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Sun 20 September 2020
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The architects of COVID-19 chaos are sacrificing asylum seekers to cover up their own mistakes, argues Isobel Ingham-Barrow

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In March 2011 I was studying at the University of Damascus, Syria. I was 20 years-old and blinded by my own privilege and naiveté. At the time, I along with friends from universities across the UK were spending a year in the Syrian capital in order to learn Arabic.

Over the course of six months, and as the Arab Spring swept across the region, my class mates and I pontificated about the political situation and were only too keen to provide our ‘expert’ analysis to anyone who would listen. After all, we were watching history unfold.

But that is the problem. And that was our privilege. We were watching. We were not expected to bear the consequences.

Eventually, one-by-one, the universities called us home. The Foreign Secretary at the time, William Hague, then called on all British nationals to leave the country. We packed our bags and left on BMI flights or hopped across the border to Beirut, Lebanon.

Once I was home, it didn’t take long for the horror of the situation to sink in. There were daily photos of the streets that I used to walk down, reduced to rubble. The numbers of dead and missing rose while the refugee crisis unfolded.

Then, as the world looked on and political narratives morphed from a discussion of “refugees” to one about “migrants”, a realisation hit: Syria was deemed to be too dangerous for me simply because of the stamp on my passport.


The Same Old Trick

An estimated 5.6 million Syrians are refugees, 6.2 million are displaced within the country, and almost 12 million need humanitarian assistance. As with refugees across the world, around half of these are children.

If the danger was too great for me to stay, how can anyone argue that the UK shouldn’t be doing everything it can to ensure the safety of innocent families who have risked their very lives to escape such horrors?

What have I or anyone else done to deserve the passport that kept me safe?

Nigel Farage’s recent attempts to claim the country is being overrun by vulnerable people (five adults and three children on a small boat) should make the nation’s stomach churn.

Instead, the desperation of families has been interpreted by ‘common sense’ Conservative MPs as a case of ‘invading migrants’, while Home Secretary Priti Patel has called on military support – appointing a ‘clandestine Channel threat commander’ to counter the “appalling” surge of boat crossings – even if those on board are put at greater risk of drowning, as they use plastic containers to desperately bail out their vessels in choppy waters.

The message coming from the Government is clear: these people do not hold a British passport, so do not deserve to be given safety nor treated with humanity. This is underpinned by a belief that the UK can ignore its rights and obligations to international principles of asylum, and view those seeking refuge as an invading force merely trying to steal privileges to which they have no claim.

However, what is equally concerning is the timing of this sudden re-emergence of asylum-baiting, which seems to fit a familiar pattern.

The last few weeks of the Coronavirus pandemic have seen mounting examples of the Government and its outriders attempting to distract from its scandal-ridden ineptitudes by scapegoating black and minority ethnic communities.

In June, the Telegraph, The Sun, and the Daily Mail all ran headlines claiming that “half of [the] UK’s imported COVID-19 infections are from Pakistan”. This was a truly shocking piece of reporting that completely skewed the data, presumably, in order to fit a very specific editorial agenda. In reality, they were using a mere 30 cases in a period of three weeks, in comparison to an estimated  1,356 imported infections during previous months, of which the vast majority were from Spain, France, and Italy.

Needless to say, an avalanche of racist and Islamophobic abuse descended upon the UK’s minority communities, particularly in areas such as Leicester, which was experiencing a second wave of lockdown measures at the time. It is hardly surprising that the city’s black and minority ethnic community then became the unjustified target of pent up COVID-19 frustrations.

More recently, Conservative MP Craig Whittaker argued that black and minority ethnic and Muslim communities “are just not taking the pandemic seriously”. Whittaker has refused to apologise, despite appearing to offer no evidence for his allegations and conveniently overlooking the crowds at beaches, house parties, and pubs (not to mention Barnard Castle).

This pattern, of distracting from Government-imposed social problems by scapegoating minorities has been deployed throughout history, and the focus on those seeking asylum is merely another example of this fabricated moral panic.

However, there will come a time when the UK must honestly analyse its collective response to COVID-19. It will not work to distil complex and multifaceted issues into simplistic narratives that distort reality and placate an angry public by giving them a bogey man at which to direct their rage.

The furlough scheme will soon fold into non-existence and the full extent of COVID-19’s economic impact will be felt by millions across the country. We cannot allow the public to be distracted by the familiar migrant blame game, and given the scale of the health and economic disaster wrought by the Government’s response to Coronavirus, the majority of people surely won’t.

In a few years’ time, the children arriving on our shores today will be a new generation of doctors, nurses, and national leaders who will have fought to be here. How did you earn your passport?


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