One of the most effective campaigns from the UK Government and right-wing commentators has been the demonisation of migrants and asylum seekers. Over years, they have successfully managed to drip feed the nation and normalise increasingly hostile language, all to create a manufactured environment where inhumane policies against asylum seekers become accepted. An environment designed to blame those most vulnerable, running to our shores for safety, for poverty and inequality by convincing us that they are taking resources away from others.
However, that blame does not lie with people frightened and worried for their safety, but squarely with the UK Government. Just like policies that compromise the safety of asylum seekers, locking increasing numbers of people across the UK into poverty – forcing them to choose between heating or eating – is a political choice.
If there are vulnerable people turning up on the Dover coast, they are doing so because the Conservative government has chosen to shut down the safe routes that were once available. They have forced asylum seekers to take perilous journeys, pushing them into the hands of traffickers ready to exploit their pain and suffering, whilst trying to convince us their actions are to tackle trafficking. It is shameful.
Seeking asylum is a legal, human right. Despite what some have been convinced to think, seeking asylum – regardless of the country you may have travelled through and how you arrived – is a human right.
But all of this is not based on points of principle, just cold, calculated politics. Right now, the rhetoric and divisional tactics are being turned up for reasons that are only about self-preservation for the UK Government. As the cost-of-living crisis continues and there are calls for increases in benefits and support, asylum seekers provide a target to be blamed for a supposed lack of money.
As the Conservative party haemorrhages supporters, with two Prime Ministers in as many months, demonising asylum seekers – and human rights activists and lawyers who have the audacity to want to treat others with dignity – appears to them to offer a way to solidify those right-wing votes. And, as more and more commentators and voters question the competency of the government, in particular the Home Secretary, all of this acts as a distraction from pointing the finger where it belongs. Asylum seekers – human beings – are weaponised as part of a political game.
These last weeks we’ve heard abhorrent language used – talk of “invasions” and a “dream” to have a flight deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda pictured on the front page of a national newspaper. This would be expected of someone on the right-wing extreme fringes, a Farage-esque character being interviewed on Fox News. But no, this was the current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. The person who, gobsmacking as it is, somehow has the power to potentially make her dream come true. That is how mainstream the hatefulness has become – it is in power.
This language doesn’t just remain in some Westminster bubble, it has consequences. It has created a culture of such hostility that a man felt emboldened enough to throw three petrol bombs into an immigration centre in Dover. Investigations by campaign group Hope not Hate have found that the attacker’s social media included radicalised and fascist language such as his final tweet which stated that he wanted to “obliterate Muslim children”.
Despite this, the authorities had to be called out before accepting the attack as right-wing terrorism and investigating it as such. Giving the political tactics and hostile culture created by those in power, the increasingly bigoted commentary targeting migrants and asylum seekers, who should be held responsible for his radicalisation? There are so many potential actors and influences to hold to account.
Let’s make something clear. If people are getting into small boats, risking their lives and sometimes the lives of their children, they are doing so because they are desperate. They are doing so because they are running to find safety. The government’s own decisions confirm this, with 76 per cent of initial applications resulting in the granting of the right to asylum or humanitarian protection over the last year. But when asylum seekers are allowed to stay, they are often forced to live in substandard, cramped accommodation, without the right to work, and with just £40 a week to cover everything they need.
For those who have just arrived or are waiting to find out the outcome of their asylum request, the conditions are even worse, so dire that charities are, rightly, threatening legal action against the Home Office. Manston Migrant Centre is currently under the spotlight after reports of appalling treatment of migrants who have been forced to stay much longer than is appropriate for the space.
Families have reported being held in tents for over a month. At one point, there were some 4,000 migrants there, living in cramped conditions, left to become increasingly unwell with outbreaks of diphtheria and scabies. Despite knowing all of this and being told that the government was failing to meet statutory duties and breaching the law by holding asylum seekers for too long, Suella Braverman at first did nothing. So inhumane was her response that government insiders briefed the press, stating that although the extent of the horrific conditions were explained to her, including the unlawfulness of the government’s actions, she blocked the transfer of migrants to safer and more appropriate accommodation. This is heartless. This is criminal.
It cannot stand. We must be better than this. Our humanity and our democratic principles hang on how we respond to those who need us most and on both of these measures, this government has repeatedly fallen short.
Talat Yaqoob is an equalities consultant and campaigner