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British Hospitality

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An estimated 387 child refugees who have relatives in the UK are stranded alone in Calais. The UK government doesn’t really want to bring them over, and has only started to after being sued by a group of charities. Three teenagers who arrived this week have been accused of looking like young men rather than children. The way the right-wing press has singled out these boys and published their faces in a hit parade is straight-up racist intimidation, playing on a stereotype of non-white foreigners being freakishly and threateningly overdeveloped.

People like the Conservative MP (not the Brexit secretary) David Davies – ‘These don’t look like “children” to me. I hope British hospitality is not being abused’; ‘Migrant “children” must be given dental X-rays to prove age’; ‘didn’t see any children in the camp’ – claim that they’re interested only in ensuring that genuine children get the protection they need. Somehow I doubt it. Davies’s ‘concerns’ are part of a general narrowing down of the category of ‘deserving’ refugees, with the aim of taking in as few as possible. The terms are shifting constantly; when you answer one objection, another appears. OK, there’s a refugee crisis but the real refugees are the ones who stay in camps outside Europe. OK, there’s a crisis in Europe but the real refugees are the ones who stay in the first European country they set foot in. OK, there’s a problem in Calais but we only need to protect the lone children. OK, but not the teenagers. And so on.

Davies’s invoking of British ‘hospitality’ is also questionable. One might ask what kind of hospitality it is to leave thousands of Afghans, whose country Britain recently occupied for 13 years, and many of whom have relatives in the UK, living in the mud in Calais. One might also question the wider theme of ‘Britain’s proud history of welcoming refugees’, as it is often called. The UK has indeed taken in certain selected groups of refugees at certain points in its history, and this has made a real difference to the lives of the people who came here. But it might be more accurate to say that Britain has a history of mainly trying to keep refugees out, while occasionally welcoming limited numbers. People tend to forget that the British government, which kept its doors closed to most Jewish refugees from Europe in the 1930s, was pressured into the Kindertransport by Jewish and Quaker organisations – and even then, it only took the children and left their parents to die. The ‘proud history’, as often as not, is used to justify keeping refugees out.

Unaccompanied children are often in greatest need of protection and should be given priority, but helping them is not enough. Most of the migrants are adults. It’s the restrictions on their movement that create the situations in which children get trapped. And while a rhetorical focus on children may seem an easy way to skip the difficult political questions and appeal straight to people’s emotions, it may not be the best way to help refugees in the long run.

The migrants in Calais and elsewhere are not so much ‘innocents’ as people trying to retain control over their lives and making morally complex decisions about what risks to take, what rules to flout, what lies to tell – including, in a minority of cases, saying you’re under 18 when you’re not. If these details are kept out of the picture then it makes it harder to ask the questions that need to be asked. Why should anyone, for example, from small children to adult women and men, have to put up with these conditions? What set of interests does it serve to regulate their movement and encourage people to fear them? And how likely is it that a state which treats refugees in this way will behave similarly to its own citizens?

Comments

  1. michael bosley says:

    This isn’t a difficult or complex issue. And the Davies man is my MP, for Chrissakes’. Western values – huh, yeah – what are they good for?

  2. ‘But it might be more accurate to say that Britain has a history of mainly trying to keep refugees out, while occasionally welcoming limited numbers.’ It depends how far back you want to go. During most of the 19th century Britain let ALL refugees in – and there were quite a few. She couldn’t actually stop them, or expel them. In Victorian times this was regarded as one of her proudest national characteristics.

  3. farthington says:

    Ireland as precedent?
    Stuff up the home country and experience the consequent on home turf.
    It’s nature’s equilibrating tendencies at work.

  4. rolandino says:


    People tend to forget that the British government, which kept its doors closed to most Jewish refugees from Europe in the 1930s, was pressured into the Kindertransport by Jewish and Quaker organisations – and even then, it only took the children and left their parents to die. The ‘proud history’, as often as not, is used to justify keeping refugees out.

    Don’t they just forget. At the time, UK national newspapers were stuffed full of adverts from families in Germany, Austria, Sudentenland – desperately trying to prove their “worth” to the UK, trying to get any kind of job to prove they were not a burden. Result? UK government tightened up the rules, and many died in gas chambers.

    Our “proud history” my arse.
    Thanks for posting this point of view – it’s so rarely seen.
    As for the current state of affairs – it’s shameful and vile.

  5. Coldish says:

    This British government (along with its predecessors) is a disgrace to humanity. Having participated in the wilful destruction of functioning secular societies in Iraq and Libya, and in the partial destruction of such a society in Syria, thus opening the way for psychopathic and murderous religious fanatics to take control of large areas of North Africa and the Near East, it refuses to accept any responsibility for accommodating more than a tiny fraction of the consequent flood of political and religious refugees and economic migrants. We should hang our heads in shame.

  6. pembury 12 says:

    Britain welcomed refugees from France in the 1790’s and particularly Poles fleeing after the 1830 revolt. It was the same in 1848 but these were politicals who were often rich aristocrats; they fitted in well in Britain. The Polish refugees also fitted in well with Britain’s Anti Russian policies. Other, more impoverished refugees, such as Jews escaping Eastern Europe in the 1890’s were far less welcome with a stirring of racist anti semitism in the popular press. The flood of right wingers escaping the East in 1945 were not talked about much but feelings ran high in some places, like the NW where a newspaper in Morecombe published an anti Semetic tirade against Jewish refugees on its front page. It seems as if Britain has only “welcomed” refugees when they are rich or serve the country’s geopolitical stance?


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