When Priti Patel and Boris Johnson offered their words of condolence after thirty-nine people were found dead in the back of a lorry in Essex at the end of last year, I thought about how different the reaction would have been if they’d survived. I didn’t have to wait long to have my suspicions confirmed. Over the past few days they’ve been telling us ‘illegal immigrants’ crossing the Channel must be stopped from coming to the UK.
It’s been almost exactly the same for at least twenty years, if not longer. Warnings about ‘illegal immigrants’ and the people who bring them here – smugglers, who are always presented as the only ones who have done anything wrong. This is one of the lines successive home secretaries repeated during the New Labour years and it’s what Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Chris Philp are saying now.
But while the arguments are the same, the policies get worse by making borders more dangerous and more violent. Under Blair, the government stripped people who were applying for asylum of their right to work and made them live on a tiny amount of money – it’s still only £37.75 a week. This was supposed to tackle a mythical ‘pull factor,’ the unfounded and misguided idea that people come to the UK because of all the benefits they’ll receive.
This continued and got worse under the Coalition, as routes into the country were made more difficult. And now the Tory government are not only content with maintaining much of the punitive immigration system in the middle of a global pandemic, they want to tighten it further. Deportation flights have started up again, they will continue to make the border near-impossible to cross and yesterday an RAF plane was sent to fly over the stretch of water between south-east England and northern France.
The callousness of this all is not new but it is still painfully shocking. One BBC journalist took to the water in a voyeuristic excursion to examine the people who were trying to make it across the channel; pulling up their boat alongside the dinghy, commenting on how they were bailing water out of this small vessel and shouting over to ask them questions. A dangerous journey was turned into a spectacle; the people making it treated like animals in a zoo. Such a gross image fits precisely and neatly into the government’s anti-asylum campaign: this is apparently a crisis – not for the people forced to make these journeys, but for the UK.
But there’s almost no pause for thought to ask why it is people are getting into dinghies to make the dangerous crossing or why prior to coronavirus people, including many children, would try to climb under lorries at Calais to make it here. Some died in the process. Few politicians will engage with the international dimensions of war and persecution that force many to leave their homes, including the UK’s involvement.
Hardly anyone is looking at how difficult it is to cross borders; how leaving your country is a right but settling in another, safe country is so difficult in a world of fences and walls and securitised national and regional border regimes – borders that strengthen the very business model on which ‘smuggling’ is reliant.
All that hand-wringing and remorse that was in copious supply during the Windrush scandal is nowhere to be found. The lessons were never going to be learned, because they were never intended to be about these people. These are the ‘bad migrants.’ It is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention that crossing a border ‘illegally’ should not impact your asylum claim. But all of these people are dismissed as ‘illegal’ before they’ve even applied for asylum, never mind that human beings can’t be illegal. It’s continuously assumed that they are cynically out for what they can get; these journeys and the decisions that made them are imagined to be cold, calculated.
One supposed sign of their illegitimacy is that they’ve left a safe country, France, to come to the UK. Despite what the EU and certain countries might want, there is no hard rule in international refugee law that says they have to stay put. There is also a multitude of reasons that people might want to come to this country to claim asylum; maybe they speak the language or they’ve friends or families here. But the very politicians who’ve floated through life with every single possible opportunity at their fingertips act like these people should be grateful they made it to France in the first place.
But I have no interest in dividing up the ‘good refugees’ from the ‘bad migrants.’ This is a distinction rooted in inhumanity. People’s right to claim asylum matters, as does their ability to make it to the UK safely. But so too do the rights and the lives of the people who have to move because of poverty or degradation – and those who want to migrate but find it impossible because only certain passports, having certain skills or having certain amounts of money mean you can. Defending refugees and asylum seekers by pitting them against ‘migrants’ only serves to justify the very border policies the government wants to implement.
This most recent anti-asylum campaign is not only a distraction from the government’s failings over coronavirus or a way of scapegoating some of the most vulnerable, it is part of their broader narrative about the country and set of policies designed for it. By whipping up this anti-asylum hate, the same government that likes to remind us how sorry it is about the Windrush scandal has given themselves even more cover to do what they always intended: create a more punitive immigration system.
They will make movement even more difficult for some people and for others they’ll have even more of a say on the terms on which certain people enter the country, how they’re treated when they’re here and when they can be deported. This is about people’s rights and how they’re still being eroded in the name of borders. But despite what we’re told, it is borders which are the problem, not the people trying to cross them.