Eastern Eye (UK)

‘Stop dog-whistle politics in debate about asylum seekers’


- by BARRY GARDINER Labour MP for Brent North

“I NEVER wonder to see men wicked. I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”

Had Jonathan Swift been alive today, he might well have had our home secretary in mind. Last week she showed no shame as her inaccurate assertion that “100 million people could qualify to come here” set off yet another round of dog-whistle politics on the subject of immigratio­n and refugees.

Fact: there are 100 million displaced people in the world.

Fact: 75 million of them have never left their own country. They are displaced within it, sometimes by war, sometimes by natural disasters.

Fact: refugees are defined in internatio­nal law as people who have “a wellfounde­d fear of persecutio­n in their country of origin”. No other type of displaced persons has a right to come to the UK and claim asylum here.

Our country has offered sanctuary to many refugees over the past 200 years. The truth is that neither the Jews fleeing pogroms in the 19th century and later the Nazis in the 20th, nor the East African Asians in the 1970s, the Bosnian refugees in the 1990s, or the Syrian refugees over the last decade were always ‘welcomed’ when they first arrived. But over time they prospered and became an integral part of our cherished settled community giving it its unique and diverse culture and contributi­ng to it far more than they had ever received. So when we talk of those arriving in small boats across the Channel, we should remember that these are some of the most talented, courageous and enterprisi­ng people who may one day become the leaders of our country.

When the UK pulled out of Afghanista­n, we abandoned those people who had worked with us for 20 years to defeat the Taliban, defeat terror, and create a better future, especially for women and girls. Sadly, thousands were left there – terrified because they had dared to become doctors or simply wanted to go to school.

Others managed to flee to Pakistan, but now find themselves trapped there, unable to join the rest of their family in the UK. These people are refugees. They have a ‘well-founded fear of persecutio­n’ and a year ago last January, the government announced a new ‘safe and legal route’ for them.

At the time I was delighted. But as the year dragged on, it became clear this was a sham. In the entire 15 months since January 2022 the UK has accepted just 22 individual refugees on that safe and legal route. Is it any wonder then, that last year 8,500 Afghan refugees made the dangerous journey across the world to come here to join family and loved ones? The last tiny, dangerous leg of that journey was in small boats across the channel from France. What are they supposed to do to keep their children safe? There are no safe and legal routes for them.

Yet it is these very people that our government now punishes by their new law. They are not the criminals. The criminals are the gangs who prey on their vulnerabil­ity and often lead them to their deaths. But these people who have been through so much, are now told they cannot ever receive protection or become British citizens, and they will be deported to a place most of them have never heard of.

Of course, we need to stop the criminals who profit from this deadly trade. Of course, we must stop the deaths in the Channel. And of course, not everyone who does come, has the right to be here. That’s why it would be better to spend the £140million we have given to Rwanda on crime enforcemen­t tackling the gangs. That is why we need to create genuine safe and legal routes, including delivering on our promises to those living in hiding and at risk in Afghanista­n .

Jonathan Swift spoke of his surprise that people did not display any shame for their actions. This week, Conservati­ve politician­s who had shown no concern that the chairman of the BBC was a major donor to their party and had even facilitate­d a loan to their then prime minister, were suddenly incandesce­nt that a thoughtful BBC sports presenter should be “so partisan” as to tweet his disgust at the government’s immigratio­n policy.

We should be happy that some of our sporting heroes and celebrity pundits actually have the moral sense to speak out, like Gary Lineker did. Sadly, many in the media have now tried to shift the focus from the issue itself to Lineker’s comments about it.

In the wake of the Second World War European nations, including Britain, came together to promise ‘never again’ to allow such atrocities to be committed by humankind. This promise was enshrined in the Declaratio­n of Human Rights and later the Refugee Convention that establishe­d the right to protection for those fleeing persecutio­n across borders regardless of how they were forced to travel.

On Monday (13), this government introduced in parliament new laws that would extinguish those rights for refugees arriving in Britain in the future. That we could have a government intent on abandoning both internatio­nal and human rights law for political ends should make us all fearful of the sort of state that we now live in.

THERE has been a new Sunday morning routine in our house this year.

Since my 10-year-old daughter got into football by watching Euro 2020 and the Lionesses triumph in the women’s Euros, the alarm goes off at 7.30am so we can get up to watch the early-morning repeat edition of Match of the Day without knowing the football scores.

So I was one of many parents who had to explain what had happened to the weekend’s football highlights. A 20-minute programme with no commentato­rs after the BBC’s suspension of host Gary Lineker led to a mutiny among pundits, players and BBC sport staff. My daughter’s first reaction was that cutting out the pundits – “the boring bits” – could make the programme better.

But she also wanted to know when Lineker will be back on screen. It was not straightfo­rward to explain how the arguments about refugees and history, free speech, politics and BBC impartiali­ty risked cancelling the football – but this battle of Match of the Day will be among the first political arguments that many teenagers hear about too.

The BBC struggles in the crossfire of the culture war and scored several own goals. It was odd for the main news bulletins to treat the early skirmishes over Lineker’s tweets as more newsworthy than the government’s asylum bill. The management’s decision to suspend the presenter escalated that Twittersto­rm into a farcical crisis. BBC impartiali­ty matters, but a fatal lack of clarity and consistenc­y meant that panicked responses to political pressure lacked legitimacy, either with BBC contributo­rs or the general public.

Lineker’s challenge to the government’s asylum bill as an “immeasurab­ly cruel policy” argued this was being pursued in language “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.

Reaching for the Nazi analogy was illjudged, challengin­g hyperbole with hyperbole. There was, though, plenty to criticise in how home secretary Suella Braverman made the case for her bill. With 40,000 people crossing the Channel last year, she told the Commons that 100 million people might come to claim asylum in Britain, increasing this to “likely billions more eager to come here if possible” in a newspaper article.

These lurid exaggerati­ons reflect a deliberate political strategy to escalate public perception­s of threat. Research consistent­ly finds that threat perception­s are a strong driver of anti-immigratio­n public sentiment. But this is irresponsi­ble language from a home secretary who is responsibl­e for countering extremism too. Threat perception­s of ‘out groups’ are also the key risk factor in proactive farright efforts to stoke protest into disorder and violence.

The polarisati­on over asylum played out at last Tuesday’s (7) GG2 Leadership and Diversity awards too, which exemplifie­d the cocktail of progress and polarisati­on in the politics of diversity and migration.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak won the double this year. It must have been especially easy, in this 24th year of the awards ceremony, for the judges to decide that both the “Hammer” award for breaking the glass ceiling and the top place on the GG2 Power List were bound to go to the first British Asian prime minister.

Grant Shapps made the Tory case for pride in a multi-ethnic Britain, reminding guests that David Cameron had been right in his prediction, at the 2014 edition, that the Conservati­ves would provide Britain’s first Asian prime minister. Labour MP Barry Gardiner, part of the judging panel, was sincere in noting the historic nature of the prime minister’s achievemen­t, yet gave an impassione­d speech about the clash with the values of the asylum bill. This brought a riposte from Tory MP Shailesh Vara, arguing that partisan clashes over the issue should be kept for parliament, not a community celebratio­n.

What risks getting lost in heated controvers­ies about language was the content of the proposed legislatio­n – especially with the government proposing to pass the bill at breakneck speed through the Commons this week.

The provisions of the bill would – in future – rule inadmissib­le the vast majority of asylum claims granted in the UK over the past two decades. In seeking to make asylum claims permanentl­y inadmissib­le, even when there is no realistic prospect of removing somebody from the UK, the bill breaches the core principles of the UN refugee convention, a key point made by the UNHCR, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Church of England and, despite the political polarisati­on, editorials in the Spectator and the Times.

Sunak may be, by instinct, more of a political bridger than a polariser, with less appetite than his home secretary for embracing the culture war. Yet this bill is designed to sharply polarise the politics of asylum ahead of the general election.

The next parliament will inherit a different challenge – how to repair and reform refugee protection in this country, to counter the increasing­ly angry politics of asylum with an orderly, workable and humane agenda capable of rebuilding political and public consent.

 ?? ?? MIGRATION MESS: Barry Gardiner (inset below) is among those critical of the government’s new bill as going against Britain’s internatio­nal and human rights obligation­s
MIGRATION MESS: Barry Gardiner (inset below) is among those critical of the government’s new bill as going against Britain’s internatio­nal and human rights obligation­s
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 ?? ?? PERCEPTION­S: There is concern that hyperbole around illegal immig ion is a iberate politica strategy and (inset below) Sunder atwala
PERCEPTION­S: There is concern that hyperbole around illegal immig ion is a iberate politica strategy and (inset below) Sunder atwala
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