The mark of the bully – target the weakest

Posted on June 7, 2023

A few weeks back I visited a young man living in a hotel. An asylum seeker from Iraq, he needed some help and advice. He also needed some bus fare. For the last seven years, during which time I’ve been working as a volunteer in this area, I’ve met hundreds of such young men.

I approach the lobby of the hotel. In different times it would fall into the pit-stop category of accommodation. Corporately badged, clean and comfortable in a sterile sort of way. The livery and company colours recognisable in cities around the world. Overnighters for parties and weddings; the location for some mind-numbing work awayday. Except that now it has been commandeered by the Home Office to house people waiting for asylum claims to be processed.

I buzz him on WhatsApp, the lifeline for people in his situation, and tell him I’ll meet him downstairs. I explain to the burly, surly security people who I am and show them my organisation’s credentials. I’m met with blank-eyed indifference and told that I can’t come in to sit down and wait. Just in case I haven’t got the picture, there is a definite incursion into my physical space to ensure that I move towards the door.

It’s not such a big deal. Fortunately, it’s not raining and we meet outside on the pavement. I feel like telling the security guy that I’ve been chucked out of better Home Office hotels than this one, but decide that discretion is the better part of valour.  It’s true, though. Circumstances vary from place to place – and some staff have been briefed to be welcoming and, crucially, appreciative of the help that the voluntary sector can bring. But these guys must have been to the course run by officials at the hard-man end of the spectrum. Like I say, it’s not like this has never happened before.

I sort out my young man – a boy, really – and, as often happens in such circumstances, I see him welling up in response to someone caring about him, even in this perfunctory, instrumental way from a complete stranger.

Estimates vary, but a figure of some 400 hotels are being used to accommodate people who are waiting for their claims to be settled. But that wait goes on for a very, very long time indeed. Six months is regarded as a good result; a year, or longer, is far from unknown. Whatever figures you choose, there are, at the very least, 160,000 claims waiting to be processed. Let’s do some arithmetic.

In each of the 400 or so hotels, there is a security team similar to the lovely crew who meet me on the morning in question. What there is not, however, is a similar team of civil servants ready and waiting to process the claims. I know it’s a convoluted process, but let’s say a small team could deal with four claims a day in 400 hotels – that’s 1600 done. Rattle along at that rate, and you don’t need to be Einstein to work out how long to clear the 160,000 backlog.

There is, however, a clear and simple reason why the Home Office won’t install some pen-pushers to join the bruisers in the lobby. They don’t want to.

Hobbled as the Home Secretary is with a migration policy that would appeal to the Mad Hatter, the only element of the migration mess that she has any control over is a discourse of shaming and dehumanising people in desperate need. While she’s forcing strangers to share tiny bedrooms, or stacking them like Victorian convicts on hulks, she can be seen to be doing something. It’s the last, vile shot of a desperate bully.

We’re told that this further humiliation of already traumatised people will act as a deterrent to those wishing to come to the UK – a place, ironically, seen by many of them as somewhere where decency and fair-play will prevail. And we’re also told that it’s about wrecking the business model of the people smugglers.

Both claims are preposterous. First, since the announcement of the half-baked Rwanda scheme, numbers attempting to reach the UK have been entirely unaffected with, if anything, a slight increase in those crossing the Channel. Those who have witnessed enough horror, upheaval and hardship to leave behind everything they have, aren’t going to be put off by yet another thing that may or may not happen.

Second – and I’ll try not to shout here – if the intention is to get after the smugglers, then get after the smugglers. Don’t go after their victims. That’s not how solving criminal behaviour works. You’d have thought you might have known that, what with you being in charge of the Home Office and all that.

And at the bottom of all this process, there’s a boy – a university graduate, as it happens – who needs a bit of assistance, get hold of some bus fare and enjoy, however fleetingly, a helping hand. He’s far from home, removed from his family, nothing to do, unable to work or study and treated with suspicion by those who guard his place of residence. And the best Suella Braverman can come up with is to make his limited life even more miserable. If there are angels, I just hope they save their tears for my boy and not for her and her rotten, immoral buddies.

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Jon Berry

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