Have I missed a very important memo? My desk is disorganised, but I’m sure I didn’t receive the notification that Britain is now a country where we ship widows and invalids overseas to certain death. I was led to believe that deliberate, codified cruelty was too high a price a pay for the poll boost from looking a little tougher on migration. Apparently I was wrong. As refugees from war and despotism continue to arrive in the encampment at Calais, the Home Office is threatening to deport sick and dying migrants who are already here.
Myrtle Cothill is 92 years old, cannot walk by herself, and just wants to spend the last years of her life with her 66-year-old daughter, Mary (a British citizen), in Poole. Her family has been fighting since last year against the government’s decision to deport her to her native South Africa, knowing that she might not survive the flight. It was decided that neither Cothill nor her daughter is a “person of credit” – that is to say, they are not to be believed. After a tremendous public outcry the state has magnanimously allowed her a little more time to prove that she’s not scamming the system.
No such beneficence has been shown to Luqman Onikosi, a brilliant student from Nigeria who has been fighting to stay in this country for some time on the grounds that he’ll die if he doesn’t. The 36-year-old came to the UK in 2007 to study at Sussex and was later diagnosed with hepatitis B: manageable here, but a disease that cannot be treated in his home country. His two brothers have already died of organ failure from the same condition, and if Onikosi is forced to return, he faces the same fate.
Bureaucracy is a modesty sheath for everyday monstrosity. In 2008, Ama Sumani, a 39-year-old widow and mother-of-two with cancer, was taken from her hospital bed, forced into a wheelchair and deported to Ghana. She, too, had come to Britain as a student before falling ill, but her application to stay on medical grounds was rejected because she had failed to update her address on a form. Sumani’s friends and doctors lobbied for the state to reverse its decision, but she died months later in Accra.
These stories, the spectacle of these lives pulverised by the broad fist of our new, “muscular” immigration system, at first seem senseless. There appears to be neither reason nor compassion behind the refusal to let a 92-year-old woman die at home with her daughter, or to save a talented student from a preventable early death. Surely, you’d think, there must have been some bureaucratic error. Surely a direct appeal to good sense and decency would sort it all out in no time. The Home Office, however, is insistent: there has been no error.
Governments can sometimes be influenced by public condemnation, even if they stand firm in the first instance to save face. But sometimes shame doesn’t work. Sometimes institutions wear the blood on their hands into battle – in this case, the battle for the soul of Britain at a time of profound moral crisis. Stories of migrants forced on to planes to die alone and afraid in strange cities function much like the heads on spikes outside Kurtz’s camp in Heart of Darkness: horrific, but that’s the point. They signal a savage morality at play, and one must either accept it or go mad.
Many of us have already chosen mute acceptance. We close the newspaper and look away. We tell ourselves that it’s a shame, but there have to be rules. If only Myrtle Cothill or Luqman Onikosi had two million pounds. Why two million pounds? Because that’s how much it costs to buy an “investor’s visa” – a ticket to Great Britain. People usually land on their feet when they’re wearing golden shoes, and those foreign nationals who are free to settle in Britain are precisely those who are least in need. These are not “economic migrants”, to be deplored and deported, but investors, to be welcomed with champagne in the business lounge at Heathrow.
Not so Luqman Onikosi, who paid international student fees and taxes in Britain and worked at the Nigerian high commission here. Now that the state has milked him of money and expertise, he is free to return to Africa to die. Writing for Novara, Onikosi said that “as migrants, we are meant to justify why we deserve the right to life by demonstrating the value we add to the economy”.
So, it’s about money, but not in a way that benefits the rest of us. British citizens will not be better off tomorrow because a young Nigerian man is deported to his death today. Foreign nationals claim far fewer benefits than British citizens; foreign students contribute £2.8bn a year to the economy of London alone. Ironically, out of all the people seeking sanctuary on this cramped and bitter clutch of islands, it is foreign millionaires who really do put pressure on the local population – by buying up property and inflating the price of housing in the capital.
The morality of the Conservative Party and of the present political consensus is the morality of cash. Not human dignity. Not freedom from persecution. Not bodily autonomy. Just cash, millions of it, in British banks. This, perhaps, is to be expected from institutions more concerned with protecting their image than protecting the vulnerable. What has left me open-mouthed is the insistence, from readers and commentators lucky enough not to be facing deportation and death, that it’s a pity, but rules are rules.
If that is you, I invite you to consider who wrote those rules, and when, and why. Ask yourself whether you can stand to live in a nation where the morality of cash is the only thing that counts, where we allow millionaires to settle here and nobody else. I invite you to look without flinching at the heads on spikes set up at our borders to subdue the population and scare outsiders, and ask yourself what kind of country we are becoming, and whether it is worth it.
This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash