Priti Patel's toxic xenophobia is the real enemy, not migrants on a dinghy at sea

Priti Patel's toxic xenophobia is the real enemy, not migrants on a dinghy at sea

Comment: The Home Secretary's spectacular lack of humanity towards migrants is obscuring the very real damage her government is doing to the country, writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
13 Aug, 2020
Priti Patel threatened to send in the Royal Navy to deter migrant crossings [Getty]
It is difficult to imagine that the xenophobic practices of the British government have reached such a level that even an ice cream company feels the need to use its social media platform to point out the appalling dehumanisation that is taking place. 

Ben and Jerry's took to Twitter this week to tell Priti Patel that, "we think the real crisis is our lack of humanity for people fleeing war, climate change and torture" adding that "people cannot be illegal".

This came after the announcement that the Home Secretary would be reinforcing the hunt for migrants at sea by deploying the Navy, in response to reports of the highest number of boats filled with migrants in recent years crossing the North Sea. She has already recruited a former Royal Marine to be a "clandestine Channel threat commander" – a new position she invented for the occasion.

As we continue to feel the full force of the economic crisis, accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the reality of job losses, severe poverty, and the continued consequences of our underfunded and increasingly privatised welfare state plagues the nation, the priority of this government lies not in developing an urgent response to it, but in the violent targeting of migrants.

Yet, despite the bleak and difficult future that worries communities across the UK, and the loss of loved ones by so many, Patel has the audacity to claim that her actions are by and for the people. She continues to justify her actions, tweeting that: "I know that when the British people say they want to take back control of our borders - this is exactly what they mean." 

At a time when many are likely to witness further hardship from job losses and evictions, it is not difficult to see the official narrative being pushed here: the problem is not the rich, the system, or the state; it is the poor, the weak, the foreign. Yet, as always, the enemy is at home.

The deployment of the Royal Navy only reinforces the criminalisation of migrants

The government narrative has been propped up with some appalling press coverage. A recent report by the BBC on refugees crossing the channel is a shining example. The degrading segment showed a journalist on a boat talking about the crisis, surrounded by migrants in dinghies, as though he was reporting on rare and dangerous animals in the wilderness.

Viewers are invited to watch clips of desperate, vulnerable people from the comforts of their living room, with the added bonus of knowing that such a journalist has aided the forces likely to stop them from reaching British shores. "They seem to be safe at the moment but obviously the coastguard has been alerted," he reassures all those at home.

Read more: Don't scapegoat migrants for the pandemic

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Another classic right-wing tactic for further peddling the xenophobic line, is the announcement of an inquiry into the rise of refugees crossing the Channel. Mostly, such investigations work against the interests of the oppressed, as we have seen with similar initiatives in the context of Windrush victims, or those who faced racist police violence.

Terms such as 'criminal', 'illegal' and 'gangs' are used in most commentary and statements in order to stoke the fire of hate at a time of rising far-right activity. The journey made on small boats by many desperate to seek a better life, was described by Johnson as a "very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing". The Tory communication unit would be proud.

In addition, the unbelievable level of attention, resources and airtime this is all being given beggars belief. You would think that this was the largest crisis hitting the country at this moment. The deployment of the Royal Navy only reinforces the criminalisation of migrants, and the obscene violence the Home Office feels they merit.

It is however, precisely because of the seriousness of the social crisis upon us, that greater xenophobia (and other racism) is likely to be whipped up more and more by the government and the media. As long as we are talking about fighting those risking their lives in a desperate search for a better life, we won't talk about fighting those actually responsible for the current situation.

It is the rich - the bankers, landlords, and bosses - who got us here. It is a system based on putting profit before people

Patel's extreme plan to send in the Navy was even criticised from within the Ministry of Defence, where one source stated that her intentions had "more holes than Swiss cheese".

Furthermore, the Home Secretary could - and hopefully will - face considerable roadblocks. Lawyers have said that her actions would be unlawful given maritime laws that require the rescue of those who find themselves in danger at sea. However, we cannot simply depend on the word of legal experts or state officials to force the government to do a U-turn.

The Johnson government is likely to dismiss their opinion and wield it as further proof that they are standing up to the 'liberal elite in London'.

Instead it is crucial for us to rebuild a broad based, society wide coalition that can fight against the demonisation of the most vulnerable, and place the blame for the current social crisis right where it belongs: at the door of the coalition that Johnson, Patel and co. represent.

It is the rich - the bankers, landlords, and bosses - who got us here. It is a system based on putting profit before people that has destroyed ecosystems, welfare states, and sustainable food production. In the words of the old slogan: unemployment and inflation are not caused by immigration, come off it, the enemy is profit.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.