When it comes to the debate surrounding immigration and asylum, the language used can have very real consequences. This week, that fact has been made clearer than ever: on Sunday, against a backdrop of increasingly hostile rhetoric, an individual strapped petrol bombs to fireworks and fired them at a migrant processing centre in Dover. It later emerged he had previously said he wanted to ‘obliterate Muslim children’.
Undeterred, the following day, Home Secretary Suella Braverman doubled down. ‘Let’s be clear about what is really going on here,’ she told the House of Commons. ‘The British people deserve to know which party is serious about stopping the invasion on our southern coast and which party is not.’
Attacks like the one that took place over the weekend are difficult to separate from discourse like Braverman’s. From the constant references to criminality to the regularly peddled falsehood that Britain is being overwhelmed, people fleeing poverty and persecution are constantly portrayed in ways that rob them of their humanity; in ways that incite fear and hatred; in ways that equate those running from violence to the very violence being fled.
Given the bleak economic landscape, the timing of these comments is not a coincidence. This government is currently overseeing the biggest fall in living standards since the 1950s, with its neoliberal agenda pushing millions of families into poverty. NHS waiting lists are at their highest since records began, evictions for rent arrears are spiralling, close to ten million adults and four million children are skipping food. The new prime minister and chancellor are lining up the country for another round of austerity after the last was tied to 330,000 excess deaths.
Rather than facing up to the origin of the damage being inflicted, our leaders are pointing the finger to distract from their own incompetence.
This is nothing new. Since time immemorial, refugees and migrants have been scapegoated for domestic social and economic woes. Sam Stroud wrote earlier this week of Jewish refugees arriving in Britain in the late nineteenth century being scapegoated for bad housing conditions. The last time in recent years things reached a crescendo was in 2015, when then Prime Minister David Cameron came under heavy criticism for describing refugees crossing the Mediterranean as a ‘swarm’ while attempting to distract from the devastating consequences of his own austerity policies.
The right-wing press that backs these politicians is all too keen to take up the call. One 2015 Daily Mail headline read: ‘this tidal wave of migrants could be the biggest threat to Europe since the war’. Seven years later, another headline in the Sun claims to capture ‘The Moment Migrants Storm Kent Beaches’. Like Braverman’s line, constant rhetoric from the media centres on the notion that the country is under attack, even going as far as trying to imply comparisons between asylum seekers and the Nazis.
The truth is that it’s refugees and asylum seekers who are under attack—not just through the very real violence committed on Sunday or through language, but through policy. The same Home Secretary who pushed the invasion metaphor also said it was ‘her dream, her obsession’ to see refugees deported to Rwanda, a country with a distressing history of human rights abuses.
The Rwanda policy marks a nadir in Britain’s chequered history with asylum. By refusing to provide sanctuary, the government is abdicating its commitment to the international protection system and sending people in desperate situations towards further misery.
Not only that. Following on the heels of last year’s Nationality and Borders Bill, the Home Secretary has also announced a blanket ban on asylum claims for all people who arrive in the UK ‘illegally’, a draconian move founded on the falsehood that people who arrive via so-called ‘unauthorised’ routes—made necessary by the lack of safe routes available—are choosing not to play by the rules in order to game the system. But the system often doesn’t leave them any alternative.
After Sunday’s attack, those who were being kept in the detention centre that was targeted were moved to Manston, which has now become the centre of growing concern over conditions. People have reported being kept like animals, 4,000 of them in space intended for just 1,600 people, some of them, including children, living for weeks in a space intended for no longer than 24 hours. Some leaving the centre have been abandoned in central London in November in flip-flops.
Asylum seekers are not to blame for the drastic state of this country and the hardships far too many people face. Nor are they invaders or vermin. They are people looking, like so many of us, for safety, security, and a better life. They deserve to be treated with humanity and respect—a humanity whose achievement rests on tackling the hateful rhetoric that permeates our society at every level.