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‘Deserving’ or ‘Undeserving’ Refugees? Johnson and Patel’s Afghanistan Problem

With a key pillar of the Government’s ‘culture war’ protecting our island nation from unpalatable ‘others’, Hardeep Matharu explores the crass and complex classifications at the heart of the Government’s neocolonial immigration policy

Home Secretary Priti Patel during a National Crime Agency people smuggler’s operation in east London on 19 May 2021. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images/Alamy

‘Deserving’ or ‘Undeserving’ Refugees?Johnson and Patel’s Afghanistan Problem

With a key pillar of the Government’s ‘culture war’ protecting our island nation from unpalatable ‘others’, Hardeep Matharu explores the crass and complex classifications at the heart of the Government’s neocolonial immigration policy

As the Taliban seized Kabul, Boris Johnson was posing for photographs with the Team GB Olympic winners, while the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab remained on holiday.

When the Prime Minister cut short his break to turn his attention to the horrifying scenes in Afghanistan – a country which may be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for the majority of the British public but which the UK, along with America and other allies, has been inextricably linked to since the 2001 invasion –  he said that Britain’s “priority is to make sure we deliver on our obligations to UK nationals, to all those who have helped the British effort in Afghanistan over 20 years, and to get them out as fast as we can”.

The Foreign Office likewise said that “we are doing all we can to enable remaining British nationals, who want to leave Afghanistan, to do so”. Reports also surfaced on social media of the UK’s Ambassador to Afghanistan staying behind at Kabul airport to personally process visas for the Afghans who had worked for the British Government.

But there was no definitive expression or commitment of support for Afghanistan’s people, who are now fleeing their country and will be in urgent need of refuge abroad. According to the Telegraph, the Home Office has been working on a “bespoke refugee scheme” – but it also reported that the Prime Minister has refused to say how many refugees the UK will take. 

One can’t imagine Boris Johnson and Priti Patel relishing the prospect of having to tell the British public that tens of thousands of Afghans will be welcomed by the UK, when a key pillar of the modern Conservative Party, with its Brexit-powered ‘culture war’, has been to stop the foreign, brown hordes; the Muslim invaders coming across the waters towards this island nation to pillage and purge. 

Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster during the 2016 EU Referendum. Photo: PA Images

Patel’s primary policy – taking note from the Nigel Farage and GB News stake-out of boats crossing the Channel – has been to emphasise her crackdown on people smugglers trafficking refugees into Britain. Unsurprisingly, the policy also acts as a de facto crackdown on refugees themselves. The Times newspaper has reported that the Home Secretary is already “particularly concerned that the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan would result in a surge in the number of migrants attempting to reach the UK”.

With its psychic culture war once again colliding with reality, what path will the Government take now that Afghanistan – a country which we cannot deny has nothing to do with us – has fallen, so quickly and so devastatingly?

The ‘Model Minority’

Two weeks ago, the Government published its “welcome programme” for Hong Kong British nationals overseas. Alongside this, a £2.6 million fund has been launched to help community groups to support them to settle in the UK.

In the wake of Beijing’s draconian National Security Law and its wider suppression of civil liberties, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers have reportedly applied for a new special UK visa under the existing British National Overseas Passport scheme. 

Their claim of refuge in Britain, and the UK’s responsibility towards Hong Kong’s people, is a valid one. 

The first period of British rule in Hong Kong began after its occupation in 1841 during the First Opium War – with the British staying for the next hundred years. The British Empire again ruled over the island from 1945 to 1997 – when the UK handed its colony back to China, under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. This stated that the democratic social, economic and political systems in Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years. With the Chinese Government now reneging on the agreement, and dismantling democracy in Hong Kong, the UK has rightly seen fit to come to its citizens’ aid.

For Priti Patel, this has echoes of how the British Government helped her own Ugandan grandparents, following the minority’s expulsion from the country by Idi Amin in the early 1970s.

“’If you think what the British Government did for Ugandan Asians, it’s phenomenal, which is why, in particular sitting here, I feel so strongly about our moral commitment and responsibility to the people of Hong Kong,” she told the Daily Mail last June. “The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I are committed to creating a bespoke way for them to come here. It speaks again for the values of our country and the open, tolerant country we are.”

Hardeep Matharu explains Priti Patel’s approach to immigration on Byline TV

Will Patel, Johnson and Raab welcome the Afghan people to this open, tolerant country in the same way?

Although a staunch Brexiter, Patel is not against all immigration – and this is indicative of the complex relationship her Government has with different types of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants.  

Many of those who will be coming to the UK from Hong Kong will speak English, be educated, have grown up under a Westernised system of governance, and will likely take up jobs in the country’s professional services sectors.

But it is also true that people from this heritage have traditionally been categorised as a ‘model minority’ – a group of ethnic minority people who keep their heads down; work hard; and don’t cause any fuss, whether they assimilate into British society or not. It is yet another racialised, neocolonial trope used to classify ‘others’ and determine who is palatable enough to have a place in British society and who is not.

Will the cynical culture warriors in Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab see tens of thousands of brown, Muslim faces when they look at the images of those leaving Afghanistan? Or will they see desperate, distraught lives which the UK failed, in need of saving?

Whether Afghanistan’s people will be ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ refugees will speak volumes about the country Britain has become; the country Britain really always was.

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