Anneke Campbell – Boris Johnson’s cousin – explores how ‘culture wars’ aim to demonise and divide and why their language is key

As a plane sat on tarmac ready to deport people seeking asylum to Rwanda, last-minute action by lawyers and the European Court of Human Rights prevented it from taking off – protecting already traumatised people from possibly terrible fates. This prompted the Prime Minister – my cousin once removed – to renew his threat to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Government has now drawn up a Bill of Rights Bill to alter the country’s rights framework. It has said it will continue with the Rwanda scheme, even suggesting that some asylum seekers should be monitored by wearing ankle tags in the meantime.

To be clear, the Human Rights Act (HRA) – which incorporates the rights and processes enshrined in the ECHR into British law – does not undermine the UK legal system. UK courts must “take account of” decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg but they are not bound by them and may consider British cultural and legal contexts in order to diverge.

The HRA is a great constitutional achievement, assuring that rights and freedoms are accessible close to home. These freedoms should not be controversial and include freedom from torture, slavery, arbitrary detention, freedom of conscience and expression, the right to a fair trial, and to respect for privacy and family life. 

There can be no question that the rise of UKIP and the Brexit movement both exacerbated, and was enabled by, fears of an immigrant invasion of Britain. It is also apparent that many do not appear to know the difference between the European Court of Human Rights and the EU’s Court of Justice – nor does the Johnson’s Government make clear distinctions in their public statements about this; a deliberate attempt to manipulate Brexiters’ negative feelings about the European Union to push anti-asylum seeker policies. 

A year ago in the US, where I live, when television news started broadcasting images of thousands of people crowding Kabul airport, trying – and literally dying – to get out of Afghanistan, right-wing commentators bad-mouthed refugees.

“We will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country in the coming months, probably in your neighbourhood,” a notorious Fox News commentator declared. “And over the next decade, that number may swell to the millions. So first we invade, and then we’re invaded.” 

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The use of terms such as “invade”, along with other manipulative slogans, reminded me of the former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who used the word “swarms”.  Such terms dehumanise those seeking safety, intending to ‘other’ and thereby remove people from our circle of care.  

In recent years, the ratcheting-up of racial and anti-immigrant sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic is reminiscent of what happened in Europe in the lead-up to the Second World War. Politicians and media use the same playbook: divide people by whipping up their biases and fears; direct their ire away from failing policies; find scapegoats and blame them for everything that goes wrong. 

For President Donald Trump, those coming across the US border with Mexico were violent criminals, terrorising law enforcement on their way to wreak havoc. “It’s like an invasion,” he said. “They have violently overrun the Mexican border. They’ve overrun the Mexican police, and they’ve hurt badly Mexican soldiers. So this isn’t an innocent group of people.”  

As an immigrant from northern Europe, I knew I would not be targeted by such scapegoating personally during the Trump era, but I heard from teacher friends in the Los Angeles public school system of the anxiety ramping up.

A favourite student collapsed in tears: she was an Algerian Muslim asylum seeker who could not return there if she and her mother could not remain in the US. Where would they go? One girl, who had never lived anywhere but in LA, had just graduated from high school and started college on a full scholarship: now she could not only be deprived of this opportunity, but sent to El Salvador and her family torn apart. 

Inflammatory language linking desperate people to terrorism, drugs, trafficking and violent crime drives a perception of refugees, not as normal people fleeing war, persecution and starvation, but as a threat to our (white Christian) identity and our economic security. Such tactics can be effective at a time when so many of our fellow citizens feel insecure due to economic factors, a pandemic and climate disruption.  


Unhelpful Labels

Many in the media do not distinguish between immigrants, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

Refugees are defined as those from other countries who are entitled under the 1951 Refugee Convention to seek asylum and citizenship in a host country. That process is arduous and long and requires much vetting.

If they are called migrants, however, they are not entitled to such protection. Often mainstream media uses the term ‘migrant’ to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This tendency to refer to refugees as a sub-category of migrants has serious consequences for people feeling persecution and conflict. 

According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2021, there were 82 million forcibly displaced people as a result of persecution, violence, and human rights violations, among which 35 million are children. Now we can add 14 million Ukrainians to that number. Half are internally displaced, a different category of refugee (as they are not stateless, but homeless, often living in camps). 

