New Asylum Seekers Scandal: A Comprehensive Political Stitch-Up

Misleading images: Not all migrants are asylum seekers

 

In these days of the unthinkable being normalised, it was still shocking to see the results of a new survey on where and how asylum seekers to the UK are dispersed. In case you missed it the stand-out points are:

  • Most refugees are sent to the poorest parts of the country
  • Labour-controlled local authorities house more than 20 times more of these people than Conservative ones
  • There is no extra funding for this
  • Councils volunteer to house asylum seekers but then “get very little control over how it works

There was strongly worded reaction from many commentators and politicians.  The unfairness is self-evident, and the impact on housing, education, social services and social cohesion were all name-checked.

But hang on.  Yes, hats off to the Guardian for splashing this on their front page, and to Yvette Cooper, chair of the Commons Home Affairs committee for calling for a complete review of the system. But I am sure I cannot be alone in thinking that this is nowhere near enough.

This car crash of issues and policies is not merely a political spectacle affecting others. This directly and dangerously affects almost every one. The fact that even the Sun précised the Guardian’s article should ring bells here.

Yes – no critical comment in the Sun, but a stock picture straight out of the “Oh God, they’re going to swamp us” portfolio.  So we are straight in at the heart of the big toxic migration debate, including the asylum seekers we are talking about here.  This group – around 39,000 – are the people who are waiting for their application to be processed.  The total number of migrants is of course much larger.  And sadly I bet not many people will differentiate.  So there is a massive scaling-up – all migrants are perceived as caught up in this unfair distribution, so many more people are going to feel they are or will be affected by already scarce resources being spread ever more thinly.

Where does this lead us?  Middlesboro’s apparent and accidental flirtation with red doors for the accommodation of all asylum seekers was quickly remedied. But the stigma and misunderstanding  cannot always be controlled. In the wake of the attack in Croydon on Reker Ahmed, Aditya Chakrabortty eloquently poses the key question: “If Theresa May really wants to protect refugees why does she fuel such hatred?”

This impact on social cohesion is one of the fall-outs from the flawed asylum dispersal policy in a sensitised/traumatised Britain. Another is potentially on our politics.

This is a hypothesis that has yet to be tested, but the uneven burden of the cost of accommodating asylum seekers could well impact on elections in those council areas most affected. It’s not rocket science to anticipate that stretched-to-breaking-point resources will encourage a xenophobic “blame game” to the detriment of incumbent local politicians.  The correlation between low average household incomes, Labour-led councils and asylum seeker population is strong.

The third stand-out element in this mess are the policy decisions that led us to this point.  Cooper is dead right to say this is so bust it can’t be fixed without revisiting these. In 2012 the contracts for housing asylum seekers were privatized, with predictable and disastrous profits-before-people consequences. So arguably we have another illustration of a sell-off that has not benefited service users or the general public (And a well-deserved plug here for the excellent work of We Own It in making the case for public ownership)

Take these three elements together (and I readily acknowledge each merits a book of their own) and just look at who benefits from such an incoherent, unfair, damaging scenario.  I would argue that it is political chicanery of the highest order.

More than 20 years ago, the Conservative leader of Westminster Council scraped the bottom of the barrel with a breathtaking vote-rigging policy. With no pun intended, is Theresa May just about to trump that?

 

Safe Spaces and the “Right” to be Offended

The “safe space” debate has been given new life at the start of this fresh academic year.  Theresa May condemned them as a restriction on free speech. But NUS vice-president Richard Brooks defended the policy – “some people have more equal rights than others.” This is one issue that is not going to die down any time soon

Following this path,  this morning NUS President Malia Bouattia defended the position  on  BBC’s Today  programme   by correctly  pointing  out  the contradiction  –  I might say hypocrisy –  of those who have so much power and influence, and use it  to create a climate of fear, balking at attempts  by those without such advantages  to assert the right to  a safe space

In my experience, it is not just what is being said, it is how language is used too. The most violent language does not need to contain graphical images or a torrent of swearing.  Similarly, foul words can be and are used for comedic effect.  An angry tone can turn the most innocuous expression into something destructive.

By the same token, just because a racist, homophobic or sexist argument may be presented with intellect, charm, and self-deprecating humour, it is no less offensive.

I championed safe spaces as a students’ union officer many years ago, and I use them now to encourage under-represented groups to become active in my union.

We said “No” to racists and racism, to sexist homophobic rants. We called it “No platform” not “safe spaces” (The mood of the time is captured here)  And in my time, it generally worked, possibly  because it was a clear and narrow  definition.  Debate was lively but kept within reasonable bounds.  And now,   in a  male dominated  organisation,  we  run  networks for young women members and the feedback  we  universally  get  is  positive – these safe spaces give  under-represented groups space  to  breathe,  freedom  to  talk,  the  real ability  to  organise.

So, especially in a general atmosphere of intemperance a cacophony of intolerance, the need and value for safe spaces is real.

But as an active member of Liberty and former press regulator,   I know the value and limits of free speech.

And in adopting   a cast-iron mantra  of democratic self-determination, are  we not uncomfortably close to the point at which  those within a self-declared safe space become as xenophobic, and as angry and as intolerant as those they are seeking  refuge from?

Have we perhaps lost the plot somewhat? There is a world of difference between feeling threatened and being offended.   And surely in a democracy, we have the right to be offended?

Well yes and no. Where is the dividing line between being offended and feeling threatened?  And that’s the crux of the debate.  The media is full of stories of  alleged misjudgements on this,  with people, plays, gigs and debates banned first  on grounds that  they  would contravene the safe space policy  but  then, more worryingly,  because of fears by  university administrators of  reputational, financial and legal  consequences.

And that’s the often  unappreciated  worm eating  away  at the  good intentions and  principled debate around this issue – who  truly  benefits  from a messy  debate on safe space?

Progressive ideas and the very notion of diversity itself end up getting  trashed and undermined –  sometimes  by  over enthusiastic  or uncritical  supporters – and the little power  we have asserted for ourselves seeps back  to the already  rich  and  powerful.

And that is the key issue for me: What is the balance of power in society? Anti-discrimination, anti-hate legislation is good and important, but even if it was perfectly framed and universally implemented, it would not be enough to create a sense of safety, tolerance and respect. You need determined government action  for that.

I think you can’t and shouldn’t vaccinate or insulate yourself against being offended. But in these highly insecure times, you can’t be surprised if people try. Safe spaces are surely a symptom more than anything else.

  This piece also appears in the Huffington Post