I can only assume that it is the legacy of having had to watch from close quarters, and protest unavailingly about, the vindictive cruelty with which the apartheid government treated black South Africans in the 1970s and 1980s that gives me an impotent and sickening sense of déjà vu as I watch our Home Office treating asylum seekers with an identical callousness. Many of the asylum seekers who are having to risk the channel crossing in small boats in their desperation to come here, some to join family members already here, only because more conventional routes to get here have been blocked off using Covid-19 as the excuse, are fleeing exactly the same kind of oppression, persecution and often torture to which black South Africans resisting apartheid were subjected. Anyone who might think I am overstating the case has only to read a series of disparate reports that have appeared in The Independent over the past ten days.
On Saturday 19th, we find May Bulman, The Independent’s Social Affairs Correspondent, reporting that the Home Office has decided that now is a good time, just as the predicted second surge of Covid-19 starts to gather momentum, to lift its ban on the eviction of asylum seekers who have had their applications refused. Given that more than 50% of appeals against refusals are successful (itself an indictment of the Home Office), with over 23,000 people having their refusals overturned on appeal, and given that appeals can take up to a year to be heard, this means that many people who are still legitimately in the asylum system are about to be made homeless as winter draws in. May Bulman quotes Stuart McDonald, SNP MP: “With Covid on the rise again this is an utterly appalling decision by the Home Office, putting both asylum seekers and the public at risk. Making people homeless and destitute as the pandemic continues is especially shocking when that pandemic is known to be of particular danger to those very populations and indeed BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people.”
On Wednesday 23rd, May Bulman reported that the Home Office, after suspending the requirement since March due to the risk of infection, is once again, just as the second wave of infections gets going, insisting that asylum-seekers and victims of trafficking who have been formally identified as modern slavery victims must report in person at reporting locations. This means having somehow to find the money for fares and risk infection by using public transport to travel significant distances at a time when the government is advising against the use of public transport. This wholesale disregard for health and safety considerations echoes an August 8th report about asylum seekers being deported on flights without any prior Covid-19 testing being required either for those being deported or for their escorts. If telephone calls have sufficed to establish people’s whereabouts for the past six months why are they not good enough now? Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, suggests an answer: ‘…looking tough on immigration is more important to them [the Home Office] than keeping people safe.”
On Thursday 24th, May Bulman’s now almost daily revelations tell us that, regardless of the already over 50% success of appeals, the Home Office is planning to add asylum interviews to the ever-expending list of this government’s ideologically-driven outsourcing of public sector activities. She says that ‘many of the firms in the running for this new contract – including G4S, Serco, and Sopra Stera – have been embroiled in previous scandals over handling of immigrations services.’ Our government has clearly learnt nothing whatever from the spate of complaints, not to mention suicides and deaths from other causes, that have resulted from the Department of Work and Pensions’ insistence on outsourcing benefit tests for sick and disabled people to wholly inappropriate and manifestly incompetent private companies working to targets rather than in the interests of the sick and disabled. The chief executive of Freedom from Torture is reported as having described this move on the part of the Home Office as ‘alarming’ and commented: “Asylum decisions often turn on what happens in the interview and there is a real risk of forcible return to torture if mistakes are made.” But why would the Home Office, or this government as a whole, care about people being returned to torture as long as it can be seen, as Ramadan suggests, to be being “tough on immigration”?
On Saturday 26th, we find Rob Merrick, The Independent’s Deputy Political Editor, reporting on hate speech described by Simon Woolley, a former 10 Downing Street race advisor, as “wrong, reckless and at worst dangerous, because this type of language easily stirs up racial hatred” uttered by no less a figure than our Home Secretary herself – Priti Patel. Patel apparently declared in a recent Zoom meeting that she was determined to stamp out the “criminality that takes place and that has happened through Traveller communities….” Patel might well have been bought up on a diet of Enid Blyton, whose fall-back villains were all too often thieving ‘Gypsies’, but that is no excuse for this kind of unthinking racial generalisation. As it happens, Merrick quotes Lord Woolley, former adviser to the Downing St. Racial Disparity Unit, as telling The Independent that the crime rate among Travellers is, in fact, lower than the national average. Johnson should obviously have sacked Priti Patel long ago, as his predecessor did the last time Patel was a cabinet minister, but why sack an ardent Brexit supporter from the key role of Home Secretary just because she happens to give every appearance of being an equally ardent racist?
Patel elicited a good deal of media sympathy, including from The Independent, when she recently recounted how she had been racially abused as a “Paki” at school. But that, very evidently, does not preclude her from being capable of indefensible racial generalisations herself. Anyone who lived through apartheid will be all too well aware that one of the frequent responses of people who weren’t granted the unearned privilege of being classified as “white” was to interiorise the racism and transfer it, sometimes with interest, to other groups lower down apartheid’s iniquitous racial hierarchy. Boris Johnson would do well to instruct her to take part in ‘unconscious bias training’ as has been suggested, Merrick reports, in a letter written to her by more than 80 ‘leading academics, race equality organisations, and politicians.’
As long ago as May 2006 John Reid, shortly after taking over as Home Secretary, declared that “Our system is not fit for purpose. It is inadequate in terms of its scope, it is inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management systems and processes.” So what has changed in the intervening years apart, perhaps, from the need to put “leadership” firmly at the head of the list of glaring inadequacies and add institutional racism to the list?