The migrant ‘crisis’: A divisive Tory distraction of government making

The shocking stories about people’s experience of Britain who are fleeing poverty and persecution, and the political hysteria to ‘gain control’ of the situation, have not been created by too many refugees coming here. Rather, they are the result of Tory government asylum system failings.

News cycles have been saturated this week with stories of the ‘migrant crisis.’ 

‘Nurses are paying price of migrant crisis.’  ‘Britain and France sign a £63m deal to ramp up efforts to stop ‘illegal migrants.’’ ‘The deal provokes backlash as migrants will not be returned to France…’, read some of the many panic-stricken headlines. 

They follow last week’s equally frenzied reportage of refugees being detained in catastrophically overcrowded facilities.

At the centre of the reports is a ‘determined’ prime minister, who says getting a grip on the ‘migrant crisis’ is an “absolute priority.” Gaining control of ‘illegal immigration” is, says Sunak, something he has “spent more time working on than anything else”, other than the Autumn Statement.

The shocking stories about people’s experience of Britain who are fleeing poverty and persecution, and the political hysteria to ‘gain control’ of the situation, have not been created by too many refugees coming here. Rather, they are the result of Tory government asylum system failings.

As the ‘record’ number of migrants arriving on our shores in small boats is pushed under our noses daily, in reality, the annual number of asylum applications are half what they were two decades ago. The number peaked in 2002 at 84,132, government data shows.

These figures, however, don’t make it onto the right-wing newspapers’ front pages, they are not sufficiently scaremongering to sell well.

As Nesrine Malik notes in a fantastic piece in the Guardian about how the Tories ‘concocted the myth of the ‘migrant crisis,’ the ‘real and only’ cause of the Manston migrant facility chaos is because the number of asylum applications processed within six months has fallen from almost 90 percent to around 4 percent.

“It’s not that more people are arriving than ever before, it’s that more of them aren’t being processed, and so are stuck in the asylum system for years,” writes Malik.

Hostile environment

You could be forgiven for thinking that because of who and what came after her, Theresa May wasn’t too bad, just weak and lacking in leadership qualities, but not a brazen liar or a disillusioned incompetent who managed to wreck the economy in just 45 days. I might have been guilty of such thoughts, until I remembered what May said two years into her job as home secretary in 2012, that her aim was “to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal immigration.”

Did the then home secretary realise that her ‘hostile environment’ would have such pivotal impact in the continued acrimony towards migrants in Britain? It became, in fact, May’s legacy, along with her three-time rejected Brexit deal which ultimately led to her resignation.

Couple this with George Osborne’s harsh austerity programme, and a hostile and underfunded Home Office was the result.

In 2019, a UN report on racism concluded that the Tories’ austerity programme entrenched racial inequality in the UK. The report described the Windrush scandal, involving the wrongful detention of people, who were denied legal rights, threatened with deportation, and, in at least 83 cases were wrongly deported from the UK, as a “glaring example” of discrimination in the UK’s immigration policy.

Of course, the migrant ‘crisis’ being a Tory government-made crisis – come on, the Tories have been in power for 12 years – is routinely missing from the Conservative narrative and, naturally, the Tory press.

Consecutive right-wing home secretaries have elevated a distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers thereby fuelling the perception that, rather than being human beings escaping both oppression and deprivation, they are not, as Priti Patel said, ‘genuine asylum seekers’.

Just when we thought a home secretary couldn’t get more right-wing and anti-immigration, in walks Suella Braverman, whose hard-line approach to immigration and inflammatory comments have seen her branded the modern-day Enoch Powell. Powell campaigned against the (entirely legal) settlement of Asians in the UK expelled from Uganda and Kenya in the 1960s and 70s. His ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, which strongly criticised mass immigration, caused a political storm.  

Baring a worryingly divisive resemblance, today’s home secretary ‘dreams’ about a flight carrying migrants taking off for Rwanda, and also speaks about the ‘invasion’ on the country’s southern coast. In her first major speech as home secretary, Braverman thanked Patel for the “foundations” she had laid in toughening the immigration system. The speech cited the usual apparitions of “illegal immigrants”, “low-skilled foreign workers” and “mass and rapid migration.”

