A child plays with a bicycle in a refugee camp in Dunkirk. Photo: Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity A child plays with a bicycle in a refugee camp in Dunkirk. Photo: Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity

The current Tory-manufactured “refugee crisis” is part of the same hostile environment that this government has created for its own citizens, argues Cathy Augustine

Globally there are over 65 million displaced people – more than at any time since the Second World War. Around a million a year come to Europe, according to figures from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Of these, a few thousand are trying to get to the UK. In France, most are stopped at the border which the UK government pays French authorities to maintain. Therefore the inhumane policing of our border in France by the French authorities and CRS is funded by British taxpayers’ money. Macron and May agreed to an increase in this payment to £125 million in 2018.

Tony Benn said:

“The way a government treats refugees is very instructive, because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.”

We have now reached a point where this government is treating the rest of us, the many, in a similarly inhumane way while cynically scapegoating a small number of refugees and migrants. It is more than ironic that if the government channelled the billions spent each year on preventing the most vulnerable from entering the UK, they could use the money to improve the lot of unemployed, homeless, disabled, veterans and many others crying out for help – while simultaneously silencing those who turn on their backs on refugees insisting that “charity begins at home”. For example, in the same period as it spent €2bn on border security (with major contributions from the UK government), the EU spent only an estimated €700m on reception conditions for refugees.

Jeremy Corbyn has described the global refugee crisis as one of the defining issues of our time. How we deal with it will be how history judges us. 

So, I wonder how history will judge this Tory government – the designers, architects and builders of a hostile environment that has devastated the lives of almost every demographic among their own citizens. The same policies that have seen homelessness double to at least 320,000 and more than 14 million people, including 4.5 million children (33%), are living below the breadline, also condemn refugees and asylum seekers to death by drowning, or a miserable existence in scrubland and shanty camps or – if they do get to the UK – possible indefinite detention in isolated accommodation out of city centres.

Far from “taking our benefits, housing and NHS services”, the rights of refugees to work or to access social security is denied or severely limited. While their claims are being assessed, they live with the threat that their detention may be extended or they may suffer forced deportation back to the countries they have risked everything to escape from – often being returned to face death, torture or persecution. So what is the real “crisis”? Probably not 2-300 people arriving by boat since last November.

I wonder how history will judge Sajid Javid – the latest in a line of Tory Home Secretaries whose self-serving ambition blots out any vestige of humanity or integrity. Having declared a “major incident”, called in the Royal Navy, and dramatized the situation out of all proportion, he said:

“People shouldn’t be taking this very dangerous journey and if they do we need to send a very strong message that you won’t succeed … If you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure that you are often not successful.”

I wonder how history will analyse the cynical narrative peddled by the Tories and their media mouthpieces to divide those of us who are suffering under their austerity policies at home and their cruel and unjust immigration laws abroad. The old chestnut of divide and rule has been finely honed into a bitter tool to turn us against the most vulnerable in our global community, and as a distraction from both the impact of austerity policies and the shambles that has followed the EU Referendum. It is no coincidence that the right wing rhetoric against immigration, migration and refugees has escalated since June 2016. And it needs to be challenged at every opportunity.

So we should be aware of the ways in which some politicians try to convince people to give up rights and protections that exist for the benefit of everyone. Any authority figure who says “we should look after our own before we look after refugees,” probably isn’t interested in doing either.

No immigrant is responsible for the devastating underfunding of our NHS and just 0.5% of the NHS budget goes on what the right wing press trots out as “health tourism”. No immigrant is responsible for the anti-trade union legislation that has slashed workers’ rights, or for the increase in zero-hours contracts, precarious employment and in-work poverty. No refugee coming into the UK will be responsible for the lack of affordable housing, the catastrophe that is Universal Credit, the cuts to education funding or the rising cost of train fares. But the Tories need to find a scapegoat and place the blame anywhere other than their own failed austerity policies. So they lie and spread fear of “the other”. It is clearly not in the government’s interests to publicise the truth.

Graffiti in a refugee camp in Northern France. Photo: Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity

There are many complex reasons for people to be seeking asylum in Europe – from colonialism to current wars and conflict, often fuelled by intervention or arms sales by various European states, notably the UK. But it is easier for the government to ignore these underlying nuances in favour of easy soundbites that promote fear and distraction.

Many might therefore be surprised at the fact that the current levels of asylum seekers are at a low. In 2002 Britain had 84,132 asylum applications. Last year, there were 26,350 asylum claims, and a quarter of them were granted. That’s an average of 18.5 people a day with a legitimate claim for asylum approved by the state – almost three times the number of those currently arriving by boat and being described as a “crisis”. Since November 2018, less than 300 people have been discovered reaching the UK by dinghies.

Many of the 2,000 or so refugees in Northern France, seeking entry to the UK have family here, speak English, have a UK qualification, may have even studied or lived here but left for a family emergency, funeral or duty and are now prevented from returning – similar situations to the Windrush scandal. Or they may have made some claim for a visa that was rejected unreasonably. Without knowing how many of these examples exist, it seems likely that many have probably been rejected due to the hostile environment rather than proper application of the rules. Javid’s recent comments on his aim to thwart asylum applications illustrate this inconvenient truth.

In addition, the Government promised to resettle 23,000 vulnerable refugees by 2020, and has yet to allow entry to half that figure. In April 2016, Lord Alfred Dubs sponsored an amendment that allowed for 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees to be welcomed to the UK. This was passed by both houses in May 2016. Less than a year later – after only 350 children had come to the UK under the scheme, Amber Rudd closed it down, together with a separate, accelerated arrangement to bring in unaccompanied refugee children who have family links in the UK under the Dublin convention.

Lord Dubs described the decision as “shabby”. “Local authorities I’ve spoken to are willing to take more children. All I’m asking is the government should not close the scheme down.” But they did – Amber Rudd using the specious and cynical argument that the scheme incentivises unaccompanied children to come to Europe. A more likely catalyst for the u-turn might be the high-profile backlash in sections of the rightwing press to the arrival of a group of unaccompanied child refugees in October 2016 – the same month that the Calais refugee camp known as ‘The Jungle’ was violently cleared and destroyed – with at least 150 children going missing in the chaos. Our hearts should be breaking to contemplate their possible fate.

Dunkirk refugee camp. Photo: Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity

Conditions in Northern France are now much, much worse. Far from “solving” the humanitarian crisis, for the past two years refugees have been faced with ever more brutal tactics from the authorities. Tents and sleeping bags are confiscated and destroyed, or contaminated with tear gas, and even urine, to make them unusable, leaving people to survive in the open without even the most basic shelter. Any area that looks as if it might be becoming a focus for the growth of a new camp is cleared. Small charities on the ground struggle to replace basic belongings and shelter on an almost daily basis.

Despite this, the refuges that I’ve met remain hopeful and positive. Their determination and resilience is truly remarkable and would be a valuable asset to any country. Aside from this fortitude, many people languishing in filthy camps or sleeping under motorway bridges are qualified nurses, engineers, teachers of English, speak three or more languages – and want to work and make a contribution to society. We are crying out for these skills and attitudes – and there should be no hierarchy imposed, no cap on the ability to earn a particular wage. Even now, a scale of suffering colours much of the debate, in which people’s struggles are ignored or dismissed depending on their background, The more rigidly we enforce distinctions between the so-called deserving and undeserving, the more likely we are to accept the violence done in our name.

Far from being “the other” and to be feared, I’ve met people living in derelict warehouses or woodland in Calais and Dunkirk that I’d be happy to call friends and spend time with in normal social situations. We share ideas and jokes despite the horrendous challenges they manage every day, offering me tea or a biscuit from their meagre store of food not knowing where their next meal will come from. We share a common humanity and connection – the main difference being that I was lucky enough to be born in London, and can escape the relentlessly grim conditions when I go home.

Something that often comes up in conversation with refugees is that they want to leave behind them the conflict and divisions from which they’ve fled and to be treated as human beings – with the potential, flaws, needs and dreams that are common to us all. So, let’s remember that whether people are struggling on zero hours contracts, sleeping in doorways across the UK, living in camps or trying to survive on dangerous dinghies, everyone is a human being, deserving our compassion and help.

Cathy Augustine is Women’s Officer for Wantage CLP, a Didcot Town Councillor, member of Unite and co-founder of Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity.

ORS volunteers with Care4Calais. Photo: Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity