Let’s start with a news roundup on migration, an issue that keeps millions tossing and turning in their beds. Then look at the lies, hypocrisies, cruelties and relentless hate-mongering. Also, at the unwavering generosity of some Britons towards incomers. We would be utterly defeated and broken, might have jumped off the cliffs of Dover, but for these friends and allies.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has ended the “Go Home” van stunt, widely condemned as racist and a blow to social cohesion. They were meant to scare away illegal migrants, only 11 of whom did oblige and leave. The slow-moving, menacing vehicles spoke to them, as well as to all of us who came from elsewhere. We suddenly understood how fragile are our rights and the sense of security we’ve built through many decades. Baroness Warsi, daughter of migrants, opposed the policy, but only because the vans made “good migrants” fearful. The stupidity of these remarks is almost worse than their divisiveness.
Now May, the pin-up of the nasty side of her party – which she once deplored – has also dumped another brazenly racist plan to charge visitors from “high-risk” countries a £3,000 bond to enter the country, repayable on departure. It seems that Nick Clegg opposed the idea, for which thank you. The named nations, all with dark-skinned citizens, were ex-British colonies which made this country extraordinarily prosperous. The domination ended only between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1960s, so please don’t tell me all that was a long time ago. That would be like saying the world wars were a long time ago and should no longer be remembered.
So two bad ideas have been buried, but the most savage and inhumane legislation against new and old migrants is still promised and will not be opposed by the other parties, though it will be by human rights activists and concerned professionals and individuals. Landlords, clinics and hospitals will have to check the passports of all who come to their doors. So will banks, driving test centres and schools, I imagine. So what happens with essential services? Will someone in a car crash be left to die without the right papers? What about the homeless, pregnant African woman I met in Barons Court, London? Does she just give birth on the street, like a stray bitch?
Next time you have to use the NHS count the “foreign” individuals you deal with. As we report today, more than one in three NHS workers was trained overseas. Without them, there would be no service. Now they want to keep out patients who are deemed health “scroungers” or “undesirables”. This happened to black people in the southern states of the US and under apartheid in South Africa. They died because they could not be admitted legally to certain hospitals. The same is coming to our country, a nation that, during the Olympics, was praising the glories of diversity. For the first time ever, when I went for some X-rays and scans last week, I was anxiously asked if I was, in fact, British. They would never, I am sure, ask my English husband the same question. This is how it happens, engineered segregation between the people who are entitled and those who are always suspect. Are you listening, Lady Warsi?
Next came an astounding admission from The Sun newspaper, in a teeny paragraph, that it had no evidence for its panic story about 600,000 “health tourists” apparently using our NHS. Others in the right-wing press had also sold us this new reason to hate strangers within our shores. The truth is that vast numbers of foreigners pay for treatment and keep hospitals solvent; and the figure for those receiving free treatment is 18 times lower than the public was given. Lies, lies and massaged statistics, that’s how this debate is now run. The methods used for the news management of immigration are those employed against the poor, disabled and unemployed. For our democracy to live, it seems, certain groups must be crushed.
Even when our nation is moved by the plight of the dispossessed, it cannot do the right thing. The Home Office is rejecting asylum applications from almost all rape victims of war. Many from the Congo, the “rape capital of the world”, sought sanctuary here, possibly because our leaders strut about the world bigging up our values and condemning violations of human rights. I suspect William Hague really is sickened by rape as a weapon of war. Yet his government will not accept the victims. Their compassion stops in Calais.
Think of the men, women and children who died of thirst in the Sahara desert. They were economic refugees, fleeing destitution. Millions of us cried to read their story. What if some had made it to Britain? They would no longer deserve any sympathy, but be cast as thieves after nice council houses and fat benefits. Just as well they died, left us feeling virtuous without costing us a penny.
After being refused visas and asylum, women and men who have fled failed states are held in detention centres run by private companies, misery profiteers. Eventually, they will be deported and some will die. We know because some returnees already have. In the centres, there have been allegations of racial abuse, maltreatment, and even sexual misconduct by male staff. Last week, at the detention centre at Yarl’s Wood, the only witness in an alleged case of sexual transgressions was told she was being deported. The order came before she had given evidence to the police. I have met children who have become mentally ill, some wetting beds in their teens or gone mute while in detention. Mums, too, who self-harmed to keep up the will to live. One, who has since obtained leave to remain, said to me: “I bite my arms till they bleed. When they bleed and hurt, I know I don’t want to die. But maybe death would be better. They worry about battery chickens but not battery people.”
Amnesty has called for a fundamental reform of our asylum and removal services. In the recent past, their investigations found G4S staff using threats, excessive force on inmates and sometimes truly foul techniques. One was called “carpet karaoke”. They push peoples’ faces on to carpets and enjoy the sounds emitted. Very Guantanamo, but it happened here.
I find writing these columns on migrant rights, draining; they leave me feeling hopeless. I go on because I know how many Britons still hold on to their commitment to the displaced and hope that more would join them if perhaps they knew better. That woman in Barons Court was helped by a passer-by. The baby, a boy, was named after her saviour, who happens to be a lawyer. Though our Human Rights and Equalities Commission is almost moribund, migrants have effective champions such as Liberty and Amnesty, activists such as Clare Sambrook (do Google her), local campaigners, the support of churches and other religious institutions, the liberal press and various unsung charities.
Dishearteningly, anti-immigrant feelings are now so whipped up, that it gets harder to protect or speak for the wretched. Those seeking sanctuary or life chances should wear a paper yellow star in November to remind Britain of what happens when nations turn on “outsiders”. It could become as potent a symbol as the poppy of “never again”.