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Smoke & Mirrors: The Government is Bashing Migrants to Distract from a Coronavirus Fiasco

Boris Johnson’s administration is using the oldest trick in the book: scapegoating migrants to conceal its mistakes, argues David Barker Flores

Home Secretary Priti Patel delivers a speech during the National Police Chiefs’ Council and Association of Police and Crime Commissioners joint summit. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

Smoke & MirrorsThe Government is Bashing Migrants to Distract from a Coronavirus Fiasco

Boris Johnson’s administration is using the oldest trick in the book: scapegoating migrants to conceal its mistakes, argues David Barker Flores

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The Government is stepping up pressure on French authorities to “crack down” on migrants attempting to cross the English Channel, going so far as to float the idea of employing the Royal Navy.

However, in the midst of the the deadliest pandemic in a century and a highly uncertain economic future, you could be forgiven for pondering why this aggressive rhetoric is being pushed by the Home Secretary and the Chancellor.

Certainly, organised criminal gangs profiting from people’s desperation ought to be tackled, but it is hard to deny that the situation is more complex than this ‘law and order’ narrative would indicate.

The 235 migrants – likely to have “strong” claims to asylum – intercepted crossing the Channel on Thursday does mark a record for a single day, but it is worth noting the wider context.

For a variety of reasons, including policy choices and geographic location, the UK regularly receives below the EU average number of asylum claims per capita, with 2019 no exception.

 Briefing paper SN01403 from the House of Commons Library

Furthermore, comparatively speaking, the so-called ‘soft touch UK’ – for a country of its size – is simply not receiving a high number of asylum applicants relative to countries such as Germany, France, Spain and Greece.


So, what explains this current flare-up of anti-migrant rhetoric from the UK Government, if not obvious empirical realities?

Crisis? What Crisis?

Given the gravity of both the public health and economic crises Britain is currently enduring, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Channel crossing hysteria is little more than convenient – and possibly dangerous – political misdirection.

Government failures in relation to the Coronavirus crisis are myriad and growing. Serious concerns about irregular procurement practices have come to light, and it has been confirmed that England has suffered the highest death toll in Europe from the first wave of the pandemic.

Things don’t look much better on the economic front. There is little doubt that the economic fall-out from the brutal supply and demand shock wrought by COVID-19 will be prolonged and painful. Though the details will only fully emerge come the Government’s Autumn Budget, Boris Johnson’s vaunted ‘levelling up’ economic agenda seems likely to consist chiefly of massive infrastructure spending, along with cuts to VAT and business rates.

Such measures are unlikely to be enough to reboot the British economy, given its inherent fragility. After all, our present economic situation is downstream of a wider ‘hyper-globalisation’ – a set of sweeping political and economic reconfigurations starting in the 1970s and 1980s that ushered in rapid yet heavily skewed GDP growth, with median wages falling across the developed world.

Such is the backdrop of Britain’s economy today, combined with a reliance on service industries that make it particularly vulnerable to the shocks of the pandemic. Even before the current crisis, many faced stagnant wages and indebtedness. The Coronavirus only further complicates what was already a formidable task of reforming Britain’s economy.

Shameless Scapegoating

Recognising the extent of these problems, we can see why it might be all too tempting for our political elites to echo the anti-migration tropes of the likes of Nigel Farage.

It is preferable to distract the British public from live matters of accountability, basic competency and economic management than to admit the truth. The electorate ought to see this for what it is: a cowardly deflection from the Government’s pressing responsibilities, seeking to leverage the plight of displaced people for cynical political gain. 

This tactic – whilst hardly novel – might well make for effective short-term politicking, given the divisiveness of the issue of immigration in general. However, history has shown that it is dangerous to scapegoat migrants in a climate of economic hardship.

So, with a resurgent far-right all too happy to exploit current conditions and weaponise migration issues, and an economic downturn set to worsen imminently, the Government would do well to focus on the highly consequential issues at hand instead of duplicitous obfuscation and posturing.

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