Dear Priti Patel: your parents aren’t the only immigrants that deserve compassion

Home secretary Priti Patel
Afroze Fatima Zaidi

Priti Patel has raged yet again about people arriving to the UK via the English Channel. “I will not let up until this route is unviable”, she said. Pesky “activist lawyers”, who insist on ensuring that the government doesn’t break the law, are almost as much of a nuisance as these people daring to cross the Channel in the hope of a better life.

Patel’s contempt for these refugees is plain to see. It’s a reflection of the Conservative government’s attitude on immigration, and it’s reflected in the media reporting on this issue. Refugees are treated as less than human. They are criminalised and scapegoated. They are dispossessed, displaced, and unwanted. The government response continues to be ‘deport first, ask questions later’. They are ‘illegal’ by default, and their history, circumstances, and struggles are irrelevant.

“We are here because you were there”

The irony, however, is that Patel’s own parents came to the UK as asylum seekers. They didn’t have to come “via small boat”, because in the 70s, Asian refugees from Uganda were allowed to enter the UK freely. They were recognised as “refugees”, not ‘economic migrants’. They had a right to come here and they had a right to stay. Unfortunately, those now fleeing civil war in Sudan or British-sanctioned bombing in Syria and Yemen aren’t so lucky.

Moreover, this dichotomy between ‘refugee’ and ‘economic migrant’ only serves to further demonise immigrants of all kinds in the UK. It particularly overlooks the harm caused by the British empire to people who were colonised. Former colonies continue to struggle under the weight of poverty and the crime and corruption emerging from it. And this is why so-called ‘economic migrants’ come to the UK in search of a better life. It was sociologist A Sivanandan who said about immigration: “We are here because you were there”.

But Britain loves to complain about the scourge of immigration for which it is directly responsible. First through the systematic looting and plundering of entire colonised nations. Then through neo-imperialism and the military-industrial complex.

Human lives

Does the home secretary realise that if her own policies had been in place at the time her parents came to the UK, they wouldn’t have been allowed to stay? I keep imagining a scenario in which Patel’s parents manage to time travel to 2020. Upon arriving in the UK, would Patel send them back to wherever they came from? Or if she found out they were her parents, would she treat them differently?

And if the answer to that question is ‘yes’, what I really want to know is this: why do the home secretary’s parents deserve compassion as refugees, but not the people crossing the English Channel today? Why is it acceptable to discuss making this route “unviable”, without regard for the human lives such a decision will impact?

Having compassion for other human beings should be a given. This is more so the case when people are vulnerable and have been through extreme trauma. And even more so when we bear responsibility for the situation in which they find themselves.

We won’t let up

But the British government isn’t capable of any of these things. It has no compassion, and it refuses to bear responsibility for the displacement of these refugees. With them disproportionately being from racialised groups – Muslims and people of colour – dehumanising them is easy. And more than that, the government continues to cynically scapegoat refugees in order to deflect attention from its own failures.

Patel may not want to let up on enforcing the government’s hostile environment. But when it comes to calling attention to the government’s incompetence and general lack of humanity, there are a lot of people who, along with those activist lawyers, won’t let up either.

Featured image via YouTube/ Guardian News

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