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Malign rhetoric on refugees is not welcome here

Despite what the likes of Lee Anderson say, we have room for the tiny number of refugees who make their way to our shores, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee

Signs saying refugees welcome

Image: Ilias Bartolini / Flickr

It’s not OK. It’s not understandable. It’s not excusable. There is no reason to stand outside a place housing desperate refugees and migrants and scare them to death. Except to feel power through intimidation. It doesn’t make any sense, rational or decent. Take the argument at face value. It is based in the concept that the UK has enough problems of its own, that as a nation it is full and it simply doesn’t have the resources to meet the needs of the needy.  

This idea is stoked by senior politicians, including the current Home Secretary, who uses the word “invasion” to describe migrants trying to reach UK shores. Want evidence that words have consequences? A banner at a ‘protest’ outside a hotel housing refugees in Rotherham just over a week ago read ‘End the invasion. Stop immigration’. 

At another ‘protest’ recently there was a banner that read ‘House Britain’s Homeless first’. This implies rectitude, that there is a compassion at play and that the need of those closest must be met. That also implies that, well of course as soon as that is sorted, we’ll turn to the poor from outwith these shores. Bunkum. 

It’s false equivalency. For a start, the funding that needs to be poured into emergency help for those who find them homeless, never mind the millions that need to be given over to prevent the systemic poverty that allows the poorest in society to become the dispossessed, is rather deeper than the pounds and pence needed to house those who come to Britain in need. In fact, the numbers of those from outside the UK falling into homelessness because provision doesn’t exist for them is rising (see page 7).  

And if we want to talk about public purse money, let’s look at the tax receipts for January, just revealed. The exchequer hoovered in an increase of £44.9 billion compared to the same period last year. Even allowing for government borrowing, that still delivers a surplus. The UK is not broke. Though those right on the edge facing hammering costs brought by galloping inflation and wage stagnation might find that hard to believe.

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There is also the case of dangerous rhetoric around anybody trying to reach Britain. Lee Anderson, who is setting himself up as some kind of straight-shooting John Bull, as decent and British as a thick seam of Nottinghamshire coal, said last week that charities trying to help those who reach Calais and need help are as bad as the people traffickers who charge refugees thousands of pounds and load them into death trap little boats on the Channel. I know we’re not exactly in the era of the public intellectual, but even Anderson will know that is malignant codswallop. He’ll also know it’s likely to be repeated and used as ammunition. That thought is an extension to the ‘why don’t they just stay in the first safe nation; why come to Britain?’ 

It’s a thought that is doubly poisonous. One, because most migrants do stay in the first safe nation – only a small percentage head on to Britain. And also because it allows the ongoing sense that this is an amorphous mass, ready to suck up our resources like invading scavengers. It purposefully ignores the human being and also the very idea that refugees coming here can add to and enrich what they find. 

Just because our asylum system is broken and judgemental doesn’t mean so are the people who have to go through it. Besides all else, sometimes, oftentimes, it is the right thing to do to bring people here. We know that there are around 1.5 million people displaced by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, their lives ruined, their loved ones dead, their homes flattened. There won’t be a place for many of them. Let’s say half of one per cent of those people need to find safe refuge in Britain – just 6,000 people. What do we say to them? Sorry pal, no room, jog on. No more invasion. Do we really? 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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