Priti Patel Covid-19 Press Conference 25/04 Priti Patel Covid-19 Press Conference 25/04| Photo: UK Prime Minister – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

By Raoul Walawalker, a writer at the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of UK and Ireland immigration lawyers 

A clear benefit of having a Home Secretary from an ethnic background is that it’s also a way to deflect accusations of your government being racist – even when racism becomes a transparent agenda of the Home Office.

The ploy was demonstrated at PMQs on Wednesday. Labour leader Keir Starmer was probing Boris Johnson about comments made by footballer Tyrone Mings, who’d accused Priti Patel of hypocrisy in her condemnation of the racist abuse experienced by England players after the UEFA final and after previously seeming more condoning of hostility toward the team’s anti-racism stance.

Evasive on the subject, Johnson opted to reach for his ‘My Home Secretary’s Ethnic Background’ card, saying: “But when he (Starmer) talks about the Home Secretary, let me just remind him that my right honourable friend has faced racism and prejudice all her career, of the kind he can never imagine.”

On closer scrutiny, this statement is as an unreliable as many of Johnson’s. If anything, Patel’s career is one marked by a tendency of regularly promoting dodgy, prejudicial, or simply ‘wrong’ positions, but doing very well for herself in the process, nonetheless.

Her background is of a person who succeeded in a big, well-known corporate PR firm; handling ‘iffy-type’ accounts (BAT, Diageo), before rising very successfully among the Conservatives while known for her socially-conservative and hard-right views – like bringing back the death penalty and opposing gay marriage too.

And then there was the question of Patel’s father who once ran as a UKIP candidate, which, rather than implying a family falling victim to prejudice, by contrast, suggests that ‘prejudice,’ particularly in the form of animosity towards asylum seekers or low-paid immigrants, might even run in a family.

Making a hostile environment more hostile

In her tenure as Home Secretary, that prejudice and animosity has really flourished in an overall objective which is to take what was already dubbed a ‘hostile environment policy’ as part of immigration policy, to greater levels of hostility, while trying to officially portray this as a pledge to ‘fix the broken asylum system.’ 

In the process, various bills have emerged with names like the ‘New Plan for Immigration’ and now the ‘Nationality and Borders Bill,’ much of which was briefed to right-wing newspapers two weeks ago before being presented in parliament last week – a right-wing media build-up in itself now being an established Home Office routine.

The measures would see jail sentences increased from six months to four years for asylum seekers entering the country ‘illegally’ (not long after a law making it illegal to enter the country via an non-official route or from a country designated as ‘safe’), to establishing an offshore asylum holding centre.

But while very attention-grabbing, the plan would seem to run in such direct disregard for the nature of asylum and the right to claim it, and be so in breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol that it’s to be anticipated that human rights groups and lawyers will be challenging them.

Meanwhile, showing ever-ready intent and willingness to contravene or break human rights laws and criticising lawyers has been the ongoing routine of this Home Office, more so than any previous, generally to the cheering of a collusive right-wing press with its racist and scapegoating tendencies.

But this is also the defining factor of this particular Tory government, more so than others. Previous examples have included new asylum seekers being held in shared dorms in decrepit, ex-army camps last year even though throughout 2020 the vast majority of hotels were empty; insistence on continuing to use them after mass Covid-19 outbreaks and serious criticism from official watchdogs and health authorities, and accumulating list of breaches human rights cases.

Racist games and the media

While imperialist and racist perspectives between the Tories and the right-wing media have usually been aligned, Brexit – and the right-wing media’s harder position both on Brexit and immigration, and its fascination with UKIP and Nigel Farage – also fragmented the party, leading to the Tories we know now.

Gone essentially are the pro-Europe Tories that seemed less dogmatic on race and immigration issues who might normally keep grounded (to a point) what’s left: those that are the most in line with staunchly pro-Leave, anti-Europe, anti-immigration and neo-colonial views held by a number of right-wing newspapers owners and editors, lobbies and think-tanks.

And it’s with them in mind that Patel’s routines become clearer: while not a consummate liar like others in her party, she is a consummate PR-person that aims to keep her papers satisfied, if no one else.

This means that whatever she says, be it over ‘taking the knee’ or about the BLM, or toppling slave traders’ statues, will also be filtered by her evaluation of how she thinks it’ll be assessed and reported by her most allied media – The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Telegraph, the rest of the right-wing papers, and now the fledgling GB News channel. 

Thus, if you were at odds with them, it’d also be impossible to accept her views and not to be concerned by the narratives of their shared echo chambers – narratives that say the UK is awash with high numbers of serious foreign criminals that should be deported, that asylum seekers arriving via the Channel are all fake claimants who want to stay in a 4-star hotel while also being duped by smugglers whose ‘vile trade is human cargo’ – a quote from the UK’s virulent and consciously misleading anti-migrant lobby, Migration Watch; and that lawyers defending them are unscrupulous or part of a semi-totalitarian ‘wokeness’ movement, and that Patel either means well but is doing nothing useful at all, or is all talk and ‘no action.’

With Dover only two hours from London by car, it’s probably the ease of creating all the tabloid pictures of dinghies in the absence of contextualising information that fuels the idea of the UK being invaded even as 90% of all other passenger travel to the UK dropped during last year.

And Official numbers don’t support the Home Office or right-wing media story of uncontrollable immigration either: In the year ending March 2021, the UK offered asylum to 8,640 people (including dependants), which is 42% less than the previous year – the lowest level since 2012, the Home Office updated on its website this month. 

There were 26,903 asylum applications (main applicants only) in the UK in the year ending March 2021, a 24% decrease from the previous year.

These figures defy a narrative of the UK being seriously overwhelmed by high numbers of migrants crossing the Channel and fail to mention the bigger problem is that of the increasing backlogs of claims – over 66,000 in March, the highest in a decade.

Genuinely ‘fixing’ an asylum system would mean allocating budget and resources to manage that mismanaged system, as opposed to a strategy of playing PR games with the media and ultimately fostering a more racist, divided and intolerant society – unless that’s the pro-Brexit plan.

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