From David Maughan Brown in York: Dehumanising the victims

Napier barracks in Folkestone

January 28th

January 27th being Holocaust Memorial Day, we attended the annual civic commemoration of the day, this year via Zoom.  York has more cause that most UK cities to be highly sensitive to Holocaust Memorial Day, having been the site of anti-Semitic riots which culminated on 16th March 1190 in the murders or suicides of the entire one hundred and fifty or so Jewish community of York when they sought refuge in the wooden keep of what later became Clifford’s Tower, which was then burnt to the ground.

Yesterday’s very well put together commemoration was Zoomed from the University of York and introduced by the Vice Chancellor, the Archbishop of York and the Lord Mayor.  The major part of the ceremony featured a very moving talk by Ariana Neumann who told the story behind her memoir When Time Stopped, which recounts  her gradual uncovering, as she grew up in Venezuela, of the past her German-speaking Jewish father would never ever talk about.  Ariana discovered that 25 of the 29 members of her father’s extended family had perished in the Nazi concentration camps and that, although he had managed to escape being sent to the camps himself, her father’s experience had left him so traumatised that he was never able to speak about it.   As is the case every year, if the appalling horror of the murder of the Jews, travellers and others in the concentration camps was the one very striking aspect of the import one took away from the commemoration, the other was the recognition that it took years of incremental dehumanization of the victims to enable their mass murder in the gas-chambers to take place.

All facile analogies or comparisons of other circumstances and events with the Holocaust itself are rightly regarded with suspicion as potentially anti-Semitic tropes, but it is clear that all genocides such as those in Rwanda, in Cambodia, in Bosnia and in Darfur begin with the dehumanization of the victims that characterized Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War II.   So it is greatly heartening to see that President Biden recognizes the importance of an immediate reversal of his predecessor’s insistence on demonising and dehumanising asylum-seekers and other immigrants.  Putting a stop to the building of Trump’s wall, and decreeing that government documents cease using the term ‘alien’ and speak of ‘non-citizens’ instead, may be largely symbolic, but reuniting immigrant children with their parents, and calling a 100-day halt to deportations, are much more than symbolic.  ‘Non-citizen’ is, of course, only halfway to being acceptable terminology, given the ‘non-White’ term beloved of apartheid functionaries and still used with such casual thoughtlessness in contemporary political and media discourse in the UK.

All the more reason then for dismay when, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, firstly, our Trumpian Home Office, in this instance fronted by Chris Philip, the immigration Minister, announces that unaccompanied child refugees will no longer be given sanctuary in the UK, in spite of the fact that the Home Office takes ‘responsibility for the welfare of children very seriously.’   So seriously that their welfare can happily be left to the people-traffickers.  Secondly, an article by May Bulman in The Independent[1]exposes the extent of the Covid19 outbreak at the Napier Barracks in Folkstone, one of the “camps” being used to house asylum seekers in the UK.  Bulman reports that by Tuesday over 100 positive cases had been recorded with at least one asylum seeker having resorted to rough sleeping in the camp to avoid having to sleep in a dormitory with up to 27 others, any of whom might be infected.   On 11th January Chris Philip responded to a parliamentary written question saying that the Home office was reviewing the recommendations of a ‘rapid review’ of asylum accommodation.  Ten days later the Home Office was still reviewing the recommendations.

Given the Windrush scandal, the ‘hostile environment’, and the callous indifference to the fate of asylum seekers exhibited by the Home Office and its current figurehead, Priti Patel, it is not stretching too much of a point to wonder whether confining asylum-seekers under such conditions in the first place, and the unconscionable delay in reviewing the findings of the ‘rapid review’ of their accommodation and doing something about it, is not deliberate, rather than just yet another manifestation of our government’s inveterate incompetence.   If we can’t generate waves in the English Channel to swamp the asylum-seekers’ dinghies, and we can’t send them all to St Helena, by way of deterrents, let’s just not worry too much about whether some of them die of Covid.   That might put an extra burden on the NHS, but it could stop them wanting to come here.  If that sounds unduly cynical I would, once again, cite in my defence the striking similarity of attitude and mode of operation of our Home Office to that of apartheid South Africa’s Department of the Interior.   

The relatively good news is that even the most cursory research will show that it isn’t only the Guardian and The Independent that have carried this story sympathetically. Even the Sun and the Daily Mail have done soboth of which have reported on a petition to shut down the site, along with a similar facility at a barracks in Wales, which had already by last Tuesday amassed more than 10,000 signatures.  So, much as the behaviour of the Home Office would suggest that it sees its role as being to take the lead in the incremental dehumanization of the victims of an inherently xenophobic government, it would seem that it still has some way to go if even the populist mouthpieces and opinion leaders of the tabloid press are still able to view the victims of the Home Office’s bullying sympathetically.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-camps-home-office-covid-b1792422.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: What are they thinking?

