If you have read about my own experience as a child refugee, you will understand why a tweet by a girl in a UK detention centre broke my heart. I ask myself how people, especially if they have children of their own, can not only condone this government’s atrocious handling of asylum seekers but voice opinions like “Send them back” and similar hateful statements on social media.
I think that there are several issues at play here, which must be talked about more widely. The facts about refugees and asylum seekers’ rights and countries’ duties of care have been covered in several articles elsewhere. The use of the word ‘migrants’ is also often inappropriate. We have to differentiate. Refugees are fleeing dangerous situations in their home country. They become asylum seekers when they reach the country where they think they will get sanctuary. They are not like British retirees moving to Spain. The latter are migrants, as are a lot of Commonwealth citizens living in the UK. They did not come here to ask for protection because they were in danger in their own country.
Asylum is an international right
The most important difference is that there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker or refugee. A UN Convention, which the UK signed up to, guarantees them the right to apply for asylum, i.e. sanctuary, in a place of their choosing. They are not limited to just the first country we consider safe, like another EU country. The reason for a minority of refugees arriving in Europe and then choosing the UK is explained here.
Rumours of an invasion are exaggerated
The Home Secretary’s language, like “invasion” – previously used by Farage in front of a poster wrongly said to be representing refugees coming to the UK – is straight out of Goebbels’ handbook for fascism. First of all, invasion assumes huge numbers. In reality, the UK is 18th in the list of numbers of refugees taken by European countries. We know that most displaced people stay in neighbouring countries, putting immense pressure on poor African and Middle Eastern countries.
Austria, for example, has taken in 43,300 refugees per 10,000 as against Britain’s 8,400. Maths wizards can calculate what percentage of the British 67m population that makes up.
Identitarian conspiracy theory
The government’s anti-immigration rhetoric is causing the country immense harm. It is vastly to blame for the Brexit vote, separating us from our nearest neighbours and closest allies. This ‘them versus us’ indoctrination serves to kill compassion by dehumanising certain groups.
In Germany, it was anybody not considered to comply with a weird, pseudo-scientific identitarian theory of an ‘Aryan’ race. In the UK, it’s anybody not born in Britain, more specifically not in England. EU citizens joined the group of undesirable migrants, including refugees. As in the Nazi programmes, gypsies, sometimes Jews and Muslims, LGBTQ groups, etc. are often blamed for issues the nation is suffering. It distracts from government failures. Hatred seems to unite people more easily than love and cooperation. One only needs to look at UK tabloids’ headlines, sadly often left unchallenged, or even repeated by politicians and main media. That gives bigots the licence to use such inflammatory language. People vulnerable to indoctrination, and often mental health problems, might feel they need to take the law into their own hands. The attack on the Tug Haven detention centre is now considered to be a terrorist attack.
Are you a victim?
Putin, according to Timothy Snyder’s book ‘The Road to Unfreedom’, indoctrinated his people by making them feel like victims through history. The loss of the imperialistic USSR was painful for Russian leaders at the time – like the loss of the British Empire. Entitlement and arrogant belief in one’s special position provides fertile ground for populism. Orbán is talking about the Hungarian period in history when several neighbouring nationalities were part of the Hungarian Empire. Injustices of the past help them create enemies, and anybody not supporting these views becomes an enemy of the people too.
I am British, I am invincible
Coming back to British exceptionalism, I think the fact that Britain was not invaded by Germany, and messaging by media that the British single-handedly defeated the Nazis, makes some people feel invincible. In reality, before joining the then EEC, Britain was in a very weak position. It was the ‘poor man of Europe’ and sadly, is heading that way again through the combination of the 2008 recession, Covid-19 and our very own Brexit. When people feel they are getting poorer, they often need a scapegoat.
It CAN happen to you
I want to tell the British who don’t realise: things you feel you are immune to can happen to you:
- Your democracy can be hijacked, and you are already in the process of becoming a fascist state. (Fascism is notoriously hard to define, but a simple Google search will bring up lists of characteristics of such states.) The political system, developed at a time when gentlemen’s agreements were binding and inequalities were an acceptable part of daily life, is defunct. Those who lived miserable lives often couldn’t write, and it took Dickens to describe their misery. Is that what you want to go back to? Major reform is needed to address inequalities and the class system (stop classifying people by perceived class) and put a fair democratic system in place, like PR (of which there are many versions, but Make Votes Matter is a good starting point).
- Just because there has not been any threat to your personal safety to make you want to flee your country, there is no guarantee that this cannot happen.
Putin’s war against Ukraine shows that sadly, peace in Europe is volatile. A blue passport does not buy you protection from food and medicine shortages, from having to choose between eating and heating your home, from the cost-of-living crisis pushing you into destitution.
It happened to refugees
The detention centre where a child refugee wrote a note asking for help is full of people it happened to: their homes were destroyed by bombs, or invaded by terrorist soldiers, or their lives were in danger because they had different views from the people in power. They might have been threatened by imprisonment with the risk of death. They might have been threatened with rape and torture.
What if it was your daughter?
In my article I explained why my family fled Communism. I often wonder if under the current UK political climate, we would have been deported to Rwanda. But then, we’re white.