Today
Mon 1 March 2021

The brutal portrayal and treatment of asylum seekers has been used to foment nationalist grievances, contends Maheen Behrana

Home Secretary Priti Patel is not averse to scapegoating asylum seekers for political gain. Take her rhetoric around “activist lawyers” standing up for the rights of refugees, or her department’s suggestion that asylum seekers could be housed on a distant prison island.

Never missing an opportunity, Patel recently claimed that asylum seekers had engaged in arson, after a fire at the controversial Napier Barracks in Kent, used to house around 400 people.

“The damage and destruction at Napier Barracks is not only appalling but deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country who are providing this accommodation while asylum claims are being processed,” the Home Secretary said.

While some asylum seekers have now been arrested, Patel rapidly turned the event into an opportunity to scapegoat asylum seekers before any of the facts had been established. She presented the fire and the asylum seekers’ well-known discontent with the barracks as a case of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – with asylum seekers framed as ungrateful malcontents, unable to appreciate the generosity of the hard-working British taxpayer.

This is of course a politically expedient simplification.

The Napier Barracks has recently been the source of much controversy; a COVID-19 outbreak has meant that roughly one in four residents has tested positive for the virus. Though the Home Office insists that the accommodation is safe and suitable, the reality is that housing people in large shared accommodation blocks with often poor access to healthcare and sanitary facilities is a deplorable policy at the best of time, and a dangerous one during a pandemic.

Yes, as Patel says, this is a former army barracks – but that doesn’t mean the accommodation (unused by the army for several years) is automatically suitable for hundreds of asylum seekers, especially given that many of them are suffering from violence-inflicted trauma.

In fact, from Patel’s record, we can reasonably guess that these spaces were chosen precisely because they are unsuitable for comfortable human habitation. Recent reports suggest that crowded and somewhat inhospitable barracks were used to house asylum seekers to encourage public confidence in the asylum system. Internal Home Office documents reveal that there were fears that nicer and more ‘generous’ accommodation would be unpopular with the wider public.

But it is precisely because asylum seekers have been subjected to dehumanising conditions that their human dignity has not been respected by the public. A series of demonising narratives and policies, shovelled through a pliant right-wing media for years, has led to widespread apathy and even antipathy towards those who should be most deserving of compassion.


A Political Pawn

The foundational belief of Conservatives towards asylum seekers is problematic. Their stated aim is to encourage repatriation. Put more crudely: sending asylum seekers back to where they came from. Facilitating long-term integration into society is absent from their intentions. But without steps in place to encourage community-building, it is impossible for refugees to be accepted into the idea of the nation.

A Guardian analysis of Home Office data from 2017 found that more than half of all asylum seekers were housed in the poorest third of Britain. In Rochdale, my hometown, every 200th person was an asylum seeker – the highest concentration of anywhere in the UK.

This has undeniably created problems that could easily have been anticipated and avoided. Rochdale has high levels of deprivation, and 2017 statistics show that unemployment was higher than the national average. By disproportionately housing asylum seekers in a poor area of the country (note that no asylum seekers were housed at the same time in affluent Maidenhead or Windsor), the Government simply sowed prejudice among local people. Thus, Conservatives were able to create the impression that asylum seekers were so numerous that they were placing pressure on local resources and employment opportunities.

Yet this underlines the double-think that is so typical of modern debates over immigration: that foreigners are somehow both taking our jobs and are a burden on the welfare system.

Indeed, though asylum seekers are stigmatised for being spongers, this is no fault of their own – they are banned from working by the Government. Therefore, they present absolutely no competition for jobs and, simultaneously, are sadly unable to find a stake in society or develop a purposeful life in the UK.

Instead, they receive a measly allowance of just £37.75 a week. This allowance, though small, is often perceived to be ‘free money’ that asylum seekers get for doing nothing, while other people are obliged to work.

There are more hostile policies than I can count. Consider how asylum seekers’ children are rarely eligible to pay (lower) domestic rates for university tuition, meaning that they face insurmountable barriers to higher education. Consider also how funding for English as a second language (ESOL) teaching has been slashed.

The cruel system in which they are trapped has fuelled disdain towards their plight – and this system has been entirely manufactured by politicians.

Consequently, places like Rochdale (some parts of which are casualties of the fall of the Red Wall) have in recent years become a rallying ground for far-right groups. Asylum seekers are deployed as a weapon in the armoury of nationalists and populists – jabbing at emotional grievances whenever they need to create a political distraction.

The philosophy behind this is surely that while people in poor and deprived areas of the country blame asylum seekers for their woes, they won’t be blaming the Conservatives.

We should not be surprised at what has happened at Napier Barracks. It was a set-up job, like everything else.

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