On a beach in Sussex, ‘migrant’ myths exposed

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Message of welcome: making their point outside Sally-Ann Hart’s constituency office last week were members of Care4Calais, Hastings Supports Refugees, Black Lives Matter and Hastings & Rye Labour Party. Picture credit: Aran McDermott

The recent hot weather brought with it calm seas, and the calm seas brought with them an increase in the number of refugees crossing the Channel in small boats. To look at the reaction from the government and the right-wing press, one could be forgiven for thinking this was a massive invasion. What we actually had was a massive overreaction.

On July 24, a few refugees landed near Hastings in a small boat, one of several to make the crossing that day in calm waters. They were immediately detained by officers of the UK Border Force. Boris Johnson has since called in the RAF to back up their efforts – and there are calls now for the Royal Navy to get involved.

The word ‘invasion’ is never far from the lips of right-wing commentators. Already we have seen headlines such as ‘Migrant Influx: Illegal migrants crossing the Channel hits new daily record’ (The Sun) and ‘EU wrings hands while gun-toting traffickers send MORE migrants to UK’ (Daily Express).

It is no coincidence that the fury over the so-called ‘crisis’ comes at a time of national anxiety over the spread of coronavirus. Maybe there are also overtones in the case of Hastings of the genuine invasion of 1066. The other historical image of small boats crossing the Channel – saving desperate young men fleeing a war zone in 1940 – is one the Tory tabloids perhaps wish to ignore.

Also neglected in this tumult is a simple fact: ‘migrants’ are people seeking a new life in our country of their own free will, while the people on board those unsafe boats, sometimes little more than rubber dinghies, are by and large fleeing conflict zones where they are in fear of their lives.

Twenty people were detained that July day when their boat beached seven miles from Hastings, at Pett Level; a further 66 were intercepted in seven other crossings, according to UK Border Force.

The MP for Hastings & Rye, Sally-Ann Hart, is one of 25 Tory MPs and peers who have written to Home Secretary Priti Patel calling for government action on “invading migrants”, who they claim are put up in “expensive hotels”. She says the arrivals have been causing “deep unease and concern” for local residents, a point she reiterated in a recent Channel 4 interview.

Hart’s claim of wide public support for her views was undermined by a show of support for refugees outside her office, and had already been disputed back in May, when the Hastings’ Refugee Buddy Project, in an open letter to the MP, accused her of “scaremongering” and “whipping up fear in the local community”.

They further made the substantive point that there is nothing illegal about the crossings under international law and, far from enjoying expensive hotels, the refugees were sent to more modest accommodation in Croydon, to begin the often lengthy legal process of applying for asylum.

So far this year, 4,100 people have crossed the Channel in small boats, according to PA Media. In 2019, around 36,000 people applied for asylum in the UK, according to the Home Office, the vast majority of them arriving by other means, rather than small boat crossings over the Channel.

The total compares with 165,615 asylum applications in Germany, 151,070 in France, 117,800 in Spain and 77,275 in Greece in the same period, according to Eurostat.

Refugees account for a tiny percentage of those migrating here, according to the UK’s Migration Observatory. And the oft-repeated claim that Britain is a ‘soft touch’ is disputed by author Daniel Trilling, who adds that 40 per cent of refugees interviewed at the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais in 2016 said they wanted to be in the UK because they had friends and family here.

Today’s ‘migrants’ are being portrayed as undesirable victims of evil people traffickers by MPs such as Sally-Ann Hart. The moral panic over this small number of desperate, displaced people has its uses, though. It plays well to the narrative of ‘protecting our borders’, which was a clear pitch to the electorate in both the 2016 EU referendum and subsequent Tory manifestos.

It has also re-ignited tension with France, who are said, by Chris Philp, the UK minister for immigration compliance, to be “not doing enough” to tackle the problem. The French deny this, claiming they routinely turn back boats attempting crossings along their long and difficult to police coastline.

Boris Johnson claims that Brexit will make it easier to control immigration and, therefore, stop the ‘migrants’. The reality is that, as we withdraw from Europe’s decision-making bodies, and with relations with France more strained, Brexit will make it harder.

Priti Patel is now reported to be considering changes to asylum laws, boasting that they will send “lefty lawyers” into “meltdown”. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that aggravating political opponents, rather than solving a non-crisis, is the point of the exercise.

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