At the time of writing 31 people have believed to have drowned in the English Channel this last week. 27 bodies were found with 4 people missing or drowned, and there were only 2 survivors. Although many responses have called this incident a tragedy, sadly too many others have made light of it, seemingly revelling in the ‘stupidity’ of those who choose to cross the Channel. Where does this animosity come from? It is not my intention to take responsibility away from individuals who have anti-refugee beliefs, but I do think it is worth arguing that the hatred and suspicion of people crossing the channel is a top-down affair. The government and media have done a stellar job in convincing the British public that asylum seekers and refugees are scroungers, they are dangerous, they are ungrateful, and above all else they are inauthentic.
An analysis of 2,000 newspaper articles from 15 UK papers in 2017 (The Times, Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The i, Daily Mirror, Financial Times, The Sun, Metro, Daily Express, The Sunday Times, London Evening Standard, The Sunday Telegraph, The Observer, and Daily Star) highlights the extreme prejudice shown towards refugees. They are frequently associated with illegality and terrorism, despite the fact that most refugees gain asylum status and between 2014-2017 only 5% of terrorist attacks in Europe and North America were committed by refugees. There is also a distinct lack of these peoples’ voices within the stories centred around them. Whilst 80% of newspaper coverage included quotes from politicians and officials, only 20% included direct quotations from refugees themselves. This discourse around refugees is clearly tainted and leads to a wider influence of misinformation, where refugees become increasingly seen as dangerous.
So why do refugees come here? And where do they come from? Typically for small boat crossings, how those coming from the channel get here, 90% of them come from just 10 countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Vietnam, Kuwait, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen. All of these countries face degrees of human rights crises or economic devastation or political corruption. The government would have us believe that these are ‘economic migrants’ which is meant to imply their journey has an ulterior motive and that they are not in genuine need of help. Of course, most of these refugees are fleeing actual persecution. But perhaps it should also be stated if any qualify as economic migrants, it is not in the same sense that a European migrant might. These people are rarely coming here just to get a better job or more money, it’s because their home country is so impoverished even if they are not directly being attacked by anyone the ability to feed their families or get proper medical help is too difficult a task. The government suggests that we are too generous and that there are ‘pull factors’ which bring refugees here, but they have yet to provide evidence for this claim, perhaps shockingly because there isn’t any.
Commenters have derided the people who died in the Channel for having left ‘safe’ France, but this is a misnomer. Naturally, France is not a war zone but the implication it is safe blots out the actual experiences and treatment of refugees in the country. In 2015, at the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis, the situation in France was not good for the refugees. There is a lack of housing units designated for refugees, meaning they are often left homeless waiting for their asylum claim to be processed. This situation has only worsened. Hussain, a young man from Afghanistan, told the New Humanitarian of his experience in Paris: “When I arrived, I had to sleep on the streets for a long time. It was so complicated. I was always sick.” With the neglect of refugees in France, it is not surprising that some would try to cross the Channel to the UK. They have already travelled far, what is one more step in their journey?
Even if refugees survive the journey to UK shores, they are scrutinised as being treated too softly by our government. The truth is something much more Kafkaesque and dehumanising. For regular procedures, where people are not fast-tracked, there is no time limit for the Home Office to make a decision and attempts to impose a standard time length has been resisted. This means many applicants are left waiting in a legal void, as asylum seekers (not legally recognised yet) they have no right to work. They are usually put in accommodation centres before being moved to permanent housing awaiting their claim process. Many papers love to spew bile for refugees being put up in fancy hotels but often or not they are in the accommodation centres unless they are full, in which case any nearby alternatives are found: hotels, military barracks, etc. And these hotels are temporary situations subject to the asylum seeker’s final legal status. Asylum seekers are eventually moved throughout the UK to wherever there is cheap enough accommodation, the conditions are usually dirty and overcrowded, hardly the pinnacle of luxury. As a Libyan refugee, Mansoor said: ‘there seems to be so much delay and confusion in the system. They told us at the airport that we will have a decision on our asylum claim within six months, but four months have passed and we still didn’t even have an interview. We were also told we would get our asylum ID cards five days after the screening at the airport, but we got them three months later. Everything is delayed and the housing was also delayed.’
Despite the fact refugees rarely have a good grasp of the UK’s welfare system, people like to insist they’ve come here to rip off the taxpayer. But this simply isn’t true. If a refugee is granted asylum status, their free accommodation is revoked, given to somebody else further down the chain than themselves. They have to find somewhere to live and pay rent or seek assistance from the government, although they are treated with the same dispassionate eye as any other person applying for benefits and the like. There is little to no evidence that refugees are a threat or that their desperation to get to the UK is misguided or cynical. They are a scapegoat for right-wingers to veer away from the real issues within the country. In the end, nobody is happy – the public continue to be undermined by their own government whilst being pointed in the direction of people seeking help from abroad.
Migrant boat capsizes in English Channel; at least 31 dead: https://apnews.com/article/europe-france-migration-english-channel-551193aa7340b681d44af16eae9dc610
Beyond the ‘refugee crisis’: How the UK news media represent asylum seekers across national boundaries
Home Office ‘covering up’ its own study of why refugees come to the UK
What’s behind the housing crisis for asylum seekers in France?
Country Report: Short overview of the asylum procedure:
Asylum seekers: are they living on easy street?
What populists get wrong about migrants and terrorism: