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As we follow the recent American-style media circus posing as the Conservative Party leadership contest set to determine the interim Prime Minister until the next General Election, we are reminded that both ‘finalists’, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are pretty much showing us their real faces fairly early in the show, while they pander to their own, in a frenzy to be seen as the modern-day version of Thatcher. Truss’ emulation of the ‘Iron Lady’ through evident vocal coaching to sound more ‘masculine’ and ‘assertive’ has helped her come across even more awkward and inept than before; perhaps the ‘Wooden Spoon’ may be a more appropriate title. Nevertheless, with promises to cut taxes…despite having announced 15 tax rises in just over 2 years…‘restore trust’ in politics…despite having been directly complicit in keeping the outgoing clown Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) in power for so long given his track record for lying…and continue with an illegal migration policy that will see refugees and asylum seekers deported to Rwanda, we are reminded that it is not the British public that will get a say in who will represent our country on the global stage, but a comparatively handful of Conservative Party members.
Lest we forget that the Conservative Party membership is dominated by middle-aged white men, many with nationalist and strongly-held religious views, seeking to preserve traditions that go back (sometimes) centuries. It seems inevitable then that the next leader will not be a racially minoritised candidate, despite being the elite private-school multi-millionaire type that Conservative voters have grown to love since the 2010’s, paving the way for Liz Truss to put her very important ideas surrounding growing British apples and setting up pork markets in Bejing to the forefront of the current populist political model we have unfortunately allowed to flourish in the UK. Truss may find meeting the Queen during her term as quite awkward given her openly anti-monarchist history. She also seems, despite having voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Referendum, to have jumped on the bigoted Brexit bandwagon that is slowly eroding the last remaining remnants of democracy in this country. We know that every crumb of functioning public sector life has been crushed over the past 12 years:
- Students have seen their EMA’s and grants scrapped, and their university tuition fees trebled;
- Teachers across most education institutions are in both a pay and retention crisis;
- The National Health Service is in much the same critical position with a massive shortage of GP’s, doctors and nurses and record-level waits for hospital treatments;
- The social care sector has been decimated leaving the elderly and vulnerable both financially and physically worse off;
- Those with disabilities are disproportionately disadvantaged by so-called ‘welfare reforms’ which introduced a Universal Credit benefit merger;
- Cuts to legal sectors and legal aid has left the poorest in society unable to afford high-quality legal advice and representation in court;
- Children have seen their benefits cut and, with a sharply rising inflation rate and a looming recession by the end of this year, the use of food banks among the poorest families has been higher than ever recorded…
…and there are many other examples. Without getting into yet another Brexit debate, there is no doubt that the very act of voting to leave the EU in 2016, and its subsequent consequences, has had a long-lasting impact in these services, one which we cannot hope to treat for many years. Let us not be in any illusion that either of these candidates will swoop in and majestically heal the UK from the deep wounds this Party has inflicted for 12 years, nor that there will be some miraculous light at the end of the tunnel of tyranny. Perhaps this is a rather pessimistic outlook on the years leading up to the next General Election, but unless in the unlikely event the soon-to-be PM decides to call a snap election to allow the public to finally boot out the last of this government and pave the way to some change, the situation seems rather hopeless…at least for the time being.
Next week (20th-26th June) is Refugee Week, coming at a moment in time days after the first deportation flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda was scheduled. Luckily the government’s best efforts were thwarted by the ECHR this time. Each year Refugee Week has a theme and this year’s focus is healing. People fleeing conflict and persecution have a lot to heal from and I am pessimistic about whether healing is possible in the UK. My own research examines the trajectories of victimisation among people seeking safety. I trace experiences of victimisation starting from the context from which people fled, during their journeys and after arrival in the UK. It is particularly disturbing as someone who researches people seeking safety that once they arrive in a place they perceived to be safe, they continue to be victimised in a number of ways. People seeking safety in the UK encounter the structurally violent asylum ‘system’ and discriminatory attitudes of swathes of the public, sections of the media and last not certainly not least, political discourse. Even after being granted leave to remain, refugees face a struggle to find accommodation, employment, convert education certificates and discrimination and hate crime is ongoing.
Over the years I have supported refugees who suffered breakdowns after having their asylum claim awarded. They are faced with the understanding of the trauma they suffered pre-migration, compounded by the asylum system and the move-on period following claims being awarded. Yet this is no time to heal. In the wake of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, no migrant nor British citizen with a claim to citizenship elsewhere is safe. There is no safety here and therefore there can be no healing, not meaningful healing anyway.