14th January

One of the problems associated with trying to preserve what is left of one’s sanity under lockdown via a high degree of selectivity where the news media are concerned is that it is extremely difficult to get a handle on precisely what the great British public is thinking.  Reading the Independent, Guardian and New European, and watching or listening exclusively to the BBC and Channel 4 news, doesn’t help very much when it comes to gauging just how much support there is for current government ministers or their policies.  One assumes that a populist government would be anxious to run its policy proposals past focus groups representing ‘the people’ in the interest of maintaining its popularity, but can it be doing so in present circumstances?  Or is it having to look for affirmation from the dwindling numbers of members in the Conservative Party whose average age was estimated by the Bow Group, a Conservative think tank, in 2017 as 72 (although others suggest the rather lower figure of 57).*   Now that Brexit is ‘done’, for ill or even worse ill, does Boris Johnson keep the likes of Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel in key posts in the cabinet, in spite of the levels of embarrassment they occasion, because he thinks the Tory-voting public like their policies, because he thinks the Conservative Party likes them, because they know too much about him, or just because he is beyond embarrassment?

Having kept Priti Patel at a safe distance from the 10 Downing Street press conferences since May, in spite of the fact that she is Home Secretary and thereby ultimately responsible to Johnson for the explaining and policing of lockdown measures, Boris Johnson absent-mindedly allowed her to front the press conference on Tuesday evening.  In response to questions about how the lockdown rules should be interpreted, Patel confidently assured the nation that ‘The rules are actually very simple and clear’, and went on to elaborate on what is permitted: ‘And then of course outdoor recreation but in a very, very restricted and limited way, staying local.’  Given that the point of the questioning was to ask what ‘local’ is supposed to mean, and given that ‘recreation’ is explicitly ruled-out in the government guidance – ‘It is against the law to … leave home for recreational or leisure purposes…’ – this was less than helpful.  Unsurprisingly, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick appears not to think that the rules ‘are actually very clear and simple’: she recently told the BBC’s Today programme that, ‘Anything that brings greater clarity for officers and the public in general will be a good thing.’

John Rentoul, The Independent’s chief political commentator, claims that Patel is popular among Conservative Party members, which raises the question as to whether there really is wider support beyond that very limited (in several ways) group for the short-sighted and xenophobic viciousness of Patel’s policies on asylum and immigration.  So, to take just two examples this week, in The Independent on Sunday 10th  Rob Merrick reported that, in line with Patel’s crack-down on immigration, our government had refused the EU’s offer of the ‘standard’ reciprocal visa-free exemption for performers and then, predictably, lied that it was the EU that had refused the UK’s request.   This had been greeted with outrage from the music industry, which stands to lose a significant portion of its annual income as a consequence.  On Wednesday 12th The Independent carried an excoriating critique of Patel’s ‘brutal’ approach to asylum-seekers which risks ‘whipping up an unpleasant reaction to some very vulnerable people’ by no lesser figure than Caroline Noakes, Priti Patel’s Conservative predecessor as Home Secretary.** Where asylum-seekers are concerned, Noakes suggested that commitments to change the Home Office following the Windrush scandal had been ‘torn up, disregarded and rendered clearly completely irrelevant’, citing a camp for asylum-seekers being set up on Ministry of Defence land in her Kent constituency that has no electricity or water mains and will not be provided with healthcare.  Noakes concluded that asylum ‘is an incredibly hard nut to crack, but I don’t think you crack it by being inhuman towards people; I don’t think you crack it by being brutal and muscular in your policies.’

So we find two markedly contrasting approaches within the same Conservative Party: the one brutal and inhuman – and one could cite reams more evidence against Patel in that regard; the other compassionate.  If Rentoul is right about the Patel being popular with the membership of the Conservative Party, it seems reasonable to suppose that Caroline Noakes probably isn’t.  But the critical question for me, in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol in Washington by white supremacists, is just how much support the Tories have among the great British public for their brutal and inhuman approach to immigration and asylum.  One has to assume that, at the very least, Johnson and Patel must be confident that support for their brutality extends well beyond the limited membership of the Conservative Party.  I would like to think that, despite the best efforts of the Sun and the Daily Mail, the majority of the British public would, if it came to it, disavow a policy of calculated brutality and inhumanity towards exceptionally vulnerable people seeking refuge in our country.  But I could be wrong.  As I acknowledged at the outset, I don’t have a finger anywhere near the pulse of the general populace.  If I am wrong, it really does matter.  Because if I am wrong that would suggest that England is nurturing a hard core of white supremacists and assorted extremists who might well be capable of the violent storming of the Palace of Westminster at the behest of a maverick political leader, just as their counterparts in USA stormed the Capitol.   

*https://fullfact.org/news/how-old-average-conservative-party-member/

** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/home-office-immigration-caroline-nokes-priti-patel-uk-b1776208.html