What we have seen in the ensuing weeks since her maiden speech, are plans to subject migrants in Britain to the most hostile immigration environment yet, including committing to deport anyone who doesn’t enter Britain through government-sanctioned routes.

The Rwanda policy itself has been branded ‘failed scheme.’ An initial flight carrying migrants to Rwanda in June was grounded by the European Court of Human Rights, pending judicial review of the policy in UK courts. The country’s blemished human rights’ record has raised concerns on both sides of the House of Commons.

In August, Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said: “Thousands of lives are still being put at risk in dangerous flimsy boats as the Conservative’s policies on Channel crossings are failing.

“They are spending all their time as well as hundreds of millions of pounds on an unworkable, unethical and extortionately expensive Rwanda plan whilst failing to do the basic work of tackling the criminal gangs that are putting lives at risk.”

As Bloomberg notes in an editorial on why ‘Offshoring is the wrong response to the UK migrant crisis,’ “the government would be better to focus on improving the existing system.”

Such improvements would need to include investments in staffing and technology, to clear the Home Office’s backlog of nearly 100,000 asylum claims.

Meanwhile, the reasons why Rishi Sunak refuses to sack the controversial ‘Rwanda-dreaming’ home secretary make more depressing reading still, and are centred on her being the ‘darling of the Tory right.’

Braverman speaks to those who are fearful of immigration – she’s Nigel Farage’s favourite Tory, need we say more? She keeps the sizeable fraternity of anti-immigration Tory intransigents on side, such as Sir John Hayes, who is said to be in ‘lockstep’ with Braverman on immigration.

She might be a ‘bad egg’ in a supposedly civilised society, not to mention for destitute refugees desperately seeking safety, but for selfish reasons, to stay in power, Sunak knows he needs her. That makes Suella Braverman basically unsackable.

Dangerous repercussions

In ‘normalising’ an anti-immigration climate, politicians and factions of the media are creating very real dangers for individuals seeking refuge in Britain. 

Counter-terrorism police said the recent firebombing of a migrant centre in Dover had an “extreme right-wing motivation.” After more than a dozen MPs had named accommodation earmarked for people seeking asylum, the Refugee Council urged the House of Commons speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, to stop Conservative MPs from naming hotels where migrants are staying through fear it would lead to attacks by extremists.

As well as the vindictive narrative being used to stir up division and hatred, there is the prospect that the interpretation that ‘they’ are scroungers who burden our public services, is being used to disguise from the government’s own failings relating to infrastructure and living standards.

On November 4, councils and MPs warned that schools have run out of places for local children in entire year groups, because of the influx of migrants. In a letter to Suella Braverman, leaders of 14 Kent councils said:

“Schools in Canterbury and Ashford currently have no Year 7 and Year 9 places for local children due to the unexpected and therefore unplanned for arrivals of refugee children disproportionately placed by the Home Office in these two local authority areas.”

The story was, predictably, published in the Telegraph under the headline: ‘Schools ‘run out of places for local children after migrant surge.’

By blaming the lack of school places on the ‘migrant surge’, the government can conveniently side-step its own failings relating to schools, such as placement shortages being worsened by the Tory policy of turning all schools into academies.

Then there’s housing, which takes me to Theresa May – again. In a speech in 2012, May claimed that more than a third of all new housing demand in the UK was caused by immigration. Though admittedly, it would be unfair to pin anti-immigrant housing myths on Theresa May alone. The history of such hate-fuelled sentiment goes back to at least 1895, when a Tory MP in Bethnal Green blamed Jewish immigrants, many of who were fleeing the persecutions of Eastern Europe, for poor housing conditions and increased rents. 

One would hope society would have progressed almost 130 years on, but alas, it is a trope in debate around housing that is mirrored today.

“Regaining control of our borders is a key concern across the country.  It’s astonishing that we currently spend £7million every day housing asylum seekers,” wrote the Express on October 28.

