It seems hard to believe that it needs highlighting, but language matters! The words you choose to use are crucial. In Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Johnson has come up against a liar who has put him in the shade. Denying an intention to invade Ukraine by using a euphemism for special military operation is just a form of lying. Johnson uses language in similar and just as devious ways. In the new populism at play in this and a number of other countries, it is important we develop a new form of hearing-aid – one which can distinguish between excuses, lies, bigotry and truth.
In recent years we have all become suffocated with lies. Ministers say what they want their target audience to believe, even in the House of Commons, where lies are permitted but accusations of lying are not. They have realised that it is the first message which sticks, so say things they know to be dishonest or wishful, aware that if they have to retract later this will not remove the original ear-worm.
The hostile environment
Nowhere is this more evident and toxic than in respect of refugees. The “hostile environment” created by a series of Home Secretaries has been well exposed, in the Windrush scandal and notorious poster vans. Brexit was undoubtedly based on whipped up xenophobia. This is what successive groups of refugees have faced in this country. Who has not heard asylum seekers called “scroungers”, “illegals” or “economic migrants”, let alone more overtly racist language? But government will claim innocence or even exceptionalism.
There is the repeated claim that since 2015 no other European country has done more than the UK to resettle vulnerable people. Weasel words, when Germany accommodated one million refugees in a year and its people have thrown open their doors to refugees. The lie is in the definition. UK chose not even to permit entry to asylum seekers from Syria but to create a scheme for a maximum of 25,000 selected vulnerable people over a 5-year period. Other countries had no similar scheme, therefore ours was the best. Johnson proclaims generosity in welcoming Afghans who had supported UK troops, but abandoned hundreds and left scores still living in degrading conditions in hostels months later, while he moves on to look for new virtue signals.
In the case of Ukraine, ministers were clearly originally briefed to promote the cause of Ukrainian refugees staying in reach of home to speed their return. This was palpably to excuse not welcoming them here. Disingenuous claims to have put “the first visa system in place anywhere” for Ukrainians is nothing short of insulting both to them and to the intelligence of this country, when all 27 countries of the EU had already waived any need for visas, so that sanctuary could be found across the continent, while the UK strained to restrict access. Forced to U-turn, Ministers now seek credit for a visa system which is not only cruel – making the refugees with nothing fill in complex forms before they can set foot on our soil – but simply a cover-up for “taking control of our borders”. So, the lies are clear, the excuses laughable, the consequences inhuman.
‘Control of borders’: a Brexit failure
What is the reason? Why does the Tory cabinet NOT want to help people whom it claims to care about and the public clearly do? What evidence do we have about their behaviour towards foreigners? Taking back control of borders was always about a belief in a supposed English race which has never existed; and a desire to rid the country of foreigners. Extraordinarily, the Brexit government has consistently failed, having won its chance, to control immigration effectively. Net migration figures have never approached even the targets set by the pre-Brexit Cameron government; and asylum seekers continue to risk their lives to come here, despite the loathsome obstacles put in their way.
The current Home Secretary seems to believe in barriers rather than management. The Home Office used the risible, paranoid excuse of asylum being a cover for spies who have to be weeded out from among the thousands of mothers and children before any refugees can be allowed in to our hallowed halls. Based on the evidence of past statements and present policies the British cabinet of 2022 gives every appearance of being collectively the most xenophobic in recent history, which is all the more surprising as several cabinet ministers come from immigrant stock. But we are who we are, not what an ancestor was. Many of the most extreme Brexiters appear to find that hatred of others makes them feel superior – or less inadequate. Their psychological needs, however, cannot be allowed to excuse hatred, even if providing a reason for it.
We must call out lies
We must all be ready to call out lies, hate-speech and lazy language, when it can cover up the truth or cause hurt and offence to others; especially when those others may be vulnerable or under our care. Lazy references in the media to refugees as “migrants” or “illegal immigrants” are frequent, offensive and whip up wrong assumptions.
For this reason, East Sussex refugee support organisation Village of Sanctuary has published a Fact Sheet, rebutting typical lies and mistakes, as a briefing for councillors, MPs and journalists and as a script for a band of “Media Watch” volunteers to correct offences they see or hear in the media. The greatest offenders will be listed on its website villageofsanctuary.net and shared with sympathetic media.