Why we should listen when the UN condemns the UK’s ‘extremist media’

British tabloid editors have never struck me as a particularly reflective and thoughtful breed of humanity, so I doubt they will be plunged into a mood of remorseful self-analysis by the very strongly-worded suggestion from the United Nations High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein that there is a connection between their skewed coverage of immigration and asylum and the horrors now taking place in the Mediterranean.

It is far more likely that they, their journalists and many of their readers will scoff at the impudence of some jumped-up Johnny Foreigner with an unpronouncable name who is probably a Muslim to boot having the temerity to criticize their courageous attempts to have a ‘debate’ about immigration and shrug off the politically correct shackles imposed on them by muesli-eating liberals from Hampstead.

That is what they’re like, and to our great shame, that is what they are making us like too.  Because it is really very difficult to argue with Mr Al-Hussein’s condemnation of the ‘  vicious cycle of vilification, intolerance and politicization of migrants’ that is ‘not only sapping compassion for the thousands of people fleeing conflict, human rights violations and economic deprivation who are drowning in the Mediterranean’ and which has also ‘skewed the EU response to the crisis.’

These are very harsh words from an organization that is normally far more diplomatic and polite.  The immediate object of these complaints was Katie Hopkins’ ‘cockroach’ comments, which Mr Al-Hussein sees as a manifestation of a larger phenomenon:

‘Asylum seekers and migrants have, day after day, for years on end, been linked to rape, murder, diseases such as HIV and TB, theft, and almost every conceivable crime and misdemeanour imaginable in front-page articles and two-page spreads, in cartoons, editorials, even on the sports pages of almost all the UK’s national tabloid newspapers.’

Many of these stories, as the Commissioner pointed out, ‘ have been grossly distorted and some have been outright fabrications. Elsewhere in Europe, as well as in other countries, there has been a similar process of demonization taking place, but usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media.’

This is horribly and depressingly accurate.  One of the great fantasies of the British right is that they are ‘not allowed’ to have a ‘debate’ about immigration, but there has never been a time in my lifetime when the right has not talked about it, and it has always done so in  negative and often grossly offensive terms.

Even as a child when  I came back to the UK from the West Indies in 1967, I was shocked by the racism oozing from the front pages of the tabloids, whether it was aimed at Enoch Powell’s ‘picanninies’, Ugandan Asians, or the ‘black mugger’ of the 1970s or the ‘people with a different culture’ who Margaret Thatcher said were ‘swamping’ Britain in the 1980s.

The idea that all this miraculously stopped, and that the UK suddenly became a ‘post-racial’ society that was comfortable with immigration and with its new ‘rainbow’ multicultural identity was always something of an overstatement.   Of course progress has been made since the days when Tories could fight election campaigns under the slogan ‘vote Labour if you want a nigger for a neighbor’, but there has always been a solid section of the white British public that has bitterly resented having to share the UK with foreigners of any kind, and dark-skinned foreigners in particular.

Beginning roughly in the early 90s, anti-immigrant rhetoric shifted away from earlier narratives about ‘race’ and ‘culture’ and began to develop a seemingly racially-neutral narrative about ‘numbers.’   This ‘numbers’ discourse was focused primarily on asylum seekers.  Shamelessly, dishonestly, and relentlessly, without even the pretence of trying to understand the phenomenon of asylum or explain its causes and its complexities, the British media disseminated an image of asylum seekers as parasites and liars flooding into the country and ‘abusing’ our generosity because they regarded Britain as a ‘soft touch.’

Following the ‘war on terror’ the discourse shifted again, merging Islamophobic fantasies of terror cells and a Muslim cultural/religious takeover of British society with xenophobic outrage against Eastern European immigrants who refused to integrate while they ‘took our jobs and services’ and created Polish and Rumanian ghettoes etc.

Whatever they did, immigrants couldn’t win.  If they came here ‘legally’ they were part of the phenomenon of ‘mass immigration.’  If they worked hard, they were exploiting us by taking jobs for low wages, even if they were being exploited themselves or doing jobs that British citizens wouldn’t do.  If they sent their children to school they were undermining the education of our children.   If they lived in a house they were stealing a house from ‘our people.’

Whatever they did they always had an unfair advantage over us.  They were always taking, usurping, queue-jumping, and undermining.   As for those who came here ‘without permission’ or ended up becoming ‘failed asylum seekers’,  they were the worst of all; criminal parasites living the life of Riley all over the country at the expense of ‘our people’ or using the Human Rights Act to escape deportation for crimes they’d already been punished for.

Whoever they were, they were bad, and taking advantage of our goodness, and there were always too many of them, in a country that was ‘full’ and which needed to put ‘our people first.’   And anyone who said that this kind of talk was unfair, dangerous, and maybe xenophobic and racist hatemongering to boot, why they were just trying to stifle ‘debate’ and smother the public’s ‘concerns.’

