A shameful failure of decency

Published by The i paper (5th October, 2020)

Here we go again. The Tories are sliding in the polls. The prime minister’s popularity is waning fast as his incompetence is brutally exposed by the pandemic. Labour is starting to look fit for office under a sensible leader. The newspaper headlines are merciless. So ministers scrabble around for scapegoats to divert the public gaze from their own failings and, with sickening inevitability, settle on another bout of refugee-bashing.

This has been the template in British politics for three decades. Kenneth Baker, Home Secretary in the early 1990s, promised “the rapid rejection of a large number of unfounded claims” to deter abuse of the system. Tony Blair declared his aim was to slash the number of claims in half, shortly before he helped unleash turmoil in the Middle East with an invasion that led to the uprooting of millions of people from their homes. Then David Cameron’s brand of compassionate conservatism dissolved when challenged by hard-right populists, ratcheting up the hostile environment with devastating consequences.

So it is no surprise to see Priti Patel, the appalling Home Secretary in a floundering government, doing her best to stoke fears over a few boats landing on our shores. No doubt this woman, never renowned for generosity of spirit, takes to the task of deterring desperate people with rather more relish than some predecessors. First she called for military intervention. There there were last week’s leaks of ludicrous ideas such as wave machines to rebuff migrant-filled dinghies in the Channel and sending those that make it here for processing on isolated islands thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic.

Such proposals might have been rejected as implausible by scriptwriters on The Thick of It. But Patel stands up unbowed at her party conference and spits out venom at “do-gooders” and “leftie lawyers” who dare support the rights of refugees. Note the poisonous way this minister – sacked from a previous government for her duplicity – lumped together human traffickers and people practising law under international rules for “defending the indefensible”. This was a low even in the depressing annals of Tory conference discussions on immigration.

Britain actually receives fewer asylum claims than its major European competitor nations and accepts a tiny fraction of the numbers taken by some poorer places around the planet. The number of applications for asylum has fallen over the past year – and is significantly lower than in 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum that was won after her side whipped up hostility towards migrants and refugees. Yes, the same people those shameless politicians then clapped for working in our care homes and hospitals during the pandemic. But sadly, even before the outbreak of culture wars, facts never carried much weight in this emotive issue.

There are three real targets in Patel’s sights (beyond, of course, the crumbling Tory electorate). First, she plays to the hoary old distinction between genuine and bogus refugees when she is at the helm of a system that does its utmost to repel all refugees. Never mind if this leads to thousands drowning in the Mediterranean or ending up with Libyan gangs that rape and torture captives. Successive governments have constructed a system that is byzantine in its complexity, exorbitant in cost, makes little allowance for the trauma of people fleeing for their lives and is inherently racist: one academic spent 2,400 hours in immigration detention centres and saw just three white people from Australia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Then there is that usual focus on people smugglers exploiting misery. Yet like it or not, they are responding to market forces fuelled by her department’s combination of hostility and incompetence. Patel pretends her stand is rooted in compassion to assist those most in need, which echoes the hollow arguments used by Theresa May as she cranked up the policies during her long stint at the home office that led to the Windrush scandal. Does anyone really think that when her successor talks of a “fair and firm” system, the emphasis will be on anything but firmness?

Britain has no special lure for the world’s dispossessed, whatever populists claim, and is far from a soft touch. People seeking asylum tend to be looking for anywhere that can offer security – as I have heard often in the world’s hotspots. I rarely hear them pick out Britain as their preferred destination, unlike Canada or Germany. The Home Office’s own research has found asylum seekers have little idea about our benefits, migration procedures or work possibilities. Those that make it to Britain, far from living in luxury, are dispersed around the country in poverty, unable to work, endure long processing delays and all too often end up with officials making wrong decisions.

The final target for Patiel is “activist lawyers” blamed for this non-existent crisis. She aims to reduce the number of appeals, with a presumption that migrants arriving illegally are rejected. Yet many of the systemic problems are down to her own department’s attitude and bungling, as highlighted by a raft of reports and the high number of appeals won. And how else do you explain why the number of appeals has fallen at a time when the case backlog has risen, delays have soared and enforced removals are at a record low? Her proposed legislation is also pure spin: a “one-stop” appeal process was introduced in 1999, while another 2004 law ordered judges to doubt the claims of people passing through safe countries.

Patel is right on one thing: we need a fairer and better asylum system. This will take more than bile and crass rhetoric. Instead of lashing out at those respecting laws and rights, the focus should start with the persistent failures of the Home Office. But yet again we see the grotesque spectacle of this inept government lashing out at everyone else for its own faults. The Tories are not just sliding in the polls, but in their decency and humanity too.

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