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‘The Strangers’ Case? The Government’s Approach to Human Dignity, Asylum Seekers and a Lesson from Shakespeare’

We must all examine our values and actions in relation to vulnerable populations, writes Iain Overton

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a press conference for the launch of new legislation on migrant Channel crossings. Photo: Alamy/Reuters

The Strangers’ Case?The Government’s Approach to Human Dignity, Asylum Seekers & a Lesson from Shakespeare

We must all examine our values and actions in relation to vulnerable populations, writes Iain Overton

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Four centuries ago, William Shakespeare penned an impassioned defence of compassionate refugee policies in his play, Sir Thomas More. And the playwright’s words still hold power today, especially in light of the Government’s approach to asylum seeker accommodation.  

It is an approach that raises questions about its commitment to human dignity and justice. An approach that deserves to have Shakespeare’s words ringing in our ears:

Would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth

What would you think to be thus used? 

At the very least, these words deserve to be heard by Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick. His political career notably includes the damning criticism of his approach to Grenfell Tower fire safety, hard scrutiny of his parliamentary expenses, claims of bias in his approving a luxury housing development by Conservative Party donor Richard Desmond, allegations of breaching planning propriety in relation to a national Holocaust memorial, and claims he flouted COVID-19 restrictions by travelling to a second home. 

Such scandals are nothing compared to the lows that Jenrick has decided to stoop to this time, having just announced a plan to move asylum seekers from hotels to military barracks and disused cruise ships.

Framed as a “move to rudimentary accommodation” to address the £6.2 million daily cost of housing asylum seekers, these plans include the use of places that no one should be forced to live in – ferries, barges, ex-military bases, empty holiday parks, and former student halls. The plans have even provoked objections from some Conservative MPs. 

It is this plan that leads us back to Shakespeare – not as a nostalgic English genius, belovedly quoted by the Conservative right, but as a moral guide in this time of turmoil.

In Shakespeare’s speech, Thomas More addresses an anti-immigration mob in 16th Century London, urging them to put themselves in the immigrants’ position and consider the cruelty they would face as strangers in a foreign land. The speech concludes with the phrase: “This is the strangers’ case. And this your mountainish inhumanity.”

As the Government pursues the Illegal Migration Bill and the move to alternative accommodation for asylum seekers – plans that prioritise cost reduction and deterrence over the dignity and well-being of those seeking refuge – to what degree are they complicit in such “mountainish inhumanity”?

ECHRThe Peace Machine

Tom Blackmore

A 2021 National Audit Office report highlights the Government’s callous disregard, revealing that thousands of armed forces personnel live in sub-standard accommodation – the result of decades of under-investment by the Ministry of Defence. This is exactly the sort of accommodation Jenrick wants to send migrants to. If men and women expected to give their lives in the defence of this country did not deserve decent housing, what hope is there for empathy for those seeking refuge in the UK?

A dark symbol of the Conservative solution that has emerged is the Napier barracks in Folkestone, Kent – buildings repurposed as asylum seeker accommodation in 2020. It was deemed not to meet “acceptable standards for accommodation” a decade ago. But it will apparently be good enough for those fleeing wars and persecution.

On the one hand then, the Government has accepted that military housing isn’t good enough for people to live in – and on the other, it is good enough for people to live in. It just depends who they see as ‘people’.

As Shakespeare demanded that the rioters put themselves in the immigrants’ position, so too must we and the Government. After all, aren’t some of them fleeing the very wars our nation sparked? Was our nation’s hand not on Pandora’s box when we opened it in Afghanistan and Iraq?

To listen to the Stranger’s Case, the Government would not only fulfil its moral and legal obligations but also demonstrate its commitment to justice, humanity, and human rights. The echoes of Shakespeare’s call for empathy and compassion should reverberate, challenging us all to examine our values and actions in relation to vulnerable populations.

Because, ultimately, the question remains: whose dignity matters? The answer must be clear and unwavering: everyone’s.

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