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Opinion: The UK's moral panic over migrants isn’t being treated as a crisis, but as a political opportunity

By conjuring the spectre of a national crisis, the right have created the ideal conditions for a reactionary power grab, writes Ash Sarkar.

Ash Sarkar

IN THE LAST week, the country that never shuts up about winning two World Wars and one World Cup has decided that the greatest threat to our national security comes from handfuls of exhausted migrants arriving in precarious dinghies across the Dover Strait.

It doesn’t matter that arrivals on small boats only made up 0.59% of immigration to the UK in 2019, or that Britain is a comparatively unpopular country for asylum seekers.

By conjuring the spectre of a national crisis, the right have created the ideal conditions for a reactionary power grab.

Polling by data bods at YouGov shows that nearly three quarters of Brits think that Channel crossings are a serious issue, and about 70% supporting the use of military personnel to prevent migrants from making an attempt to cross the water.

Despite France handling nearly three times more asylum applications than the UK, the majority of respondents are convinced that Britain has done more than its fair share to accommodate refugees when compared to other European countries.

Public opinion is completely unmoored from the facts on the ground.

The truth is that neither the UK nor Europe as a whole are uniquely overburdened by refugees. 85% of refugees are hosted by developing countries, often ones neighbouring the places that those claiming asylum have just fled.

What’s more, Britain trails behind Spain, France, Germany and Greece in terms of raw numbers of asylum claims.

The fraction of asylum seekers who do want to come to the UK, and travel through other European countries to do so, aren’t coming to our shores to live large off the public purse and/or steal our jobs.

Asylum seekers aren’t even allowed to apply for permission to work unless they’ve been waiting on their initial claim for 12 months.

And the sums received in benefits aren’t what you’d call princely either: 44,000 asylum seekers are entitled to just £37 a week, which is equal to just over a fiver a day to pay for food, travel, and other necessities.

Manufactured outrage

Moral panics are manufactured outrages: they have to be made, nurtured, and repeated ad nauseum.

None are more diligent in keeping a finger on the clogged artery of middle England than the seven-times-failed parliamentary candidate Nigel Farage.

Post-Brexit, the ex MEP was in the market for another marginal issue to plonk right in the middle of the national conversation, and send the propertied baby boomers of the white-flight ring around London into an incandescent rage.

A marked turn in his social media content can be found from late-April of this year. Farage’s posts became obsessively fixated on small boat crossings, calling them “the beginning of an invasion” and a “national humiliation.”

He accused Border Force of acting as a “taxi service” for migrants who’d made it ashore, and feigned apoplexy when he discovered that the hotel accommodation laid on for them included hot meals, private bathrooms, and WiFi.

Through the conveyor belt of talk radio, Faragist talking points made their way into right wing print media, and then national broadcasts at large.

India Wlloughby took to morning television to suggest that a barbed wire fence should be erected down the English Channel, while phone-in shows fielded calls from viewers made genuinely furious by the idea that asylum seekers might need some money while the Home Office processes their claim.

There was no suggestion too cruel, nor anger too misplaced, to find a home on national broadcasters.

Meanwhile, journalists from the BBC and Sky News raced to don lifejackets and take to the sea, scouring the Channel for small dinghies in order to demonstrate the intrepidness of their reporting.

Examples of searing journalism include BBC Breakfast’s Simon Jones asking Syrians bailing out their vessel with a plastic bucket if they were alright, as if one might reply that they’re having the time of their lives.

Such coverage represents a failure by broadcasters to situate the potent imagery of brown men in boats within facts, explanation, or humanising context.

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Falsehoods and misinformation

A reporter’s job is so much more than finding an event and physically pointing at it. Journalists have a duty to serve their audience, and that means sometimes debunking the fictions and misinformation that many of their viewers otherwise take as gospel.

The fact that falsehoods and misinformation endure is not a simple accident of ignorance. It’s part of shaping a political culture which presents cruelty as common sense.

The media’s hospitable environment for reactionary opinions has a symbiotic relationship with the government’s hostile one for migrants.

The rowdy chorus of paranoiac hallooing provides a pretext for politicians like Priti Patel to erode the human rights of those seeking asylum in the UK.

Rather than expanding avenues for safe migration, the Home Secretary has vowed to make the Channel “unviable” – i.e. more dangerous, for migrants who attempt to make the crossing.

Boris Johnson has floated the idea of changing the law to make it more difficult for asylum seekers to lodge claims in the UK rather than France, while anonymous Whitehall sources speak darkly of “lefty lawyers” undermining the government by insisting on the rights afforded to their clients by law.

There’s nothing more effective than claiming victimhood when seeking licence for cruelty.

Nurtured grievance and perceived assaults on British territorial integrity and sovereignty give political cover to the government in consolidating power and undermine judicial independence or the constraints of international law.

The small boat moral panic isn’t a crisis. It’s an opportunity.

Ash Sarkar is a Senior Editor at Novara Media.

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Ash Sarkar

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