarded and branded as failed, bogus asylum seekers, or
more recently, economic migrants, who abuse the system.
The main objective of this article is to examine how consecutive British governments
have sought to fracture the label of refugee. It focuses on three governments since
1990: the Conservative government from 1990 to 1997, New Labour (1997–2010) and
the Conservative and Liberal Democrats coalition government (2010–2015). Although
addressing specific governments, the article argues that each of these governments have
followed the same line of logic regarding asylum, with the three governments adopting
similar non-partisan approaches and rhetoric towards the asylum seeker.2
Methodologically, the article draws upon archival research from Hansards, focusing
primarily on House of Commons debates, from 1990 to 2015 using the key terms ‘asylum
seeker’, ‘refugee’ and ‘immigrant’. The main focus of the archival work was to ascertain
how successive governments, since 1990, have sought to define an idealised notion of a
genuine asylum seeker through the use of labelling and its implementation in subsequent
policies. The archival material presented highlights a consistency in government lan-
guage and tone adopted towards asylum seekers—with the interests of the state supersed-
ing the interests of the asylum seekers throughout the years since 1990, with each of the
governments adopting a hostile stance. However, dissident voices, particularly from
backbench New Labour Members of Parliament (MPs), are addressed within the article,
allowing a minority voice from government to emerge in support of asylum seekers.
The article begins by engaging with the theoretical framework of Jacques Derrida’s
hospitality—a principle that means ‘the right of the stranger not to be treated with hostil-
ity when he arrives at someone else’s territory’ (Derrida, 2000a: 4). In examining Derrida’s
understanding of hospitality, the article examines how we engage with and position the
other when they enter our midst. It argues that the British approach to refuge reflects the
notion of hostipitality (that being the hostility that resides within hospitality towards
the undesirable guest) with hospitality and hostility being two sides of the same coin in
the process of contemporary British asylum. The article then examines how the politics
of labelling—an approach that examines the value, identification and power behind
labels—operates within the British asylum system, and how the vast majority of asylum
seekers are caught between the labels of genuine versus bogus. Through the establish-
ment of an idealised genuine asylum seeker, the government has been able to effectively
label and categorise, who should, or who should not, be a refugee. By engaging with the
concept of labelling and specifically drawing on the work of Roger Zetter and Howard
Becker—two prominent theorists in labelling – the article explores how the asylum seeker
is constructed and framed through political processes that position, categorise and casti-
gate them as the other. The article concludes by addressing how the politics of hospitality

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