Despite my negative outlook on the state of immigration policy in the UK, there are some positive signs of healing for some people seeking safety. These experiences are often facilitated by peer support, grassroots organisations and charities. I recall one woman who had fled Iraq coming into a charity I was undertaking research in. When we met for the first time, she was tiny and looked much older than she was. She would pull her veil tightly around her head, almost like it was protecting her. This woman did not speak a word of English and the only volunteer Kurdish Sorani interpreter did not attend the group every week. The womens’ group I attended conducted activities which overcame language barriers and at the time we were working with tiles and mosaics on a project which lasted a few weeks. During this time I could visibly see this woman start to heal. She started to stand up straight, making her appear taller. Her face softened and she appeared younger. She started smiling and her veil loosened. She was relaxing among us. In my experience, I’ve noticed that the healing comes in ebbs and flows. Relief of being ‘safe’, compounding stress of asylum, making friends, waiting, waiting, waiting for a negative decision, being supported by NGOs, letters threatening deportation, having a ‘safe’ place to live, having a firework posted through your letterbox.
For me this week is about celebrating those fleeting moments of healing, since I spend so much of my time discussing and researching the negative. The University of Northampton is co-hosting a number of events to mark Refugee Week 2022, starting with a service being held to remember all those seeking sanctuary both past and present. The event will be held on Monday 20th June at 1pm at Memorial Garden, Nunn Mills Road, Northampton, NN1 5PA (parking available at Midsummer Meadow car park).
Monday will end with an ‘in conversation with’ event with University of Northampton doctoral candidate Amir Darwish. Amir is Kurdish-Syrian and arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker in 2003. He is now an internationally published poet and writer. This event will be run in conjunction woth Northampton Town of Sanctuary and will be hosted at Delapre Abbey at 7pm. You can find further details and book tickets here.
On Wednesday the University of Northampton and Northampton Town of Sanctuary will be hosting an online seminar at 3pm with Professor Peter Hopkins, whose recent research examined the exacerbation of existing inequlaities for asylum seekers during the pandemic. I’ve just written a book chapter on this for a forthcoming volume reflecting on the unequal pandemic and it was staggering – but unsurprising – to see the impact on asylum seekers. This seminar can be accessed online here.
The week’s events will conclude with a Refugee Support Showcase which does what it says on the tin. This event will be an opportunity for organisations working with refugees in the local area to show the community the valuable work they do. This event will take place on Thursday 23rd June 4-6pm at the Guildhall, St. Giles Square, Northampton.
This year the University has worked with a number of organisations to produce a well-rounded series of events. Starting with reflection and thought of those who have sought, and continue to seek sanctuary and celebrating the achievements of someone who has lived experiences of the asylum system. Wednesday contibutes to the understanding of inequalities for people seeking safety and we end Friday on a positive note with the work of those who facilitate healing.
Britain has a very proud history of taking refugees and migrants from war-torn and destabilised areas of the world – this is a fact which has been made clear from all sides of the political spectrum. What is concerning, however, is that this statement has since Brexit been continuously added as a precursor to every new border policy blunder made by the UK Conservative government in an attempt to ‘soften the blow’ of public perception. It is the paradox of Boris Johnson trying to appeal to those sympathetic to migration, but to also appease hard-line anti-immigration Brexiteers. This paradox was inevitable, given (a) the close split between Leave and Remain votes in the 2016 EU Referendum, and (b) the amount of lies told to both sides of this debate by Johnson and his ‘mates’ in a desperate attempt to gain political power in 2019…leaving the British public in permanent limbo as whether or not ‘Brexit’ (in the way it was described) had even taken place at all; a state of ‘technically we’re out, but we’re not really out’.
Given the ease of shaping and reproducing ‘empty signifiers’ (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Torfing, 1999) within this discursive limbo, Boris Johnson’s latest border policy disaster relating to refugee border crossings was announced yesterday. The new “genius” idea will be to deport those who are single men crossing the Channel in boats or lorries from France to Rwanda for ‘processing’. Of course, as per usual, this was seemingly quite a surprise to the Minister of State for Refugees who claimed on LBC just over a week prior to the announcement that he had no knowledge of any new plans to send anyone to Rwanda.
