Let us take stock. In London vans paid for with taxpayers’ money have been driven around the captial’s streets bearing the message ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest. Text HOME to 78070.’ In Surrey the Guildford Police tweeted the following about their operation with the UK Border Agency (UKBA): "Officers 1 Immigrants 0!! #WeWillCatchUpWithYou". In Glasgow UKBA offices displayed posters telling asylum seekers ‘Let us help you go home’. On 1st November, the Daily Express bore the headline: ‘98% demand ban on new migrants’.
The vans have stopped rolling, the posters have been taken down, the police have been forced to apologise. But something of importance has been revealed. For this group of cultural signals are wind chimes. Chimes that have been set in motion by the torrent of rhetoric swirling around the Immigration Bill, which received its Second Reading in Parliament recently. So what are these events symptomatic of? How can we diagnose the underlying syndrome?
From as early as the 1880s doctors began to report a truly puzzling medical condition. Eventually named ‘Anton’s Syndrome’, medics noticed that some patients who had suffered a sudden loss of sight continued to deny their blindness, pretending that they could see, constructing ever more elaborate stories to justify their stumbles and collisions with furniture. This phenomenon provides us with an alternative lens to view not only Chris Grayling’s plans to cut Legal Aid to ‘immigrants and foreigners’, but the ethos underpinning the Government’s Immigration Bill. This proposed legislation severely restricts migrant rights of appeal, expands the state’s power to use biometrics and requires landlords to perform immigration checks on potential tenants. But beyond these formal steps, the Bill feeds off – and inflames – a deepening hostility to outsiders.
Because what we are witnessing unfolding before us is a syndrome that rather than being medical in origin is social - an acute form of social blindness. So what are its characteristic symptoms?
What we typically find is an intensifying desensitisation to the claims of outgroups, a growing inability to view them as equivalently human. The constructing of evermore hysterical stories to justify repressive measures, such the stripping away of legal rights, spot checks in the street and the cultivation of a climate of fear.
Sociologists call this behaviour a ‘state of denial’. When faced with the appalling and the atrocious, we develop a kind of mind-blindness, a glazing over of the urgently human implications of what we are seeing and doing. And this offers us a privileged insight into the Government’s breathtaking callousness towards migrants. Because we spy in HMG’s policy, both its hard outer shell - its grotesque ectoskeleton - and something deeper and more disturbing: the moral soul of a political machine designed not to care. Two cogs drive this pernicious mechanism. Firstly, the systematic dehumanisation of its target victims. And then secondly, a spreading of social blindness through the body politic via the unspoken suggestion that their suffering can be passed over, ignored, disqualified - that it just doesn’t ‘count’.
A crucial part of this process is the ‘hostile environment’ that Teresa May is determined to create for anyone having the temerity step on our shores without a piece of stamped paper. However, her contrived siege mentality amounts to a denial of human history. For since our ancestors left Africa 1.8 million years ago, the history of our species has been shaped by a succession of waves of migration, from those that brought down the Roman Empire, to the colonisation of the New World, to the movement of peoples from former colonies to the West. Historically, of course, one of the principal drivers of these movements has been the search for life-sustaining resources. In this, modern migrants are no different, the majority seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
The Government intends these policies to be an act of deterrence – to deter migrants from coming at all or to make their stay unbearable, by dramatically curtailing health and social welfare support. However, this strategy ignores two fundamental facts.
Firstly, it is trying to turn the tide of the world’s advancing globalisation. In a recent report the United Nations painted a picture of a world increasingly ‘on the move’. In 2010 there were 214 million people living outside their country of origin – 3 per cent of the planet’s population. Almost half were women, most of child-bearing age.
But secondly, and more critically, it palpably fails to understand that people in desperate situations do not rationally calculate a plan of action. Think about the catastrophic deaths of 300 Somali and Eritrean migrants, whose fishing boat caught fire and sank off the coast of Sicily in October. We cannot conceive of the horror those hopeful travellers endured in their last moments. But it is also hard to imagine the desperation that drives our fellow human beings to pack themselves and their children into what have been chillingly called ‘floating hearses’. The truth is they will continue to come, however hostile the environment, however unpromising the odds. As the UN Population Fund observes, such people:
often face dangerous journeys, exploitation by criminal smuggling networks, difficult working and living conditions, and intolerance when they arrive on foreign soil. Their irregular status often leaves them afraid to seek help when their rights are violated.
Thus the UK Government’s devastation of legal assistance will only make such people increasingly vulnerable. This cannot be a just or humane solution.
Therefore we are left with three things. Firstly, the inevitability that migrants will still migrate; all the Government will achieve is their further immiseration. Next, the Government will remain rigidly blind to the deepening suffering it inflicts on these people. And lastly, the policy, as we’ve already so vividly seen, will be accompanied by a deeply cynical propaganda campaign aimed at inducing in others the same kind of social blindness. All this is certain. So what can be done – what is the antidote to this syndrome?
I want to suggest that you and I have three obligations. Firstly, we have a duty to challenge the invidious barbarities of the Immigration Bill whenever we can. Even if it’s as simple a step as making someone else aware of it.
Secondly, we must endeavour to publicise the plight of its victims wherever we are able. But even in doing so, we must guard against the trap of speaking too broadly about an undifferentiated category of ‘immigrants and foreigners’, a discourse that can in itself dehumanise them. As philosopher Peter Singer urges in his matchless book The Life You Can Save, let us find real stories, individual stories, human stories, for that is the scale we humans understand.
And finally – what? The hardest thing of all: getting the wider public to care. I believe, however, that we can make a compelling case that an administration so thoroughly desensitised to the suffering of outsiders is well along the ravaged road to dismissing the suffering and rights of those closer to home. Thus the routinisation of passport and spot checks on the citizenry that the Immigration Bill will exacerbate is something we may live to regret.
A government that glorifies such policies is a danger. Both to the social fabric and to the future. Armed with this argument we are in a position to remind the public and politicians of what we share with the victims of the Immigration Bill: a common ancestral history, and a precious thing called humanity. It is simple, and sublime.
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