Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has described the arrival of asylum seekers as an “invasion on our southern coast”. Delivered in the House of Commons, her comment was part of a statement discussing the recent petrol bomb attack at the Western Jet Foil processing centre in Dover.
Her emotive description has been heavily criticised. Labour MP for Coventry South, Zarah Sultana, said she was “disgusted” to hear Braverman’s comments. Sultana has since been trolled on social media platforms by those who don’t see a problem with Braverman’s words.
Braverman’s choice of words is deliberate
Braverman’s language is provocative. She said, ’We have seen an unprecedented number of attempts to illegally cross the channel,’ and ‘It is vital we dismantle the international crime gangs behind this phenomenon.’
The Home Secretary went on to add that accommodating asylum seekers in hotels is “ruinously expensive” costing taxpayers £6.8 million each day. Contrast this with her description of the “law-abiding patriotic majority of British people” who are made to feel “less safe”.
Her suggestion here is that everyone who chooses to risk their life crossing the channel is doing so illegally. That they are either aided by, or are criminals themselves. Juxtaposed with the law-abiding British people, it is very clear who is considered good and who is not; it is “them” and “us”.
Further, Braverman insinuates that asylum seekers are enjoying their hotel stays paid for by the taxpayer. The reality is very different, with entire families often housed in single rooms for months at a time, with limited access to basic services, including healthcare and education.
Braverman’s supporters might look on her words as nothing more than a rousing call to action to fix a “broken” system, allowing her to change the immigration and asylum process. But let’s be clear – it is not.
A closer look at the asylum seekers “invading” our coast
According to a BBC News report, of the 40,000 or so arriving by small boats to English shores in 2022, 93% claim asylum. These are the most vulnerable people in the world, fleeing war, persecution and other human rights violations.
Figures from the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, highlight that around one million people seek asylum each year, and that doing so is a fundamental human right. If a claim for asylum is successful, those individuals are granted refugee status. In contrast, a migrant is often considered to be someone seeking a better life.
The reality behind the words
There are complex issues relating to the terms “asylum seeker” and “migrant”, and these are exacerbated when they are used interchangeably. Braverman does this deliberately to imply that these groups are one and the same, which denies the fact that many asylum seekers are fleeing for their lives. This serves to remove any compassionate response and denies asylum seekers their rights.
As for the reality of this so-called “invasion”, in 2021, a dozen countries had more than twice the number of asylum seekers per 10,000 of the population, compared to the UK. The UK had 8.4 per 10,000 of the UK population: Cyprus had 153. While the UK received 56,000 asylum applications in 2021, Germany received almost 200,000, France 120,000, and Spain 65,000. In 2021.,
The reasons behind Braverman’s language are important
The controversy over Suella Braverman’s language might seem unimportant – they’re just words after all. But language matters hugely, even more so when it comes from the mouth of the British Home Secretary.
Inflammatory as her words may be, for me there is another complex layer that permeates through her speech and language that I find hugely malicious. Fundamentally, this is because Braverman is herself a British born child of immigrants. Describing her own parents as having “very little” but working to “serve their local community”, she is fundamentally identifying her background and experience with the “good immigrant” as opposed to others who come to the UK expecting to be looked after.
In this way, she is expressing her right to enjoy the fruits of her parents’ migration while yanking up the drawbridge and vilifying one of the most vulnerable groups in the world.
The irony is that Braverman says on her own webpage ‘I’m a Conservative because we are the party that says it doesn’t matter where you start. It’s about where you are going. Aspiration, to me, means: rewarding endeavour, enabling compassion and liberating people from the shackles of the state.’
Yet through her speech, Braverman has shown disregard for the very compassion and aspiration she talks about. Her words buy into the rhetoric of populism, emboldening those who want to create divisions. Her language no doubt makes her a valuable tool to her party – as a woman of colour, she can put into words what many with xenophobia in their hearts don’t dare to say.
Many of us take language and freedom of speech for granted; it is only fair and right that we do. But as commentators have pointed out, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. As a fellow British born child of immigrants myself, I am deeply disturbed by what her tenure as home secretary might mean for all of us, no matter where we are from.