On Tuesday night a man was crushed to death by a truck in Calais. The next morning, David Cameron offered the following condolences: “I have every sympathy with holidaymakers who are finding access to Calais difficult because of the disturbances there”. The Prime Minister made no mention of the young, as yet unnamed, Sudanese man who had been killed risking his life to make it to the UK. Nor was there space in Cameron’s statement to speak about the 1,500 other desperate people who had attempted to make it through the Channel Tunnel the night of this man’s death. Although they were, we assume, “the disturbance” he references. That’s because these people are refugees and migrants; their lives don’t matter.
Since 1st June, nine other people have died in Calais. Among the dead are Ganet, a twenty three year old woman from Eritrea who was hit by a motorist; Moussa, a 17-year-old Eritrean who drowned in one of the Channel Tunnel’s several retention basins and Samir, a five-month-old baby who died after his mother went into early Labour when she fell off a truck. Nothing has been heard of Samir’s mother since. But these people are of no importance to David Cameron. Neither are the three thousand plus people living in the camp at Calais. The real issue here is inconvenienced British holidaymakers.
Migrants and asylum seekers have been dehumanised to the point that their lives are of no importance. The papers report that “migrants storm [the Eurotunnel”, as if they’re part of a medieval army making a power grab. In April in the UK’s highest selling paper a columnist described them as “cockroaches” and “feral humans”. And today Cameron has argued that a “swarm” of people want to come to Britain, despite the fact that most migrants and asylum seekers don’t try to enter this country. This is scaremongering, plain and simple. As has been pointed out whenever papers talk about “the Migrant Crisis”, they rarely refer to the crisis of being a migrant or refugees (the majority of people in Calais are the latter). In this context it’s easy to forget that these people are human beings, most of whom are fleeing war, poverty and trauma that Britain has played some part in creating.
This dehumanisation fits in well with the Government’s xenophobic policies, which are pursued in the name of balancing the books. Last year in the face of evidence that advised them to do otherwise, the Government decided they would no longer support any search and rescue operations for migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. By mid-April over 1,500 people had died. Then, just last week, they decided to cut the amount of money asylum seekers are entitled to, estimates suggest they will receive around 50% less than British benefit claimants. This tells us that the British-born poor are worth little, but foreign-born poor are worth even less.
It would be nice and perhaps all too easy to just blame this on the Tories, but Labour’s take on immigration hasn’t been much better. Although they defended Mare Nordstrom and urged the government to accept more asylum applications, they too have regularly dehumanised people from abroad. Plastering ‘controls on immigration’ onto mugs and proposing that all migrants must speak English – despite the fact that only a tiny number can’t – reinforces the idea that migrants and refugees are the ‘other’. Post-election, the majority of Labour’s leadership candidates seem intent on signing up to this same strategy. In doing so, they continue to tell an untruth that people from abroad are fundamentally different from ‘us’.
Since the days of Empire, the British Government claimed to be a benevolent power, bringing safety and protection to people across the world. This wasn’t true of colonialism and it isn’t true of domestic and foreign policy now. As a young Sudanese man was killed trying to make it to this country, dozens of people were being forcibly deported at Stansted airport. The message is clear: if you’re a poor refugee you don’t matter.
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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow
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