Before going into the details of the hypocrisy associated with this policy in the light of the war in Ukraine, what I fail to understand is the entire point of this process. Boris Johnson’s announcement seemed to focus most of his rhetoric on the ‘illegality’ of the status of people entering UK borders, as well as the need to curb ‘people smuggling’. He merged this part of his speech with Ukrainian refugees in an attempt to, once again, appear to seem more sympathetic to the struggle of fleeing populations than he is in reality…’whether you are fleeing Putin or Assad, our aim is that you should not need to turn to people smugglers or any other kind of illegal option’. It is important to note that we shouldn’t be confusing (as often happens) the term ‘people smugglers’ with ‘sex traffickers’, whose motives are wholly different than merely receiving money to aid someone’s journey across nation state borders. People smugglers tend to take advantage of those who are in sheer desperation. This desperation is normally grounded in a combination of multiple factors: (1) destabilisation in their home country, (2) fear for their life, safety, or future (or that of their family), (3) strong desire for liberation or freedom and, most importantly, (4) a practical inability to actually escape their current borders.
With this in mind, it is astonishing to hear Johnson trying to justify this policy on the grounds that he is somewhat of a rule-of-law fan, wishing to drive out illegal behaviour from UK borders, given that he has recently become the first ever serving UK Prime Minister to have been sanctioned for breaking the criminal law. As with many similar approaches to these types of policies in the past (the obvious being the so-called ‘war on drugs’), the core motivation has very little to do with the actual human safety, and more rooted in neoliberal frustrations of the (and I deliberately use this term in its loosest possible sense) ’tax-paying’ Eton schoolboys at others, within UK borders or otherwise, earning any kind of money from which they are not directly benefitting. This ties in closely to, what I mentioned in a previous post, as the UK Conservative Party’s lazy response to sanctioning oligarchs linked to the Putin regime…for obvious personal reasons.
Most striking here is the level of hypocrisy between who is considered part of the in-group of migrants and refugees, and who is the ‘other’; the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ (Cottle, 2000; Van Dijck, 2000; Quinsaat, 2011; Reed, 2017). Without deflecting from Putin’s responsibility in reproducing anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia and surrounding former Soviet nations, and framing the ethnic group as some kind of leeching parasite on the Russian people, we have seen both overt and covert racism at play in Ukraine and other parts of the world in relation to this idea of ‘ideal’ refugees. The UK is no exception to this. Not since the aftermath of the Second World War have we seen the type of outpouring of sympathy by the British public towards a persecuted ethnic group, with hundreds-of-thousands opening up their homes to house refugees expected imminently. Of course we should be proud of every hand extended to any human in need of help, but where was this reaction when Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans were fleeing their countries due to botched UK military operations in their sovereign territory? Where is this reaction when innocent Yemeni people are calling on the world to help while we are funding Saudi Arabia’s genocidal campaign in their sovereign territory?
It is too simple to claim that this issue is purely related to skin-colour-based racism or another type of xeno-racism, because we know this not to be the case. Perhaps due to the personal nature of the conflict in the Republic of Artsakh in late 2020 which killed thousands of Armenians and displaced around 90,000, and the rhetoric of neutrality from the UK Conservative government (due to their close monetary ties with the aggressor and his oligarch friends), the mainstream media and near-total silence from prominent celebrities…all of whom seem to now scream for action in response to Ukraine (rightly so), but I can’t help but echo a question asked by another Armenian, Tatev Hovhannisyan: Where was the outpouring of empathy when my country was at war?
Perhaps to understand the nature of this hypocrisy we need to focus more on the complex interplay between the nation state, power and discourse. I would add another element into this equation: money. In a neoliberal, populist political model, dictators seemingly pay vast sums of money to other nation states in exchange for the unyielding, unchallenged and unregulated power to produce and reproduce dominant discourses which ground their version of hegemony within those states.
Cottle, S. (Ed.). (2000). Ethnic Minorities and the Media. Open University Press.
Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso.
Quinsaat, S. M. (2011). ‘Everybody Around Here is from Somewhere Else’: News frames and hegemonic discourses in the immigration debates in the United States, 2006 and 2010 [MA Thesis]. University of Pittsburgh: Kenneth P Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.
Reed, H. (2017). Framing of Immigrants and Refugees: A content analysis of mainstream and partisan news coverage of immigration [MA Thesis]. University of Missouri: Faculty of the Graduate School.
Torfing, J. (1999). New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Žižek. Blackwell.
Van Dijk, T. A. (2000). New(s) Racism: A Discourse Analytical Approach. European Journal of Political Economy, 33–49.