To put it lightly, there is quite a lot going on at the moment isn’t there. The Covid-19 death toll sits at roughly 55,000, and it is still rising; the country is tinkering on the brink of a recession; and in the next few months unemployment looks likely to soar as the furlough scheme starts coming to an end. Each of these stark realities is worthy of its own – in fact, needs its own – front page spread in every major newspaper.
Instead, because roughly 500 people have been intercepted crossing the English channel this week, including 235 – the record for a single day – on Thursday, news outlets opted for knee-jerk xenophobia and anti-immigrant headlines. Talk of a “push back on migrants” and calls to “send in the Navy” have dominated front pages in the usual right-wing rags. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, even went on Twitter to brand these crossings as “appalling and unacceptably high. The figures are shameful.”
That’s right, the actually Home Secretary tweeted those words because a few hundred people decided to make a perilous journey across the English channel in a last ditch attempt at a better life in the UK.
If these reactions weren’t so predictable they would be truly shocking.
Populism 1-0-1 goes a little something like this: when the Government’s top advisor breaks his own lockdown rules and drives 262 miles to Barnard Castle for the safety of his child then that’s perfectly ok. When a desperate father leaves a war torn country with his family and crosses the English channel in order to legally claim asylum then that is deemed an “invasion” and the only proportionate response is to appoint a Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, obviously.
Dan O’Mahoney is the man promoted to this lofty role and his primary responsibility, as outlined on the Government’s website, is to make the “Channel route unviable” – in other words, make it even more deadly. However, there is just one small issue: in order for Dan to make this new initiative a success the French Government says it will need £30 million from the UK in order to fund its own coastal patrols – so much for “taking back control of our borders”.
The main gripe surrounding asylum seekers usually centres around three main things: their cost to the UK tax payer, the number in which they arrive, and the benefits they claim. All three are in their own right blown out of proportion and often form the basis of hysterical anti-immigrant headlines. Opportunistic newspaper hacks fan the flames of xenophobia which has now become so prevalent in society, the media and political discourse.
The reality, as always, is quite different. The UK currently accommodates roughly 44,000 asylum seekers, accounting for just 0.06% of the population, and they are entitled to an allowance of £37.75 a week. In total, this allowance comes to £1.6 million a week, or £86 million a year – hardly breaking the bank, is it? Contrary to popular belief illegal immigrants and failed asylum seekers are not entitled to, and do not get, benefits from the UK’s welfare system. Only asylum seekers whose applications for asylum have been successful are able to claim social security benefit and tax credits on the same basis as a UK national. Who’d have thought it, ey?
As the graph below shows, the UK is hardly a leader in receiving asylum applicants. Receiving 44,835 applications in 2019 the UK falls way short of Greece (77,275), Spain (117,795), France (128,940) and Germany (165,615).
It is hard to fathom that in the face of all this information, which I might add is readily available online, why the anti-immigrant propaganda and xenophobia is so mainstream in both the media and political discourse.
Much of it is of course rooted in racism, Islamophobia and anti-EU propaganda. Although it does grate on me that many things are attributed to Brexit, its hard to argue that Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster didn’t racialise immigrants as predominately Middle Eastern, Muslim men who were coming to Europe looking for free handouts.
Of course it’s much more nuanced then this, but my own cursory experience as the son of Swedish immigrant I have often been met with “yeah, you’re the good ones” or “yeah, you’re not like them”. As Sweden is a predominantly white, wealthy country my mum passes as one of the ‘good ones’.
The treatment of migrants in both the media and political discourse should not be taken lightly, it should be viewed as a damning reflection of the gradual shift further and further to the fringe of radical right-wing politics.
Amongst all this hysteria it’s important to remember that the people crossing the English channel are humans. Not inanimate objects or simple statistics, but human beings each living their own desperate struggle.
Ultimately, these stories are nothing more than an attempt to fabricate an imagined threat against “the British people”. However, the fact remains: it is landlords, not migrants, who are pushing up your rent; it is your boss, not migrants, who are pushing wages down; it is big corporations, not migrants, who are stealing tax payers money.
The frenzy surrounding the migrant crossings this week should be viewed as nothing more than a smoke screen. The real story this week was the £252 million in PPE contracts handed to a company owned by one of Liz Truss’s own advisers who ended up wasting £150 million of it buying useless masks. But you wont see that on the front page of the Daily Fail.