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Think Priti Patel was bad? Suella Braverman wants to make claiming asylum near-impossible | Maya Goodfellow

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2022-10-05
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The home secretary, Suella Braverman, speaking at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Suella Braverman has a “ dream ”. And what is it that she dreams of? Yesterday, she let an audience at a Conservative conference fringe event in on one of her great political hopes: a Telegraph front page with a picture of a plane taking off to Rwanda. This, her big dream, is the stuff of many people’s nightmares .

Later the same day, in her first major speech as home secretary, Braverman thanked Priti Patel for the “ foundations ” she had laid in toughening the immigration system, invoking the usual spectres of “illegal immigrants”, “low-skilled foreign workers” and “mass and rapid migration”. But she made it clear that she would go further, with plans to bring in the harshest, most damaging immigration environment yet.

Going one further than her predecessor, she committed to deporting anyone who doesn’t enter the UK through government-sanctioned routes . To rapturous applause in the conference hall, she waded further into the culture war and took aim at the ongoing legal challenges to the Rwanda policy, promising human rights legislation will not get in her way. On top of that, she said she would deport anyone who had passed through a “safe” country before arriving here. This was months of moral panic about people crossing the Channel distilled into one speech.

With the rightwing press and decades of similar messaging at her back, Braverman has the luxury of not having worry about whether the government’s logic is strong or not. But she must surely know how flimsy it is. “Legal” routes are so small in number that a tiny proportion of people get refugee status this way. This leaves most with no other choice than to make life-threateningly perilous journeys in the hope they will get here. “I didn’t have any other way to do it,” 28-year old Ali said about crossing the Channel, “while my life was in danger.”

Much of this plan would breach the United Nations Refugee Convention, which states that how you enter a country and whether it’s the first “safe” country you reach shouldn’t affect your asylum applications. And so this could be a case of politicians talking big, amping the rhetoric to show they are tough. Regardless, when governments have overpromised in the past and haven’t done all they said they would, they have still done untold damage to people’s lives . People die trying to get here , children are kept from their families and many are made destitute . Two years ago, 11 Syrians were left in the street in Madrid when the Home Office deported them . It would be a mistake to assume the government will not make all of this much worse.

Attacks on people seeking asylum are so egregious, it is tempting to focus all our energy here. But if this is where outrage begins, it shouldn’t be where it ends. Braverman said her “ ultimate aspiration ” was to reduce “net migration” by only allowing “immigration that grows our economy” – which means the “high-skilled” not the “low-skilled” kind. We already have a good idea of what this means: barring people from moving just because of their qualifications, class or how much money they have, while bringing in people deemed “economically necessary” to exploit them as long as it suits the “British economy”.

We have heard much of this before , from Boris Johnson and Theresa May and at the Labour conference last week. Nestled in Keir Starmer’s roundly celebrated conference speech was one line on all of this, “I will … control immigration”, he said , “using a points-based system.” We should pay attention to this overlap, however small it might be. It is no good to focus on asylum seekers at the expense of everyone else; defending the refugee convention while doubling down on only admitting people who are “economically useful”. “We asked for workers,” the Swiss writer Max Frisch said in 1965, “and human beings came.” Most politicians refuse to accept this, unless it suits their message.

It’s intensely personal ,” Braverman said yesterday, describing her parents’ stories of migration, just as she did in her 2015 maiden speech . It is an effective strategy; it gives a veneer of respectability. It also slots nicely into her political beliefs: Britain will welcome you, if you “integrate”, work hard and embrace being “British” – whatever that might mean. Attacks on “mass migration”, “identity politics”, trans people and the right to protest are tightly woven together as part of the law-and-order, proud-to-be-British view of the world. A view the last home secretary shared too.

But this a picture built on sand. Braverman’s father fled Kenya for Britain in 1968 and it’s unlikely he’d be let in today. Even at the time, his was only part of the story. In March 1968, the Labour government rushed through racist legislation to make it harder for Kenyan Asians to come to Britain. That second part doesn’t make it into politician’s speeches.

Seemingly designed to strip people of their basic humanity, Braverman’s speech and the architecture around it turns human beings into caricatures. People who arrive by “small boats” are illegitimate and ill-intentioned. “Mass migration” puts pressure on public services. Victims of modern slavery choose to come here and game a lax system. This version of events infects public discourse. It quickly becomes truth no matter how fictitious it is .

This isn’t simply a distraction from a disastrous 28 days of Liz Truss’s government, nor is it just lofty rhetoric to speak to the Tory base. It fits neatly into the government’s agenda, and it will mean more people die trying to get to the UK. This is not too bold a prediction to make, it is exactly what has happened before. Predictability does not make it unimportant; that it’s what we’ve come to expect makes it all the more chilling.

  • Maya Goodfellow is a writer and academic, and the author of Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats

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