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Crisis? Just pull people out of the water, will you?

Posted on December 31, 2018

Refugees boats

There should be a lot to like about the current Home Secretary, Sajid Javid. A classic case of a boy born into a hard-working, immigrant family who has forged his way to one of the highest offices in the land.  Once there, informed, one imagines, by his own experience, he has spoken (very quietly, it must be said) against some of the worst blatherings from his party colleagues about creating  ‘hostile environments’ for people trying to come and make their lives in the UK.

You might also feel for him because he’s just had his family break cut short because, as is only fitting for one of the great ministers of state, such sacrifices need to be made when crises occur.

And a crisis there most definitely is. According to Conservative MP Michael Elphike, as many as 100 migrants may have ‘broken into’ the UK in recent weeks. So that could be up to 3 or 4 a day. No wonder our public services are crumbling under the strain of it all.

One imagines that the moment these people arrive, they’ll be hightailing it to the council offices and  be installed in social housing, enjoying the luxuries of state benefits within weeks, if not days. And thus their life’s ambitions will have been fulfilled.

It was, after all, such a dream that drove them to leave their perfectly ordinary suburban homes from which they had departed every morning to their schools, colleges, jobs and domestic chores, to pack up whatever belongings they could carry and set off into the absolute unknown in fear and despair. Most of us would have done so in a heartbeat, eh?

Well, if we had witnessed unspeakable and barely repeatable acts in our own backyard, we may well have done so. If loved ones had been slaughtered in front of  us, that might just have had an effect on our view of the world. If our houses and every one of our dearest possessions had been obliterated within moments by those who were our sworn and deadly enemies, we might, perhaps, just have shifted ourselves.

There is a flaw in the dominant discourse about migrants that Javid, more than most, should be able to recognise. Migrants don’t expect the state to support them; they expect to work very hard for a living. They expect to pay their way and that includes handing over cash – and plenty of it – to a crook with a dinghy. The notion that people are waiting on the shores of France and Belgium to get state benefits in the UK is laughable. Practically none of them (and I know this at first hand) even know that such benefits exist – they are totally beyond their experience and imagination.

Because most of them speak some English – some very fluently – and because they have a relative or a friend of a friend of their cousin in Coventry, the UK is attractive. There’s also no getting away from the fact that because of Britain’s imperialist and military past, many feel connections to a place about which they harbour notions of fairness and civility. The idea that we betray that trust and panic because a few dozen of them are breaking the rules and, almost literally, slipping in under the wire, would be an absurdity at any time. The fact that this is labelled a crisis when thousands in the UK rely daily on foodbanks and thousands of others sleep rough is a shameful exaggeration.

One of the central themes of my blog posts is the dishonesty of offering simple solutions to complex problems. However, it’s worth taking stock of the situation. If we accept the fact that no government can endorse a policy that allows people to drown in its territorial waters because of its own negligence, rescue vessels must be employed to pre-empt such a possibility. Simple. Depending on where, exactly, such rescues take place, people must be given sanctuary. Still simple. If, as various reports seem to indicate, the financial transactions that allow such boat journeys to be arranged are not difficult to locate and recognise, then prosecute those who seek to profit from the vulnerability, ignorance and desperation of others. All very simple. Stay on holiday, Sajid.

What’s not so simple is why thousands of people have undertaken such fraught and perilous journeys from the homelands they love and to where, in almost all cases, they dream of returning. I’m sure that some future posts will deal with parts of the intricate geo-politics of which such migrations are an obvious, unwanted consequence – and to do so is important to understand why we find ourselves mired in such awfulness. For the moment, it is incumbent on us to act where we can.

And so to a story familiar to many who come from my political tradition. It is about the connection between theory, action and humanity (stay with it, that makes it sound grander than it is). Two men (alter the gender in the retelling if you wish) are walking along a river bank and hear cries for help coming from the water. The first – a committed and knowledgeable scholar of politics – starts to explain to the drowning man that his predicament has been caused by public underspending on the safety of the towpath and the inadequate provision of lifesaving equipment. The second contrives to pull him from the water, makes him comfortable and……begins to explain that his predicament has been caused by public underspending…… you get the picture.

So let’s pull people from the water, make them comfortable and not label such basic humanity a crisis. Then let’s get on with the proper discussions about the really big questions.

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