Listening to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)’s Head of Lifeboats tell the Radio 4 Today programme last week why we shouldn’t leave our fellow humans to drown, I began to wonder what we might expect next. The Head of the Fire Service apologising for rescuing migrants from burning buildings? Doctors explaining why in an emergency they might have to save the lives of injured foreigners? Teachers being made to feel embarrassed for teaching refugee children?
In fairness, interviewer Nick Robinson made it clear that listeners would want to thank RNLI volunteers; a statement of compassion so brazen that some of the current BBC Board might see it as a disciplinary offence.
The government’s language about refugees dehumanises both them and us
But it reminded me of something the actor Mark Bonnar tweeted recently. “When I see (Sunak) standing at his wee plinth with his little words, I feel sick”, he said. “It’s dehumanising – not just to the people on the boats – but to us”.
What could underline the truth of those words more starkly than a conversation on national radio about whether it’s right to come to the aid of people who are drowning?
Conflating asylum with illegal immigration
When it comes to asylum policy, the first question any government should ask itself is how best to meet its responsibility towards those who need sanctuary. And yet the Conservatives, almost unchallenged, have deliberately conflated asylum with the wider issue of immigration, tagging on the word “illegal” to give it added potency. With its relentless use of propaganda and lies, the Government has poisoned the well so utterly that it has become virtually impossible to have a serious public discussion about what is an intensely complex issue.
We are told that people who cross the Channel are breaking the law, when the truth is that under the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol anyone is entitled to cross an international border to ask for asylum.
We are told that people should apply for asylum in the first safe country they come to, when the Refugee Convention and Protocol say nothing of the sort.
We are told that most of those in small boats are not genuine refugees, when the Home Office’s own statistics tell us otherwise.
We are told that this Government welcomes people from Ukraine and Hong Kong, as if that were some comfort to those from Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Eritrea and elsewhere who effectively have no legitimate route to asylum in the UK.
Framing all young men as a threat
We are told to be wary of young men, as if young men couldn’t possibly have legitimate grounds for asylum.
We are told that they shouldn’t have too much luggage or wear nice trainers; that they should be grateful just to have a floor to sleep on; that they should be neither too like us nor too different from us.
As Mark Bonnar says, with every step in the process of dehumanising refugees, we dehumanise ourselves. And, since compassion is one of the most basic human instincts, that’s where all this is doubly tragic. Because the Government’s aim is to quash that natural compassion in its target voters by making them feel angry instead.
Quashing our natural compassion
When the Government tell us that we’re a “kind and generous people”, or that we have “a proud history of welcoming refugees”, it’s just to encourage us to feel that our hospitality is being abused. “We’re all for welcoming genuine refugees”, you’ll hear people say as a precursor to something hostile – a line which tells you both that they’ve swallowed the government propaganda and that they’re trying to reassure themselves they haven’t lost touch with their own humanity.
But when you object to the RNLI saving lives, or support the “offshoring” of refugees to Rwanda, or believe asylum seekers should be put on a prison ship, you are losing touch with your humanity.
Serious debate about the issues is becoming impossible
And this is where I worry, greatly, for the future. As we face a future with ever greater numbers on the move, this is only going to get more acute.
But so many of these lies now see to have infected public discourse that I wonder how we can ever have discussions which start from a shared basis of commonly understood facts. It’s not just the UK, either; there seems to be a collective hardening of hearts across much of Europe, which bore horrific consequences with the sinking last week in Greek waters of a trawler carrying hundreds of people.
How do we begin to reverse this? As the main party of opposition at Westminster, the Labour Party, rightly, is savaging the Tories’ record on asylum. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper is forensic in her destruction of the Government’s incompetence; on the processing of applications; on its poor international coordination; on its failure to tackle the criminal gangs. Sometimes Sir Keir Starmer even talks about the Government’s lack of ethics, even if it is all a bit sotto voce.
Labour needs to show moral leadership
But, for all the many good people in the Labour Party who are passionate about the rights of refugees, there is something missing when Starmer and his front bench open their mouths: something which feels like moral leadership. There’s a failure to counter the Tory propaganda, in particular the framing of all this as part of a wider issue of “illegal migration”. And that approach seems deliberate. Last year, Wes Streeting (Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care) told the News Agents podcast that (to paraphrase), voters know where the Labour party stands on the ethical stuff but need convincing that it isn’t a soft touch on national security.
This may be a valid tactic if your sights are set no further than winning an election. But at what cost does it come? What does it say about the UK’s political culture and system when the main, supposedly progressive, party of opposition chooses to ignore rather than challenge hateful propaganda, and hopes that if it stays quiet it will just go away?
We should have expectations of Labour to speak out on these issues. The world we live in may be very different from that of the 1950s but it poses the same age-old questions about what it means to be human and to be humane.
We need Labour to tell voters why we have a responsibility to help refugees and why it matters that we abide by international law.
We need them to counter the propaganda and show moral leadership.
We need them to tap into our natural compassion.
Implications for Scotland
And this has implications too in Scotland. Because at recent debates in the House of Commons on the so-called “Illegal Migration” Bill and on wider immigration policy, it’s the SNP spokespeople who have voiced those things you’d expect their Labour counterparts to be saying; who have pointed out that there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker; who have referenced the UN High Commissioner for Refugee’s condemnation of UK policy; who have reiterated their support for the Refugee Convention and pointed out the damage all this is doing to the UK’s reputation. And last year, at the SNP’s party conference, Nicola Sturgeon spoke up passionately for the rights of refugees in a way which would have done past Labour leaders proud.
Pointing out this contrast doesn’t mean I believe the SNP occupies a higher moral plane, or that there is something innately more humanitarian about the Scots than the English. But there is clearly something about the respective political cultures and systems in Scotland and England – a combination, I’d argue, of the perniciousness of much of the right-wing press and the tendency of the first-past-the-post system to drag our politics ever rightward, that allows a party in government in Holyrood to say the right thing without fear of electoral punishment, while forcing a party aspiring to government in Westminster to stay tight-lipped.
When I think of the kind of country and society I want to live in and I want my children to grow up in, these things may not be the only consideration.
But they matter, a great deal.
Maybe, this Refugee Week, we should all do some reflecting.
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