Since late July, calm seas and hot weather have combined to increase the numbers of people crossing the English Channel. The risks are still considerable, with flimsy dinghies being used as the means of transit. Although only a few hundred people have made the journey, right-wing politicians and elements of the press have seized on the crossings to whip up anti-immigrant fervour.
This has included the use of phrases such as “invading migrants” as well as government condemnation of the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream media team for starting a social media thread arguing that “the real crisis is our lack of humanity for people fleeing war, climate change and torture”. It continued “People cannot be illegal. And it is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention that crossing a border ‘illegally’ should not impact your asylum claim.”
In response, the Conservative minister James Cleverly attacked the company, tweeting: “Can I have a large scoop of a statistically inaccurate virtue signalling with my grossly overpriced ice-cream, please?”
There were other voices calling for tolerance, but the view from Whitehall is one of identifying asylum seekers as “threats” and asking the navy to support an overstretched border force. So far the only aid provided has been some limited aircraft surveillance, not surprising when within the Ministry of Defence there is a reluctance to countenance the use of warships to intercept highly vulnerable, desperate people in rubber dinghies.
This securitisation of asylum seekers is objectionable under any circumstances but doubly so since many of them are fleeing failing states resulting from Western military interventions. The UK has been integral to the Iraq, Afghanistan and Libyan wars that have killed several hundred thousands of people, injured hundreds of thousands more and displaced millions. Yet now, the government treats people trying to build new lives in Britain as threats to its own security.
This is clearly the approach of the present government yet comes at a time when it has embarked on a review of defence, security and foreign policy. This was announced during the Queen’s Speech last December and was promised to be “The most radical reassessment of [the UK’s] place in the world since the end of the Cold War” and would “cover all aspects of international policy from defence to diplomacy and development.”
Work on the review was delayed from late March to early July but has been underway since then, and the defence select committee has just published a report on what the review should address, just as the government has announced a more general call for evidence.
The review is meant to go well beyond what is traditionally termed “defence” and to use the wider term of “security” while also drawing on foreign policy which, in the light of recent government reorganisation, now includes international development with its large budget. The early signs, though, show little indication of any new thinking. For one, the defence select committee’s report makes limited mention of the current pandemic or even of the steady decline towards climate breakdown. Instead, it focuses instead on traditional state-on-state threats, China and Russia cited as the primary problems.
On the day that the defence select committee published its recommendations, the Food Standards Agency reported that the pandemic has forced one in 10 people to use food banks and vast numbers to skip meals.
Ironically, the FSA reported that the pandemic has tended to have beneficial effects for better-off households with people cooking at home rather than depending on takeaways and processed foods. By contrast, the diets of people in food insecurity narrowed sharply, limited to cheap carbohydrates like rice and pasta. One man, the FSA study found, ate mostly tinned peas on toast; another woman mostly bread.
Thus the government says it is engaging in a full-scale and wide-ranging review of security, but on the same day evidence is published that one of the basic human rights, an adequate diet, is lacking in the UK, one of the world’s richest countries. Those who have a wider understanding of human security than seeing desperate asylum-seekers as a migrant invasion do have an opportunity to contribute to the review but the wider issue is whether it should even go ahead.
What is required is surely a “back to the drawing board” approach that recognises that the greatest risks to security are common threats – in the short-term it is the COVID-19 pandemic that is still in its early stages and, in the slightly longer term it is climate breakdown. Old thinking on a well-worn path is the last thing we need just now.