Alex Cunningham, the MP for Stockton South has written to the Home Secretary Suella Braverman to protest that it has been proposed that there be a barge for asylum seekers moored at Teesport. Cunningham is arguing that the government has made commitments that North East local authorities would not take additional asylum seekers until other areas had met their requirements. So what is going on here and what are we to make of it all?
I think there are a number of different issues connected to this story that need unpacking so here goes. Firstly, we see Cunningham pointing out that the government are not sticking to commitments they have already made. This is as we have all seen, a common thread running through the history of this particular administration. We were promised that Brexit would reduce our food prices and help to increase wages. In reality, the opposite has happened and food prices have rocketed, while wages have continued to stagnate. We were promised 40 new hospitals, which have simply failed to materialise, with absolutely no sign of when work might start on them. Here in the north, we were promised that there would be a levelling-up, which simply hasn’t happened, while our public services such as our railways, continue to be a poor relation of those in the south. Consequently, this is to some extent a story that is simply another chapter in the sad and sorry tale of a government that refuses to take its commitments seriously and simply can’t be trusted.
There are no ‘illegal’ asylum seekers
However, I think if we dig deeper there are a number of other layers to this story which need investigating. For a start, there is the notion that we have asylum seekers coming to our shores ‘illegally’. This is an easy issue to deal with, as it is simply untrue. Britain is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention. This convention and the 1967 protocol define what a refugee is and what the international standard for their treatment should be. To put it simply, there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker, as it is legal to seek asylum in another country as defined by law. So why is the government saying that they are illegal asylum seekers and why are making such a big deal about it?
The first question is really quite an easy question to answer. The government is making out that they are illegal asylum seekers, because they have made it ever harder for asylum seekers to come here by legal routes. Therefore, they can try and claim that they are illegal asylum seekers, even though in reality there is no such thing. After many years of Tory austerity, the asylum system, like much else in the public realm in the country today, is in chaos. Having been in power for 13 years now, the Tories have caused this chaos. They have caused the problem. If we had a proper asylum system in this country, then asylum seekers, many of whom have actually come here fleeing persecution or war, could have their cases heard quickly and then they could either be allowed to stay or deported accordingly. That is how an asylum system works – or should do. But of course, this government doesn’t want an asylum system that works. What this government wants is the asylum issue to be a major issue in voters minds and they want this for a number of reasons. If the system worked, it wouldn’t be a major political issue would it?
Why a major political issue?
So why does the government want asylum as a major political issue? Well, there are a number of reasons. Firstly, it is an issue that fires up their base. Numerous surveys of voters have suggested that it is a far more important issue to potential Tory voters than it is to potential voters of other parties. So, the Tories want to keep it on the front pages, whether they are solving anything or not. Speaking of which, it is also made into a major issue by the way it is obsessively talked about it in some sections of our media, in newspapers and social media channels which tend to have less to say about other areas of British life, such as the state of the NHS, education, public transport, and so on. The sad truth seems to be that it suits the Tories not to solve the issue.
But that begs another issue; how big is asylum as an issue?
I think we have to start by considering how much the issue impacts on our lives. Does it impact more than the crisis in the NHS, if ourselves or a loved one urgently needs an operation? Does the issue of asylum impact on us daily, in the way that failings in investment in public transport can do so? To what extent does the issue really impact on our lives at all? It has been noted that in the past that some of the areas of the country which were surveyed about attitudes towards asylum seekers and were most negative towards them were actually areas which had the smallest numbers of asylum seekers in them….
Then there is the question of just how big the numbers of asylum seekers coming to our shores really are. The truth of the matter is that most asylum seekers in the world are actually in poorer, developing world countries, which are often least suited to support them. That is because many do simply go from one poor country, where there is war, or oppression or famine, to the poor country next door. I have seen this for myself, having worked in refugee camps along the Thai/Burmese border which house many thousands of Karens who have fled over the border fleeing the murderous Burmese army. The UN High Commission on Refugees reports that in 2021 there were 4.6 million asylum seekers in the world as a whole, with a further 27.1 million refugees who had gained asylum, and crucially that 72% of these were hosted in neighbouring countries. So as one of the richest countries in the world do we really take in more than our fair share of asylum seekers? Or is it a convenient myth for those who want us to think that?
All this begs the question of to what extent is there any asylum crisis? Is it in many ways simply a manufactured crisis, deliberately put together by the Tories and their media allies, as it suits their agendas? Now at this point, you may be asking, “why on earth would they do that”? Well, the answer is quite simple. It is abundantly clear that the Tory government is completely incapable and/or unwilling to solve our real problems. The NHS is in chaos, the education system is similarly broken, public transport and much else of the public realm is in disarray. We are now Broken Britain. We all see it all around us, on a daily basis. The Tories have been in power for 13 years and so however hard they try, they can’t blame anyone else. They own these multiple crises. So, it is convenient to say the least for them to create a crisis around asylum and then by promising to solve it to make it look as though they can do something right. Except of course, it appears that they can’t even manage that. As for the sections of the media, it is notable that one major daily newspaper came into new ownership about 20 years ago and they tried out different stories to see which would get the highest readership figures. They soon found that that top three stories to get readers buying the newspaper were house prices falling, taxes rising…and stories about asylum seekers. It is simply profitable for some sections of our media to continue inflating the asylum issue.
Who are asylum seekers?
Finally, unpacking the story further we also come to thinking about who asylum seekers are. They are often simply talked about in terms of numbers and always referred to simply as asylum seekers. The fact that they are referred to as a group and as asylum seekers, is not by chance of course. It acts to dehumanise them. Yes, they are asylum seekers, Clearly, they are. But it is too easy perhaps to forget that they are also humans like us. They have families like us, they have feelings like us. And they bleed bright red blood when their skin is cut, just like us. Sometimes it is useful to think of asylum seekers as individuals rather than as a group. Then we can begin to empathise with them. Having taught in the refugee camps along the Thai/Burmese border I was doing a session with 6th formers in Hebburn, one of whom, while still against asylum seekers, did admit that while she didn’t agree with them coming here, she would do the same in she was in their position. If you were faced with imprisonment or torture, or having your home burnt down, or simply dying of starvation what would you do? What would any of us do?
Given that asylum seekers are human like us, is it fair that they should be housed on barges, which are in effect prisons? And is it right anyway that asylum seeker children should be held in detention?
It is clear that we have a government that is incapable of solving the real problems we face, whether it be in the NHS, education, social care, public transport or any other area. The asylum issue is being deliberately made into a huge issue as an attempt for them to look like they can solve a problem, a problem they have largely caused by their own incompetence and have turned into a crisis for their own political ends.
It is understandable that Alex Cunnigham would highlight yet another broken promise from this government and he is right to mention the warmth and friendliness of North East people. But it would have been even better if he had highlighted that the backlog of asylum seekers had been caused by the Tory government of the last 13 years, that they are happy to carry on not solving the problem by putting in place a fair and effective asylum system which we need in this country and perhaps most importantly of all, to remind Suella Braverman that every individual asylum seeker is another person as human as you or me.