“Just one migrant a week sent back to Calais” screams the front page of the Daily Mail today. Similar workings of this headline have so far made their way into The Times (£), the Daily Mirror and the Telegraph (£).
Before we go any further, let’s clarify one detail. Despite what the papers say, migrants and asylum seekers are not the same thing. Migrants make a choice to move to a new countries, whereas asylum seekers have to because their lives are under threat in their country of origin. While immigrants themselves are wrongly demonised in the UK, conflating the two does little for people who fall in either category.
So, to be clear, the news today is about asylum seekers, not migrants.
Now to deal with the reaction we’re supposed to have to this news: horror. People who originally sought asylum in France are coming to the UK and only a small number are “returned after being caught sneaking across the Channel” (to borrow the Daily Mail’s eloquent wording, which paints asylum seekers as criminals). ‘They’ should stay in France, each of us should demand. Especially now that the French are building a centre for refugees at Calais.
Yet alongside the use of correct terminology, what today’s newspapers are missing is humanity. Asylum seekers, who the likes of the Daily Mail are writing about so cruelly, are human beings. They are people seeking refuge for numerous reasons; from escaping the effects of war to running from persecution because of their sexuality, religion, race or gender.
This campaign of dehumanisation is all the more bitter because it was the Labour Party that set this ball in motion; releasing the figures so they can humiliate the Government on their record. Shadow immigration minister David Hanson has pointed out that “ministers aren’t taking the simple and accepted step of returning people to France when they’ve come through Calais to claim asylum here.”
As it stands people who are seeking asylum are supposed to do so in the first member state they arrive. If they move to another country they can be returned to the original EU country to which they landed. The Labour leadership are well within their rights, then, to point out that the Coalition have failed to return asylum seekers who first arrived in France across the Channel.
However, the nagging question here is: why is anyone comfortable using people who are fleeing persecution or war to score political points?
The conversation Labour are pursuing is fundamentally one-dimensional. There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. It is not wrong for asylum seekers currently in France to ask for refuge here. And if there are people in the UK who haven’t come forward to do so, we should ask why. Perhaps because they fear the ‘scrounging immigrant’ brush (in itself an incorrect stereotype applied to migrants) with which they’ll be tarred.
This is an important discussion to have because although you wouldn’t know it reading the newspapers today, the UK does not have a large number of refugees. In 2013, Germany, France and Sweden had the highest number of asylum seekers in the EU. Whereas, in this same year, just 0.23% of the UK population were refugees, pending asylum cases and stateless persons.
Just last year, figures showed that the UK only let in 24 Syrian refugees, and had one of the lowest levels of new asylum applications since the Syrian civil war began. While we’re on the subject, last year the Government cut any support for rescue operations that save refugees and migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. And just this week a report found that female asylum seekers have been routinely humiliated at Yarl’s Wood.
If anything, more should be done to help asylum seekers who might seek refuge in the UK.
Today’s newspapers display a short-termism in our politics that is deeply damaging. Finger pointing has replaced facts, and some in the Labour leadership appear to be comfortable with using asylum seekers as a tool with which to attack political opponents. That’s not something to be proud of.