The thing that’s so haunting about Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film about bureaucracy and totalitarianism, is that it doesn’t have a villain. Sure, there are bad people in it who do bad things, some of which we see, but they’re mere employees, cogs in a machine which was there before and will roll on quite happily after them. Certain real totalitarian states give a similar impression — that their horrors stem less from the crimes of any one individual but from the entire way that they work.
Anyway, enough about totalitarian nightmares, let’s talk about the Home Office. For years, it seems, its single, overriding priority has been to deter immigrants by acting as a giant neon “closed” sign. This function was made horribly literal in the period of 2013 when the “Go Home Vans” — mobile advertising hoardings suggesting illegal migrants sling their hook — toured the country. But it’s visible, too, in the endless bureaucratic hoops placed in the way of anyone applying for settled status or asylum, or in the absurd mix of random general knowledge required to pass the “Life In the UK” test. (“When is St David’s Day?” I don’t know, Home Office, when is your face?)
Everything the Home Office does serves the same purpose: to make it a little bit harder to win the legal right to be here, and thus deter a few more people from even trying. So determined has it been in its mission that it’s even deported people who do have the right to be here — a moral abhorrence that nonetheless makes sense if you assume its purpose was to show that it really, really means it.
During the era of Brexit, when the issue of immigration topped the lists of voters’ concerns, this felt like an expression of a hefty slice of public opinion: the rest of us may have loathed it, but the strategy did at least make sense. But the wheel has turned of late, and the Home Office has been left behind.
YouGov polling has found large and growing numbers of Britons support generosity to Ukrainians fleeing the war, with the median voter willing to welcome “a few tens of thousands” of refugees. A series of Tory backbenchers have spoken up for generosity and asked, in not so many words, exactly what the Home Office thinks it’s playing at. One, Sir Roger Gale, went so far as to note that home secretary Priti Patel had misled the House about her department’s actions and that “under any normal administration” that would have been enough for her to resign.
But this is not a normal administration, and the numbers don’t lie: as of Tuesday, the UK had accepted just 300 Ukrainian refugees, despite receiving more than 8,900 applications. Ireland had taken six times as many, Italy nearly 60 times.
This does not feel like an accident. Less than a fortnight ago the department released a policy paper bragging about how the new Nationality and Borders Bill would make it easier to deport any refugee who passes through a third country, for “overseas asylum processing”; no exemption was made for those fleeing the war in Ukraine. The government has been promising to increase capacity by creating a new centre for such processing in Lille; this week it emerged that its location would remain secret, it would not offer appointments and it would exist entirely to perform biometric testing for vulnerable cases referred from Calais, which is incidentally 100km closer to Britain than Lille is.
On Thursday Patel announced that Ukrainians who already had family in the UK would be able to apply for their visas online, but at a time when the entire EU has waived visas altogether this is the very definition of too little, too late. For weeks now, reports have abounded of Britons with Ukrainian partners discovering that their government remained determined to make it as hard for them as possible to bring their families home.
Britain’s offer of refuge does not even extend to those Ukrainians who actually work in its embassy. As ever, the Home Office’s policy towards refugees can be summed up in two words. The second is “off”. Not content with the moral vacuousness of its position, someone close to the department has taken to briefing against the more humanitarian approach adopted by Ireland as a member of the EU, on the grounds that letting Ukrainians move to Dublin might make life easier for international drug cartels. People are running from war, and the British government has chosen this moment to libel them. It’s disgusting.
Why is the Home Office so out of touch with public opinion? Perhaps it’s simply a matter of who leads it. Some MPs may have spoken out but they’re mere backbenchers, and while both Patel and Boris Johnson have paid lip service to the idea of generosity neither are exactly close friends to the truth. Perhaps a better guide to how the government feels came from the parliamentary under-secretary of state for safe and legal migration (let’s all pause for a moment to marvel at that implications of that title) Kevin Foster. He tweeted that Ukrainian refugees were welcome to apply for seasonal workers visa — that is, to pick fruit — and swiftly wished that he hadn’t. So perhaps, as ever, this government just sucks.
Perhaps, though, there’s more to it than that. Making life difficult is something that can be done through incompetence alone; making life easier is something that requires actual skill, and in that the Home Office may be as lacking as it is in compassion.
So perhaps the department’s very wiring and culture have rendered it incapable of making it easier to migrate to Britain. Public and political opinion may favour generosity but the Home Office is a machine whose only competence is cruelty. Perhaps it no longer knows how to switch the “keep out” sign off.