Friday, 2 October 2020

Finding a way back


When I first saw the story about Priti Patel having considered putting a wave machine in the English Channel to drive dinghies back to France, my instinctive reaction was to check the date, forgetting that under the present UK government April Fool’s Day has become, to coin a phrase, more of a long drawn-out process than an event. The proposal runs against international law, of course. (There are no international waters in the channel; all boats are either in French territory or in UK territory. Attacking them in the former constitutes an act of war, and once they cross into the latter, the UK is legally responsible for their safety.) But, as we have seen, mere legality is no longer an important factor for a rogue state like the UK. It’s one of a number of bizarre proposals to have been considered, including shipping asylum seekers to an island in the South Atlantic, or to Morocco, Moldova, or Papua New Guinea. Why spend a small amount of money on providing people with the basics whilst their asylum applications are processed when we can spend a vast amount of additional money building new facilities and shipping people to far distant places as well as providing those basics? Johnson has always had a bit of a penchant for grands projets (see garden bridges, Boris Island, and implausible bridges) which never come to anything. It’s more to do with image than substance; in this case being seen to be tough on immigrants.

And that brings me to the use of an old army camp at Penally to house asylum seekers. I know Penally reasonably well (during three election campaigns, I reckon to have knocked just about every door in the village), and it is not well-served with facilities able to cope with a sudden unplanned increment in the population. On the other hand, the wider area does cope with a large seasonal increase in population every summer (with the obvious exception of 2020), so it should not be as large a problem as it’s been painted as long as it is properly planned and executed (a wholly unrealistic expectation of Patel and Johnson in itself, of course). I don’t know enough about the conditions at the camp to know whether they’re suitable for the purpose, but reports suggest that they really are not. The bigger question is whether it is, in any event, appropriate to treat people like “cattle in a holding pen” as Nicola Sturgeon put it in response to a suggestion that remote Scottish Islands were also on the list of possible sites for an offshore processing facility. She thinks not, and I entirely agree. It’s dehumanising and inhumane.

Whatever, even if the conditions and facilities were entirely suitable, I suspect that many of those objecting would still do so. And lest anyone think that I’m being unkind to the good citizens of Penally here, I believe that that statement would probably apply to any and every town and village across the UK; people will object to having refugees in their patch and would find other ‘valid reasons’ to oppose it. I’d like to believe that it’s not a majority view, but I have little choice but to accept that it’s the view of a substantial minority at the least. It’s easy enough to blame the politicians who have planted the idea that we should reject refugees (and I do blame them) or the tabloids for stoking anti-immigrant feelings (and, yes, I do blame them as well), but we cannot merely shrug off the fact that a substantial number of our fellow citizens harbour some very dark views when it comes to refugees. They are content, and in some cases even enthusiastic, to see refugees go without the basics, be sent ‘back’ without due process, be separated from society, be demonised, and even, as Sturgeon characterised it, ‘treated like cattle’. That doesn’t reflect well on any of us.

Those dark views, I suspect, are what lies behind the wild proposals floated by Downing Street and the Home Office. And they certainly explain why some of the Tories’ top advisers are delighted about the leak. From their perspective, it gives the impression that the government are serious about ‘cracking down’ on immigration. For their target audience, it’s not something that makes the government look positively deranged, but something which plays to their prejudices. When the ideas are eventually rejected, it won’t be because they are downright silly, impractical, or horrendously costly, it will be because the mythical ‘metropolitan elite’ is frustrating the government’s wish to take firm action and putting obstacles in their way. I don’t know how large the substantial minority to which I referred above actually is, but given that the UK’s distorted electoral system only requires that a party receive the support of 30-35% of the electorate to obtain a clear majority in parliament, we should not underestimate the electoral value to Johnson’s Tories of appealing to that minority.

Deliberately treating a particular group as somehow less than human and undeserving of the same rights as the rest of us carries very unfortunate echoes of the past. That it is being normalised, and that so many of our fellow citizens support it enthusiastically, shows how easily a society can slip into inhumanity, just in case we’d forgotten that lesson from history. We are being led into a very dark place, and the route out is far from clear to me.

No comments: