The urgent need for self-reflection: the UK’s treatment of refugees and migrants

Robert Wilcox

This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity

From the play, Sir Thomas More

In 1517, on what became known as Evil May Day, an anti-immigration riot flared up in London. Resentment towards immigrants had been building for some time. Then, a fortnight prior to the riot, a broker named John Lincoln persuaded a preacher named Dr Bell (possibly Beal) to deliver a sermon in which he blamed immigrants for the abject poverty suffered by the locals, accusing the former of taking the latter’s jobs and depriving them of their livelihoods. He called upon the crowd “to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal”. Several assaults on immigrants occurred in the weeks that followed. In the evening of 30 April, a crowd of around a thousand young men gathered who, after freeing those jailed for assaults on immigrants, proceeded to attack immigrants, their homes and their places of business.

Five hundred years on, the ever-present undercurrents of paranoia and xenophobia have, once again, risen to the surface of political discourse. It is far from unusual to see media coverage of demagogues inciting resentment of foreign nationals living in the UK. These xenophobes embrace a particularly cunning form of sophistry; the effectiveness of their rhetoric lies in its simplicity. It exploits the very real economic inequality that exists in this country to construct a misleading and, ultimately, false narrative. Immigrants become the convenient scapegoat for successive governments’ failure to address economic inequality and people’s dissatisfaction with their own lot in life. This is usually accompanied by the invocation of pejorative language (for example, Nigel Farage’s recent description of a group of six adults and children landing on a Kent beach in a dingy as a “shocking invasion”), which seeks to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of these people, even to the point of dehumanising them.

It is precisely their humanity, however, that should always be at the forefront of our minds, despite the best efforts of the xenophobes. No one would leave their own country on a mere whim, risking their own lives, as well as those of their family, to attempt the perilous journey across open waters in a craft that is barely, if at all, sea-worthy. That is obvious. Why, then, are they so desperate to reach the UK? It is important here to distinguish between refugees and migrants because there are crucial differences between the two groups – a distinction that politicians and the media alike often fail to draw when boats carrying people arrive on our shores.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. They are fleeing situations which most of us can scarcely imagine finding ourselves in. As such, they have a right to seek asylum under international law. Failure by a state to grant asylum can, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees observes, have “potentially deadly consequences”. Therefore, in turning refugees away, the UK is not only breaching its own international legal obligations but risking lives. How can we, as a country, possibly have any moral standing on the international stage if we refuse assistance to those in desperate need of our aid? All the more disturbing is the fact that, in some instances, they are fleeing conflicts in which the UK has itself played a hand. There is a rank hypocrisy to dropping bombs on countries but refusing asylum to the innocent civilians who are caught up in the aftermath.    

Migrants, on the other hand, are individuals whose lives are not directly threatened in their own countries but who seek to better their lives elsewhere. The legal obligations imposed on states in respect of refugees do not extend to migrants, but is that any reason to treat them as anything less than human beings? This is where the xenophobe sees their opportunity, claiming that migrants are a drain on public services and are responsible for nationals being out of work. It is nauseating to think that such arguments could seemingly justify turning away boats, some of which contain children, and deliberately leaving those on board to the mercy of the seas.

In any event, such arguments are either misleading or completely false. Various studies have demonstrated that immigration has a net benefit for the UK economy, with migrants contributing more to the public purse than UK citizens. They also undertake work that UK citizens simply will not do; the agricultural and construction sectors, for example, are dependent upon migrant labour. As to the idea of taking people’s jobs, it is worth remembering that migrants would have to go through the same application process as UK citizens would.

It is roughly at this point that the xenophobe will resort to the argument that migrants have irreversibly changed the character of our local communities. They do not consider the possibility that people from different backgrounds and cultures might enrich our communities. Nor do they consider the possibility that we, as UK citizens, have failed to preserve, or have turned away from, our own heritage. Some years ago, a woman in a shop was told to stop speaking “foreign muck” to her child. The shop was in Wales and the language that the woman was speaking was Welsh. This example serves to illustrate what xenophobia really is. It is an attitude that arises out of, and is perpetuated by, fear and ignorance, both of which manifest as anger. The xenophobe perceives the foreigner as something ‘other’ and anything different, in their view, is an existential threat to themselves.

It is the populist sentiments of the xenophobe which are currently influencing UK government policy towards refugees and migrants. No one is disputing the need for a fair and effective immigration policy. But there is a more urgent need to treat refugees and migrants as exactly what they are: human beings like us. Instead, we have witnessed such policies as the ‘go home or face arrest’ vans which were driven around areas with a significant immigrant population, and the ‘hostile environment’, a combination of measures designed to deter people from coming to the UK and essentially force out those who are already here by denying them access to essential services. In the last few days, it has been revealed that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is intending to deploy the Royal Navy to prevent boats containing refugees and migrants from crossing the English Channel. This, apparently, is the best that this country can do for other members of the human race: push them back out to sea.

The time for us all to engage in much-needed self-reflection is long overdue. In the play, Sir Thomas More, written and revised by a group of playwrights some decades after Evil May Day (one of whom is widely believed to be William Shakespeare), the eponymous More confronts the mob, condemning them for their cruelty and violence. He makes an impassioned speech, asking them to consider what they would do if they found themselves in the same situation as the immigrants and “must needs be strangers”? How would they feel if they found themselves in “a nation of such barbarous temper / [t]hat breaking out in hideous violence / would not afford [them] an abode on earth”? Why should they, simply because they are in a country different to that of their birth, be spurned “like dogs” and treated “as if that God / [o]wed not nor made not you”? This is, fundamentally, an appeal to them to reflect on their shared humanity. And that is the crux of the matter: in failing to challenge the inhumane treatment of refugees and migrants, we dehumanise ourselves too.

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