One of Keith Vaz's constituents found an asylum seeker in his horse trailer. Photo: Flickr/James
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What a horse, Keith Vaz and a French policeman tell us about Britain's neglect of refugees

When it comes to taking in asylum seekers, the UK government is shifting blame and responsibility.

This story begins with a horse and ends in Eritrea.

The horse was introduced by Keith Vaz MP last week – while questioning the Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, before the Home Affairs Select Committee.

The horse belonged to a constituent of Vaz, and had been stowed in the back of a trailer, being driven from Calais to Dover. He had discovered a “clandestine” (an illegal migrant attempting to enter the UK) crouched behind the horse. The man drove the trailer, with the horse in it, with the man still hiding behind it to a French police station. He hoped they might assist. The French policeman, with a shrug of the shoulders, refused.

So the task fell to Vaz's constituent. Beckoning the man out from behind the horse, he convinced him it was safe to come out. It was – the policeman remained nonplussed as the “clandestine” legged it into the distance. The man and his horse continued on their journey.

Vaz was so taken by this anecdote that he told it twice, first to Brokenshire, who was flanked by civil servants from the Immigration Directorate, and then in a separate session later that afternoon, to Sir Charles Montgomery, head of UK Border Force.

Watch Keith Vaz's anecdote here, from 15.52:

This behaviour from the French police, as other members of the parliamentary committee insisted, was demonstrative of lackadaisical Paris, which refuses to assist beleaguered Britain with preventing some of the 10,000 illegal crossing attempts from Calais each year.

Both men conceded more could be done, but that responsibility for our borders must at least be shared with the French. Stopping immigration to Europe was a European problem, the Minister insisted. So Brussels should be blamed too.

And further south we went, via the “Kharthoum process” – a deal signed between the European Union and the African Union to prevent migration from the Horn of Africa to Europe. Finally, Sir Charles told how he had visited Eritrea to convince migrants not to come to the UK. His argument: “Life here isn't as rosy as you think.” You can only imagine the response.

The UK's refugee policy, particularly regarding the Middle East and Africa, comes in three parts. First: throw money at the problem. Syria is most frequently cited as an example; the UK is the largest humanitarian donor maintaining the refugee camps, and this is the largest humanitarian endeavour ever undertaken by a British government.

Second, this funding is used to cover up a truly terrible record on taking refugees in. Of the 4m Syrian refugees looking for new homes, the UK has taken in just 90. When civil war broke out in Libya in 2011, around a million Libyans fled the country. Most have now returned, but the UK refused to host any of them while they were refugees.

Thirdly, the government shifts culpability to others. Whether it's France, Brussels, Italy or Turkey, down to the North African nations or the war-ravaged Middle East, or even to Eritrea – our borders are now beyond our borders.

The government recently withdrew from one of these foreign collaborations, controversially cutting funding for the rescue boats which pick up drowning refugees in the Mediterranean. Brokenshire and Montgomery boasted to Vaz's Committee that this decision had born fruit. Fewer refugees were now making the trips, the men claimed.

That same day, another boat sank. Over 300 died. The numbers, contrary to what the Minister and his Deputy claimed, are increasing.

I would have got on that boat. So would Brokenshire, so would Montgomery and so would you. I would get on that boat because my family were in danger, because my house had been destroyed in Syria or Iraq or Libya. Getting on that boat would make sense – even with the risks. So would living in the forest outside Calais, covered in sweat and mud. waiting to be folded into a fridge and packed in the back of a lorry to London.

We can deploy ever more advanced systems to stop people entering the UK – but when it comes to refugees, they will not stop until the wars stop. Until then, our moral duty is to accept those who need our help. In the same breath as this government lectures us about “British values,” or, as Brokenshire himself put it, “our proud history of granting protection to those who need it”, they let hundreds of refugees drown, live impoverished half lives in flimsy refugee camps, or fall into the hands of people traffickers.

Brokenshire was right: the UK does have a proud history of helping refugees. At present, that's just history. People need our help now.

Alastair Sloan, unequalmeasures.com

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt