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Linguistic hypocrisy: Rhetoric on refugees

CW: Racism, war, displacement

The media is filled with images of families pulling suitcases and pushing trollies – a marker of worldwide dislocation due to global conflict. The sight of people clutching their possessions has become a signifier of the ongoing refugee crisis. From Ukraine, images of parents holding children wrapped in winter coats anticipating a long journey ahead circulate. They walk against a backdrop of war-ravaged streets, mired in desolate rubble. Miles and miles of rubble, a marker of their dislocation. In August, videos emerged of Afghans clinging to US Air Force planes at Kabul airport as their city fell to the Taliban. They clung onto the smooth, metallic wings and ran alongside the plane, despite its enormity dwarfing the hundreds of men and women which surrounded it. A desperate attempt to escape life under a heavily militarised and oppressive regime. 

Global conflict uproots millions from their lives and leaves them homeless. Politicians deal with asylum seekers as a microcosm in a macroscopic, global issue with little sympathy for individual issues. Refugees are considered political problems; they are viewed as contentious, voter-dividing subjects in a complex battle where border-closing nationalist and cosmopolitan globalist sentiments are entangled in arguments of social policy and government money. A day rarely passes in post-Brexit Britain where the refugee crisis goes undiscussed in the media and government. The media bandies about “refugee”, “migrant” and “asylum seeker” with moralising arguments surrounding their legality. Yet, it is the rhetorical disparity between these three terms which helps to underpin an increasingly entrenched form of xenophobia, masked by a “closed-door” border policy. 

UK border policy is marked by its potent and often controversial rhetoric. The terms “refugee”, “migrant” and “asylum seeker” hold subtle differences which are used as a subversive way of bolstering arguments around the generosity of British people, contrasted with the deservedness of refugees who land on UK shores. The terms come down to a question of force. A migrant is pulled by their idea of a better life. A refugee is pushed, choiceless in their flight from oppression. They become asylum seekers as they wait to be determined for “refugee status”. It is not illegal to seek asylum in the UK. I repeat, it is not illegal to seek asylum in the UK. Yet, the UK government seems to have found a rhetorical loophole: they refer to those who dare to cross the English channel in “small boats” as “migrants” which throws their legality into question. The government claims that crossers from Calais have not sought asylum in the first country they arrived; they choose to make the treacherous journey to come to the UK. In refusing to name those who cross the channel for what they really are, refugees, their agency is reduced and deservedness to UK resources is thrown into question – they do not seem to need to be here. The Conservative government and right-wing media use such sentiment to decrease compassion and generosity whilst heightening xenophobia. Government hostility surmounts to a display of post-Brexit promises to control border policy – a highly racialised way of excluding refugees that the Tories do not deem cohesive with their voter promises.  

The government’s decision to process “illegal” migrants who cross the channel in small boats by sending them to Rwanda has brought Brexit promises to newfound depths. Despite Boris Johnson’s pledges to “properly protect” those with “genuine need”, the Tory party are imposing a policy which sends refugees 4,000 miles away to a country infamous for its human rights abuses. As voiced by Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the deal raises ethical issues. We will subcontract the state’s role to protect the most vulnerable to a country which historically failed on this front and we will fund a dictatorship we once condemned and we will viscously target racial minorities. The government has repeatedly failed to sufficiently house asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, unlike the programme established to rehome for Ukrainian refugees. Rather, they are now the subject of government scheming based on populist policy of strong borders, a sinister hangover from a Trumpian era. In a confusing statement on the deal, Boris Johnson stressed that “our compassion may be infinite, but our capacity to help people is not”. Does sending refugees to a country known for human rights abuses constitute “compassion”? The government has initiated a toss up between the UK’s capacity and their “compassion” to help others which has resulted in the ostracization of large ethnic groups. 

Not only is Priti Patel’s Rwanda deal uncomfortable in its own right, when compared with recent developments in Eastern Europe it is especially concerning. It comes at a moment when the UK government has made another major declaration on asylum seekers – its decision to encourage British citizens to take Ukrainian refugees into their homes. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021 no such pledge was made. Rather, the UK agreed to take a meagre 20,000 refugees. This is not to say that the government’s policy on Ukraine is perfect – refugees are left visa-less and waiting to be processed before they have been housed in the UK. Yet, when we stand the government’s policies against each other, a sinister form of racism becomes apparent. Boris Johnson’s government deems mostly white Ukrainian refugees acceptable to be welcomed into our homes, yet Afghan refugees are deemed unacceptable, unless part of the lucky 20,000, and are left ostracised or facing difficult decisions to seek their refugee status by “illegal” means, crossing a channel known for its high fatality rate. Such a discrepancy demonstrates a classic Tory philosophy: one rule for what we deem as ‘us’, another for what we see as ‘them’.

When attempting to justify the Rwanda deal, Priti Patel blames “people smuggling gangs” who facilitate channel crossings in small boats. When the 2015 refugee crisis began, the right-wing media demonised the refugees who arrived on UK shores, particularly accusing refugees of stealing British jobs. In post-Brexit Britain where manual jobs cry out to be filled, focus has now turned to those who allow refugees to cross the channel. Surely we should be dealing with gangs and creating a more compassionate refugee policy, rather than further victimising refugees by sending them to Rwanda? By allowing refugees a safe passage to the UK, smuggling gangs could be quashed. Disturbingly, the UK government risks forcing asylum seekers to find more dangerous routes into the UK by ramping up channel patrols. Their targetedly xenophobic Rwanda deal might have far more sinister consequences than anticipated. 

The Rwanda deal is an apt demonstration of the lengths the Conservative government will go, and the lengths and expenses they will endure to pander to the right wing media and to anti-immigration British public and party factions. Yet their policy could not be a clearer indication that how we treat others is a reflection of ourselves. The government’s anti-refugee rhetoric marks an increasingly hostile United Kingdom. Most disturbing, as demonstrated by discrepancies in policy on Ukraine and the Middle East, is the government’s inconsistent treatment of refugees based on their ethnic background, and the shifting rhetoric used to describe these refugees. When it comes to a crisis, the UK government does discriminate. 

Image credit: Artwork by Ben Beechener

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