The Government must stop deflecting responsibility for its treatment of migrants and refugees

On October 27th, tragic news emerged that four people, including two children aged 5 and 8, had drowned while seeking to cross the Channel. The response of UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, which focused on the role of people traffickers, was widely condemned for its failure to address the role that UK policy has had on those seeking to cross the Channel in small boats. In this blog, former JCORE intern Max Hammer explores how deflections of responsibility all too often form part of UK government responses to such tragedies. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the organisation.

The news in late August that a Glasgow woman, Mercy Baguma, had been found dead in her home next to her crying baby was met with a rightful outpouring of grief. Mercy, a Ugandan asylum seeker, had been living in extreme poverty and forced to rely on private charitable help and food donations. She was just 34 years old when malnutrition took her life. Shortly afterwards, news broke that she had not been receiving financial support from the government. A Home Office statement immediately followed, offering their condolences and grief about the tragic situation.

As usual when a vulnerable person’s death results from the failures and cruelty of the British social system, however, the condolences came with a caveat. In the same statement, the Home Office insisted that it “takes the wellbeing of all those in the asylum system extremely seriously”. A few days afterwards, work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey insisted in response to questions about the tragedy that people in such situations can apply for government help – seemingly implying that Mercy’s destitution could be chalked up to her failure to submit an application for government assistance.

Mercy’s passing has since been buried in another deluge of bad news about mismanagement and cruelty in the UK’s asylum system, including the appalling decision to recommence evictions for refused asylum seekers and leaks of Home Office proposals for offshore asylum processing. It is important, however, that we do not forget Mercy’s death – not just because of the tragedy of the situation and because her family and friends deserve closure on what happened – but because it reminds us that situations like these are not merely the accidental, tragic result of misinformed policymaking.

Coffey’s statement was not just one presented out of carelessness. It served a clear purpose that aligns with the goals of the government’s migration and asylum policy – goals that we must be aware and conscious of in order to contest them as a community. Besides desensitizing us to the death of migrants and refugees, such statements deflect the responsibility for the struggle such people face to the individual themselves. In reality, the responsibility lies with the government, and the impact of its cruel and failed policies.

It is essentially an open secret that there are certain groups – migrants facing economic hardship, refugees, and asylum seekers – that the government would sometimes prefer did not stay in the UK, or better yet did not come here at all. Despite politicians frequently referring to the UK’s supposedly proud ‘tradition of welcome’, such groups are all too often presented as resource-guzzling, unwelcome and a burden. The limited number of asylum seekers who are able to reach the UK each year are left to navigate a Byzantine asylum system that can leave them stranded for months on end without a decision or the right to work; forcing them onto the few pounds a day that the government insists is enough to keep people from destitution. Every time these policies face their inevitable consequence, be it after Mercy’s death, or following the tragic drowning of a Sudanese man seeking to cross the Channel just a few weeks prior, the statement is the same: condolences, followed by a deflection of fault. In this way, responsibility is individualized, and a smokescreen is constructed that deflects responsibility, and attention, from government policies.

Such approaches are not new, but were formalised and exacerbated in then Home Secretary Theresa May’s Hostile Environment Policy, instituted in 2012. Intended to encourage undocumented migrants in the UK to self-deport by placing as many barriers in the way of their life in this country as possible, the policy drew on pre-existing frameworks to make clear to such migrants that they are unwanted. Though not specifically targeting refugees or asylum seekers, it has had numerous spill over effects, with asylum seekers left facing barriers in housing, healthcare and other sectors by merit of not having access to a British passport. Faced with these barriers, vulnerable groups in the UK can hardly be held individually responsible for their hardships.

Acknowledging these spill over effects, and understanding how they connect to the government’s wider agenda helps us see such frameworks for what they are: anti-migrant policies that must be opposed. Each tightening of austerity measures makes it harder for migrants to access proper healthcare; each policy that criminalises migrants’ stay in the UK gives the police grounds to treat non-white people with added suspicion; each day callously underestimating the COVID-19 pandemic extends the period of time that the UK’s outrageously large, overwhelmingly non-white homeless population must spend vulnerable and exposed to the deadly virus. These policies have racialized and anti-migrant implications even without being neatly joined into a framework like the Hostile Environment. When we understand these implications and connect the dots between racially motivated policies, rather than treating them as an unpleasant series of mistakes and policy failures as has often been done with issues like the Windrush scandal, we can combat them more precisely.

Building solidarity between vulnerable groups in the UK, too, is easier when we understand how they are specifically affected by similar policy frameworks, allowing us to build a broad base in contesting these policies. This is a broad base that we, too, have a responsibility to form a part of. As a Jewish community, we are sensitized to the impact of totalizing, legalized programs of law and order that are designed to make communities feel unwelcome and unwanted in the countries they live in. We draw these connections not to minimize the suffering of our ancestors, but to call attention to how systemic racism and anti-migrant policies cannot be chalked up to a mistake or an unintended inconvenience. To truly be an ally in the fight against racism and for migrant rights, we must not just call out individual tragedies like the death of Mercy Baguma, but recognize the wider policy frameworks that create these tragedies in the first place.