The evening of Wednesday 24 November brought the horrific news that 27 people, including 3 children and a pregnant woman, had died in the English Channel following the capsizing of the inflatable dinghy in which they were attempting to cross to Britain. This is the single highest loss of migrant lives recorded in the strait, and has rightly rocked the country, with outpourings of grief and expressions of sadness from all quarters.
However, when Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted that her ‘thoughts were with’ the victims’ families, I felt sick: the faux-sympathetic utterances having all the sincerity of Cruella de Vil wearing a PETA lapel badge on her puppy coat. This catastrophe was partly a consequence of her own rhetoric and policy, and her flagrant disregard for the humanity of others.
Patel has a long history of not only moral vacuity, but outright vindictiveness. A committed Thatcherite from her youth, in 2000 she joined the PR firm Weber Shandwick, where she worked with a team hired by British American Tobacco to launder their deteriorating international reputation and lobby MEPs against tobacco regulation.
Her enduring indifference to human rights is perhaps best evidenced by her staunch and uncritical support for Israel, which multiple human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and NGOs based in Israel itself, recognise as committing apartheid.
Following her appointment as Secretary of State for International Development, Patel oversaw cuts in aid to the Palestinian territories, and shortly thereafter, her undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials resulted in her forced resignation from Theresa May’s Cabinet.
Further to any ideological commitments, Patel’s own personal nastiness was exemplified last year, when her former permanent secretary at the Home Office launched an employment tribunal claim against her after he was dismissed, allegedly for whistleblowing on her bullying of fellow civil servants.
It is in this context that we must view current Home Office policy regarding asylum seekers. Of course, the dehumanisation of migrants is a campaign that has been ongoing for decades, particularly in the Conservative Party and its media bulwarks, but in which New Labour was often complicit.
Since Patel’s appointment to the Home Office, however, this process has been ratcheted up drastically, with rhetoric and policy once confined to British National Party (BNP) crackpots at the societal fringes now being mainlined to the heart of government.
In addition to draconian expansions of police power tantamount to direct legislative assaults on peaceful protestors and resident racial minorities – the widely condemned Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – Patel has also further entrenched a merciless hostile environment for migrants.
Last year, she proposed sending asylum seekers to be processed on Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; an idea reminiscent of 18th century penal colonies, not to mention wildly impractical. More recently, the Home Office was leaking that it is in talks over a processing centre in Albania, which the Albanian government has strenuously denied.
No safe passage
And then of course, there is the Nationality and Borders Bill (NBB). This multilateral exercise in flouting international law is the pièce de résistance of xenophobic cruelty.
This Bill would seek to give immunity from prosecution to Border Force staff engaged in ‘pushing back’ migrant boats if the migrants are killed in the process (state-sanctioned murder, in effect).
The ‘push-back’ activity itself is now facing legal challenge by the support group Channel Rescue. The NBB would also seek to dismiss the asylum claims of anybody deemed to have arrived in the UK by an ‘illegal’ route, despite the fact that by the terms of the UN Refugee Convention the route taken by asylum seekers is immaterial to their asylum claim.
Part of the cursory attempt at justification thrown out in soundbites by Patel is the effort to combat criminal gangs of people smugglers. The problem with this is that there is no attempt by the government to facilitate safe and legal passage to Britain for asylum seekers; on the contrary, its hostility towards some of the world’s most desperate people is only likely to push them into the hands of traffickers, owing to their very desperation.
If anything can be said for Patel’s Home Office, at least they aren’t making much effort to disguise their heartless use of refugees as a convenient tool for whipping up hatred and bigotry to fuel the electoral success of the Tories.
To some extent they are succeeding. Despite this catastrophe in the Channel, there have been reports of people in Hastings obstructing and abusing an RNLI crew, clearly fueled by the dehumanising treatment of migrants by the Tories. (Hastings fishermen subsequently denied any involvement in the abuse.)
That is the most sickening aspect of the channel deaths tragedy: these people were collateral damage in a far-right campaign of vitriolic division designed to manipulate ordinary working people into a xenophobic frenzy to entrench the party of capital in power.
Patel is one of the most extreme architects of this hateful campaign in recent times, and seems to take a perverse pleasure in her noxious role.
Fortunately, most of the public, including in Sussex and along the south coast, can see through her and are demonstrating that she and her ilk are anathema to our values as a nation.
So long as Priti Patel occupies the Home Office, the government will continue to inflict misery and death upon men, women and children, not much different from ourselves, who have been forced by circumstances beyond their control to flee their homelands.