In February, talking on Radio 4’s World at One, Iain Duncan Smith, like Theresa May, Nigel Farage, the BNP, oh and let’s not forget the Tory Bethnal Green MP in 1895, blamed immigrants for the housing crisis. The former Tory leader’s comments were heavily criticised by housing academics, who said there was no evidence for the assertion.

“Far from creating the housing crisis, immigrants are much more likely to be its victims, often living in sub-standard, over-crowded, private-rented accommodation. Immigrants are very unlikely to be permanently housed in council or social housing, as Mr Duncan Smith implied. They are, however, likely to help build new homes.

“The real reason for the housing crisis is four decades of underinvestment in council housing, while policy has been dominated by the private market that Duncan Smith’s own government admits is broken,” they said.

Just maybe the anti-immigrant stance is a deliberate attempt to distract from the government’s own failings. Shout about the crisis loud enough and people will forget that the severe lack of houses, schools, doctor appointments and other living ‘basics,’ are a result of over a decade of austerity.

Of course, immigration has to be managed, policed even, but it also needs to be unshackled from the language of racism and moral panic and seen for what it is – one means through which the economy can be sustained, and our culture enriched while enabling those who are poor and frightened to enjoy better lives.

Right-wing media watch – Negative refugee coverage is nothing new

The Tory press has been on the anti-immigration razzle of late, hollering antagonistic rhetoric from its pages.  

‘Nurses are paying price of migrant crisis,’ splashed the Daily Mail. The frontpage story claimed that ‘hospital nurses are being forced out of hotel rooms to make way for asylum seekers.’

Fortunately the story was blasted for what is was, ‘shoddy, xenophobic and evidence-free journalism.’

And, sigh, it’s not just the Mail.

‘Suella Braverman signs historic £62m deal with France to increase migrant patrols by 40%’ barked the Express. ‘Without more deportation, the Channel crisis will not end,’ trumpeted the Telegraph.

As in most walks of life, the attitude towards race relations presented in any type of media, plays a decisive role in forming opinion.

Perhaps the most glaring and memorable example of this in recent years was UKIP’s unethical anti-immigration poster during the EU referendum in 2016. BREAKING POINT screamed the red lettering on the poster, alongside an image of refugees in Slovenia in 2015, who were making a perilous journey fleeing war and persecution. The poster was likened to anti-Semitic propaganda in the 1930s. It may have been widely condemned but the graphic succeeded in making a powerful link in voters’ minds between the refugee crisis in mainland Europe and immigration.

The poster may be an extreme example of propagandic attempts to incite attitudes, but it is not an isolated example. Every day, as we have seen this week with the ‘migrant crisis’ dominating the political and media agenda, we are subjected to content of an inflammatory, derogatory, racist nature.

These chillingly hostile headlines surrounding immigration in Britain come as little surprise, as the tabloids (some of them anyway) have been scapegoating refugees for at least 100 years.

The deliberately scaremongering reports of today bare uncanny resemblance to those published decades earlier. In 1971, the Daily Express merged fact with fantasy, saying: “There are 200,000 Asians in East Africa”… “all possessing British passports, who may come here soon.”

Throughout the 1970s, Asian-baiting headlines were commonplace in the tabloids. “Another 20,000 Asians are on the Way,” said the Sun in 1976. “Refused Welfare — but ‘I’ll settle for council house’” wrote the Express in the same year.

The anti-Asian immigration stories mimicked a similar position peddled by the right-wing press in the 1930s, aimed at Jewish refugees. “Aliens Pouring into Britain” was the headline of the Daily Mail, while in 1928 the Sunday Express wrote: “In Britain, half a million Jews find their home. They are never persecuted and, indeed, in many respects the Jews are given favoured treatment here.”

The aggressive messaging that often ignores vital details and facts and concentrates solely on the sensationalist, is deployed without shame and question.

The problem lies with the migrants and not white racism, at least that is what the right-wing media news agenda wants us to believe.

Race Relations Act

In 1965, the Race Relations Act was passed in Britain. The Act made it illegal to discriminate against people on the “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” in public spaces. The problem is that despite it being unlawful to incite racial hatred, defining what ‘incitement’ is remain ambiguous, thus giving the media leeway to spout their poison.

