Cameron’s asylum policy turns us all into pound shop Gestapos
It's difficult to think of a more reprehensible response to the Calais crisis than the one David Cameron has presided over since last week. He began by describing migrants as a 'swarm'. That rhetorical sign-post led to today's policy announcement. Landlords who fail to demand papers from asylum seeker tenants or evict them will face five-years in jail. Failed asylum seeker families will have their benefits cut, plunging their children into hunger and destitution.
Never mind that 30% of rejected asylum claims are overturned on appeal, suggesting a third of failed asylum seekers are genuine. Never mind that they anyway only receive £36 a week – the lowest imaginable sum with which someone could live in this country. Never mind that children who have escaped violence and persecution will go without food because of this policy. We are now in the brutalisation business. And we are in it actively.
Theresa May's joint message with her French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve is that British and French streets are not "paved with gold". They want everyone to know how dreadful it will be for them here. And if the price of that is the state-mandated impoverishment of asylum seekers, then so be it.
Meanwhile, we will turn our own citizens against each other. We will embed Big Brother into each and every one of us rather than face the demands of this moment in history. The pilot scheme to fine landlords for not checking the immigration papers of their tenants has not even been fully piloted yet, but now a new immigration bill will take it further and threaten them with jail. We are to refuse safe haven for those hoping for a better life – whether that means the UK or the homes within it.
We're told it's to tackle rogue landlords, but this policy will also tackle those who refuse to become spies for the state. It will tackle those with too much decency, dignity and political good-character to check the papers of their fellow citizens, like some pound shop Gestapo. It will tackle anyone who believes in conducting themselves as befits a citizen of a free society.
A photo documenting the state of asylum seeker accommodation. Many live in destitution as they wait for a decision.
It is unfashionable nowadays to make comparisons to the Nazis, and for good reason. Too many over-excited keyboard warriors have devalued the currency. But political instincts come from specific emotional places and it is worth considering where Cameron's come from. He dehumanises the outsider trying to find safe haven. He implements policies reducing the outsider within our borders to grinding, starving poverty. He turns citizens of the home country into spies against the outsider. He dehumanises the migrant 'swarm' while fretting about the feelings of British holidaymakers having to see their deaths, just as the Nazi high command worried about the emotional impact of carrying out the Holocaust on the German soldiers tasked with conducting it.
To be clear: it is not that the British government would welcome a genocide or anything so patently false and hysterical. It is that the emotional response it is exhibiting – that of caring only for ones' own people, punishing and vilifying the 'other' and setting up a surveillance system to police the distinction between the two – has as its end point the most terrible human cruelty.
On a practical level, the brutalism strategy doesn't even work. We tried cutting rescue services in the Med and they still got on those boats. The people of Eritrea and Syria and Libya have far worse behind them than they will ever find here. Unless we are willing to lower ourselves to the level of Isis or Bashar al-Assad, we will not win this arms race to the moral bottom.
Data on asylum claims shows most come from countries facing violence or civil war
Instead, we need positive, practical, humane solutions. Europe is facing the greatest movement of people since the Second World War. Despite the parochial tunnel vision of the British press, this is not a solely UK problem. The boats come across the Med at an extraordinary rate. Thousands still come. Dozens still die. Search for 'migrant boats' on Google and read down the list of tragedies, the lives lost in a desperate scramble for a better life. In Hungary, they are erecting a giant wall along the border with Serbia to keep the immigrants out. This is a European problem caused by tragedy in the Middle East and north Africa.
The UK received 25,870 asylum applications in 2014 and it accepted 10,050 of them. That was dwarfed by Germany's 97,275, France's 68,500, Sweden's 39,905 or Italy's 35,180. We love to pretend the UK is this lone shining jewel embedded in the middle of Europe, which everyone is striving to reach. In fact, it is considered a nice country to live in among many others.
Asylum claim and acceptance rates by European state
We can dismantle, if we wish, all that is good about our country, in order to discourage desperate people from coming here. We can make it violently unfair and cruel, a place where there are no chances of a better life, no kindnesses to be expected and no freedom in which to start again.
Or we can recognise that we are facing a specific moment in history with specific obligations to rich countries. That requires European collaboration of the sort which the UK has persistently sabotaged, with fair, humane and efficient asylum claim mechanisms in place at ports of entry and a processing system which, unlike the detained fast-track, is not considered unfair to the point of being unlawful.
Perhaps such a strategy would attract more asylum seekers. Good. If we can save more people from the hell of Syria and Libya then all the better. An organised system across Europe would share out the burden equally and tolerably. It would be a small price to pay for Britain's reputation, its own sense of inner decency and the long-term security advantages of preventing regional instability in the Middle East and Europe.
As things stand, we will look back on this period with shame at Britain's refusal to participate in world affairs and its brute indifference towards those who seek its aid.