Out of those decades of bile, words like ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘migrant’ became pejorative terms of abuse onto which tabloids hung their prejudices and fanned the prejudices of their readers, and politicians pandered to them and fed them further.

The result, as Mr Al-Hussein pointed out, is that we now have a country where a columnist in a major newspaper can use the kind of language used by Nazis and Rwandan genocidaires to describe people drowning in the Mediterranean.  It’s a country where sick men and women who need medical treatment are now dying because they are afraid to seek it in case they are deported, a country whose rancid bitterness and fury towards immigrants is now transforming ideas and concepts that were once associated with fascism and Nazism into jokey blokey everyday discourse.

Katie Hopkins used that language because in her dim, grasping, attention-seeking way, she recognized that she lived in a country where such talk has now become acceptable and can even appear to be a kind of ‘common sense.’

The British media bears a huge responsibility for this outcome.   As the High Commissioner pointed out, the demonisation of migrants and asylum seekers also takes place in other European countries ‘ but usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media.’

He is absolutely right.  An extremist media is what we have got, and it is helping to create an extremist society drugged by fear, loathing and resentment that is in danger of losing its own humanity even as it denies the humanity of the men and women who want to come here.

 

Britain’s Invisible People

Today I went up to Leeds with my daughter.  While we were there we visited the Thursday morning drop-in for destitute asylum seekers run by the charity Positive Action for Refugees (PAFRAS).   Though PAFRAS isn’t a religious organization, its activities are supported by the church, and it holds these weekly sessions in the annexe to St. Aidan’s church in the Harehills district, just a mile or so from the designer shops and cafes that have transformed the coal-caked city I remember from my childhood into a consumer hub.

For two hours, anywhere between one hundred and two hundred people can get free food provided by volunteers, some medical advice, and the chance to hang out with other people in the same situation and get a break from the endless waiting room that so many of them are trapped in.

Some of PAFRAS’s clients are street homeless.  Others have been staying on the floors of friends or volunteers.   Most have had their asylum claims rejected, but either can’t or won’t go back to the countries they came from.

Many of them have been in this situation for years, unable to work or study legally, rent a place to live, marry, start a family.   Some have been separated from their families back home through flight and exile.   Others have relatives in Europe, who they can’t visit, and who can’t come and see them.

They come from all over the world, blown by the world’s political storms to this bleak corner of Leeds.   Today the hall  was packed, just as it was three years ago.  I met Jafar, an Iraqi writer and journalist who had been imprisoned three times under Saddam Hussein, and who fled Baghdad recently to escape the ongoing violence.

Jafar’s daughter is also a writer and a poet, who lives in Egypt.   She wanted to come here too to live with her father, but the UK government wouldn’t allow it, so now she’s applying for a green card in the US instead, and Jafar has no idea when he will see her again.

PAFRAS’s clients include many Iranians, who can’t return to their country even if they want to, because the Iranian embassy in the UK is currently closed and Iran and the UK have no returns agreement.   I was happy to hear that two guys I interviewed back in 2009 got positive decisions at last.   One of them was an Iranian named Reza, who had been destitute for ten years when I met him, even though he had two kids in the UK, and now has residency.

The other was Germaine, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had also spent ten years in legal limbo in Leeds after some of the most traumatic experiences that anyone could imagine, and who has finally been allowed to go to Australia, where his wife and children were also living as refugees.

These happy endings are a personal triumph for them and a tribute to their tenacity, though why anyone should have to go through what they did, God only knows.  There is no sure pathway to such ‘victories’, in the lottery-gauntlet that successive UK governments have established to keep out an imaginary army of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers who seek to ‘abuse’ our generosity.

No one knows how many people are in a similar situation.  Last September the ‘services’ company Capita won a contract to seek out 174,000 migrants who have been denied permission to remain in the UK but have disappeared from UKBA’s records.    Some of them may have left the country.  Others will be destitute, and dependent for their survival on their friends or on charities like PAFRAS.

It says a great deal about the kind of government we have,  that a company like Capita can make money hunting down and bullying migrants to get out of the country,  while charities and NGOs like PAFRAS that deal with destitution are struggling to find funds to keep their services going.

Such are the realities of Britain’s ‘soft touch’, as our cuddly Prime Minister put it the other day.    Much of the UK public is completely unaware of the dire circumstances in which destitute asylum seekers find themselves, nor are they likely  to be enlightened by reading newspapers that talk only of ‘benefit tourists’ and asylum seekers living in luxury homes in Hampstead, or listening to cynical politicians with silk ties and smooth tongues who boast of their efforts to kick out ‘illegal immigrants’ in order to rake in a few more votes.

This is the kind of society we have allowed ourselves to become.    The unacknowledged work of PAFRAS and other organizations who perform similar services across the country is a reminder of the kind of society we could be.