Toxic content belittling refugees as ‘scroungers’, ‘aliens’ and even worse, articulated by what is meant to be a respectable media, circulates today, and despite the legislation being in place for decades, racial discrimination is still rife in Britain.

As Lionel Morrison, OBE, of the NUJ’s Ethics Council in 2004 wrote in a feature about the media’s negative coverage of refugees:

“In this rollercoaster of hysteria, The SunThe Express and Daily Mail, especially, are still now conveying a “paranoid” definition of events through their unquestioning acceptance of the belief that the entry of asylum seekers constitutes a life-threat to our social fabric, social services, housing, health, education, security, and of course, good race relations. Today’s tabloid newspapers are a volcanic landslide that strangles any explanation, reason and simply rushes on, headlong into glaring headline.

“Utterances of politicians and others reverberate into a great tumult with news stories and speeches piling up on each other with increasing frequency, so that, before the row from one dies away, it is followed by the impact of another, until the details merge into a mounting clamour that excites the senses and drowns the still small voice of reason.”

As we have seen with the splurge of recent negative coverage in the right-wing press on people seeking refuge in Britain, Morrison’s words could have been written today. As when it comes to race-relations in the media, Britain seems to be going backwards rather than forwards.

Woke-bashing of the week – Tory minister attacks right-wing culture warriors

It’s not just the left and opposition recognising the absurdity of the Tories’ ‘war on woke.’   

Conservative minister Zac Goldsmith has said right-wing Tory MPs should stop portraying concerns over the climate and nature as “woke” and should understand that voters have deep concerns about the climate crisis.

Speaking to the Guardian at the COP27 UN Climate summit in Egypt, Goldsmith said:

““What I’m trying to persuade people is that this stuff is not remote, it’s not trendy, it’s not woke, it’s not nice to have and it’s not a waste of UK taxpayers’ money. This is fundamental.”

Adding that the government must have a strong answer to people’s environmental concerns, he said:

“[To say that] caring about the world is somehow woke – I find that stupid.”

Goldsmith, who is son of the late billionaire businessman James Goldsmith, is a close ally of Boris Johnson. Despite losing his Richmond Park seat in the 2019 general election to the Lib Dems, the former MP was given a life peerage by Johnson so he could keep his role as environment minister.

Under Truss’s brief premiership, Goldsmith was sacked as an environment minister. Under Sunak, he is now a foreign office minister.

Goldsmith threw his weight under Johnson’s return in the leadership race, blaming the former PM’s decision to quit the contest on the “relentless noise from too many in Parliament and media would have made governing impossible.”

Of Sunak, Goldsmith said: “It would be stupid to pretend he has the same passion for the environment [as Johnson]. But I think he gets it, he understands the risk of climate change.”

Interestingly, at the same event in the Sharm El Sheikh this week, reports surfaced about Goldsmith walking away from an 11-year-old climate activist, when she repeatedly asked him when the government will release jailed climate protestors.

Licypriya Kangujam, an indigenous campaigner, was filmed as she harangued Goldsmith. The Tory peer is seen addressing the young activist but then walks off, mumbling “I can do nothing.”

Kangujam later tweeted: “If he can do nothing then why is he a minister? Why he’s coming to #COP27 ? This is unacceptable. This is not fair.”

It has been suggested that the Tory peer could be something of an ‘eco-hypocrite’, who attempted to mark himself out as an ‘iconoclastic champion of green issues’ in the aftermath of his dismal mayor of London campaign.

Nonetheless, a Tory’s lambasting of the party’s half-baked ‘war on woke’ in relation to the climate emergency, which has been dragged into the culture wars with misinformation, offers hope.

It would be good if Lord David Frost, who urged Boris Johnson to clear out “the neo-socialists, green fanatics and pro-woke crowd” in Downing Street to save his premiership, could take a leaf out of Goldsmith’s book. 

Though with Frost joining the climate sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation and claiming, ‘we’re not in a crisis,’ that looks about as likely as Suella Braverman turning down the heat on border control.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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