When I set off last week to a protest outside the Home Office with my Refugees Welcome placard, I had to battle some reluctance. Yes, I wanted to demonstrate solidarity with those refugees still waiting to hear if they would be on the plane to Rwanda. I wanted to show the lawyers and campaigners working round the clock that there are many of us who believe they are doing a heroic job. I wanted to remind onlookers in the UK and beyond that many here want to stand up for a more humane society.
But also, I did not want to go. I felt a creeping anxiety that campaigners are being used, forced to play a bit part in Priti Patel’s nightmare vision of an ever more polarised, ever more angry nation. She proposes a vile policy, so people shout at her. She tries to do something illegal and judges oppose her. She characterises opponents as a mob and we sit down in the road. No wonder some of us feel as if we are being forced to fulfil a direction set by the government. It provides the plot, we are just the reaction shot. The government is pushing those who care about refugees – or about other, no less urgent issues – into a position of permanent protest.
I fear that we are being set a trap and falling into it, by playing this role in a farce that we didn’t script. As many have said, there is a spiralling craziness about this government’s approach, where the actual aim is not to achieve any of the stated objectives but to ratchet up the sense of crisis. We know, and they know, and they know that we know, that one key aim of the Rwanda policy is not to solve any potential challenges caused by arrivals on small boats but to create a distraction from the government’s real challenges. The more polarised and furious the debate gets, the more successful is the distraction. And yet many of us continue to play our role.
But we cannot do otherwise. Because, while this performative cruelty may be in part a game to the politicians who put it into practice, for the people who are actually affected by the policy, it is far from a game. The narrative that the Rwanda policy is just a dead cat, thrown on to the table to distract from Partygate and the cost of living crisis, ignores the real harm that the policy is doing and the worse harm that it would do if people stopped opposing it. Let’s not forget that the deportations last week were halted only because people continued to dig in their heels. Dogged individuals at charities supported refugees threatened with deportation day and night and lawyers worked tirelessly on their legal challenges. They all knew that this is no time to give up, because what may look like a farce to some is in fact a tragedy in the making.
Nobody who has heard or read any of the interviews with the refugees threatened by removal to Rwanda can be left in any doubt that the cruelty is real. This may be a route to cling on to power for the politicians who craft the policy, but for those affected, this is a route into genuine trauma. We can’t just step away from this fight that Boris Johnson and Patel have started, because real lives are at stake.
Real people such as the young Afghan man who was reported to have been served with removal directions, whose father had worked as an interpreter for British troops. Or the Iranian policeman who had disobeyed orders in his country and been imprisoned as a result. Or the Iraqi man who was hit and restrained as he was dragged to the flight just before his last-minute reprieve. While the reports of these men’s experiences have been chilling to read, their actual experiences are almost beyond imagining.
So it remains important for everyone to take the situation seriously, however farcical and gimmicky the policy may look to some. It is vital to stick with the challenges and to do everything possible to stop the deportations for now. But it’s also important to keep trying to shift the script and move beyond this role of permanent protest. There is so much more that campaigners have to say. It’s easy for the government to paint them as having no constructive solutions, but it could hardly be less true. Charities and thinktanks have come up with all sorts of proposals over the years.
As so many have shown, there is simply no need for this kind of irrational panic over people coming here for safety. Other countries have experienced many more refugee entrants without collapsing into crisis. Rather than reaching for these bizarrely unworkable and punitive policies – including the new proposal for electronic tagging, the latest plan which manages to combine cruelty with futility – there are so many constructive proposals out there. So campaigners have talked pragmatically about everything from safe routes to the timely processing of asylum claims.
Perhaps one issue with that kind of script is that it just isn’t very exciting. When I was running a refugee charity, of all the reports we published the one that garnered the least interest was about how to improve the asylum process. And I understood why politicians and journalists turned away from it. You can grab people’s attention if you talk about scandalous failures. Eyes glaze over when the talk turns to case management, early legal advice, international agreements, alternatives to detention…
And that’s the problem faced by a lot of the left. If we are to resist the paranoid narrative of the right, discussion of technocratic fixes is not going to be enough. Even if they are workable, they won’t necessarily move people to believe that a kinder and more equal world is possible. For that, a more ambitious story is important, one that encompasses not just where we are now but where we want to be. Holding the line today is important, but so is holding open the map and remembering where we want to go tomorrow.
• Natasha Walter is the founder and former director of Women for Refugee Women and author of The New Feminism and Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism
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