The fleeing Ukrainians, Syrians, Afghanis those from failed states or getting away from drug cartels in Latin America, those risking drowning in the Mediterranean fleeing starvation and war in Africa – none of these people are leaving their families, communities and cultures behind as a lark, but because their survival is at risk. 

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There are also increasing numbers of people living on the frontlines of the climate crisis, which has exacerbated their plight and displaced them within or outside of their own countries.

The countries that take in the most number of these people are Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan and Germany. I find it deplorable that the US took in only 12,000 people last year – less than the 80,000 annually in the years before Trump and far less compared to 1980, when America took in 20,000. Comparatively, the UK has accepted a far larger share – around 50,000 yearly, but it has one of the most restrictive asylum and immigration systems in western Europe.


A Stark Choice

It has been encouraging to see that many people have opened their hearts to Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, if less so to Syrian and Africans. But some political leaders seem to have forgotten the lessons from our own past.

The US, for instance, could have saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. At one point, it turned away a ship of 900 desperate German Jews, shortly after rejecting a proposal to allow 20,000 Jewish children to come to the US for safety. That same boat was refused in Britain as well. And, while the English may remember their embrace of the 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany with pride, they only accepted 16% of the Jews who applied for sanctuary.  

I relate viscerally to the fate of refugees because my own mother escaped from Europe in 1941 on the last boat out of Portugal. She was half-Jewish, living with her new husband – my father – in Nazi-occupied Holland. He was a resistance organiser and knew she was in danger, so found a way to get her to Lisbon. Unlike most, because she had an American parent, she obtained a visa and spent the war years in Princeton, New Jersey, in relative safety. 

On the other hand, my father’s attempt to get away failed. A year later, he and a few other resistance fighters sought by the Gestapo tried to row a boat over the North Sea to England. He was imprisoned, condemned to be executed, but sent to the camps and survived to be liberated by the Russians.

While I was born two years after the war ended, I grew up with the ‘never again’ warning often repeated, and a journalist father who taught me to see how the manipulative use of language and lies contributed to the citizenry allowing and supporting the horrors that ensued.   

America has spent 70 years atoning for those errors during Second World War by becoming a welcoming country for refugees – a legacy to be proud of.

But Stephen Miller, advisor to President Trumphimself the Jewish descendant of refugees escaping pogroms in Russia – created the family separation policy. Immigration agents forcibly removed children from their parents’ arms, removed parents while their children slept, or simply ‘disappeared’ the children while their parents were in different holding cells – a policy, prohibited under international law, but carried out in order to punish and coerce central American asylum seekers to give up their asylum claims.

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While US agents today no longer separate families, many thousands of refugees arriving from central America are refused entry and forced to stay on the Mexican side of the border in tent cities, with little food, amenities or security provided. 

Germany has tried to atone for its horrifying history in offering reparations to the victims over time and recently admitted a far greater quota of refugees from the war-torn Middle East, taking in one million fleeing Syrians and those from other countries. But it has also experienced a backlash.

The media can help, however, by reminding people that refugees and migrants are fellow human beings deserving of help.

Journalists can start by referring to them as  ‘people’, ‘women’, ‘men’, ‘children’, ‘sons’, ‘daughters’ – the terms we use to describe the folks we know on a daily basis.

They can be referred to as ‘the family which fled Syria’, ‘the Iranian who survived torture’, ‘the children who walked from El Salvador’, ‘the engineer who translated for the Americans in Afghanistan’ or ‘the Ukrainian family bombed out of their home’.

According to social psychologists, people are more inclined to recognise the humanity of someone who is described in a personal way rather than in more bureaucratic terms. 

The media could also focus on the benefits that asylum seekers and migrants bring to host countries, highlight all those refugees who have contributed hugely to our lives and how much poorer we would be without them. Without farm workers, our produce and food would be more expensive; our hospitals and nursing homes under-staffed; our homes and gardens dirtier; our first responders smaller in numbers. 

There is a stark choice. Do we want a future of closing ourselves off from large sections of our fellow humans? Do we want to harden our hearts and live in fear? If not, we will need to find ways to make space for them and find ways to share. And if we want to live in a culture of civility and caring, we need to start by eschewing the language, memes and biases that depict others as less human and deserving than ourselves. 

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