New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
  2. The Staggers
13 June 2012updated 07 Jun 2021 4:23pm

Theresa May denied the full humanity of migrants and refugees. She doesn’t deserve your tears

By Natasha Walter

When I clicked the live link of Theresa May’s resignation, I wasn’t doing so to create a kind of Orwellian two minutes of hate for myself. I was ready to listen. Because like others, I’m still curious to understand what it is that drives this most opaque of politicians. She is a great enigma to me, as she is to others.

But the stream of normal human sympathy that anyone would naturally feel when watching someone having to enact their humiliation in public was suddenly choked off for me when Theresa May invoked the words of Sir Nicholas Winton.

Nicholas Winton. A man who, at a time of great hatred, stood up for humanity. A man who went against the anti-refugee feelings of the 1930s and organised the travel of hundreds of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to the UK. A man who tried to get more individuals and governments to follow this path of welcome and sanctuary – but was too often ignored.

A man who would not fall for the complacent or hostile rhetoric of the day. A man who could see why you have to stand up for the individual, even when the mouthpieces of borders and security say that it can’t be done. A man who responded to the human being, not their citizenship or lack of it, not their papers or absence of them. He showed a moral certainty that the rest of us can only aspire to, and never compare ourselves with.  

Theresa May’s decision to quote him showed me that she was not merely a bit too harsh, or a bit too ignorant, or a bit too clumsy in her approach, she was completely deluded about what she was doing in government.

Because the policy that many of us will actually remember her for, the hostile environment, was all about ensuring that the individual was seen as lesser than their citizenship or lack of it. It was all about denying the full humanity of the migrant and refugee.  

Over the last few years, I had tried to challenge some of May’s policies. Back in 2014, I met her at a reception for the Women of the World festival. The charity I work with, Women for Refugee Women, had just published research showing that women seeking asylum are being routinely detained in the UK. These women are almost always survivors of extreme human rights abuses, including rape and torture, and detention in the UK is both incredibly traumatic for them and also completely unnecessary. We were also uncovering scandals about the conditions in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, including sexual abuse and the denial of privacy.

Fair enough, I met May at a reception, not a work meeting. But I was polite in my approach, and rather than haranguing her in the way I might have liked to, I simply laid out what I was concerned about, and asked if we could talk further. I got a few sentences in, and she cut me off, took some steps away from me, and turned her back.

I wrote to her a few more times over the following years, as further evidence amassed about the scandals of immigration detention in the UK. I asked if she would meet with refugee women who had been in detention, and I sent our research papers to her office. Women for Refugee Women also delivered tons of cards from supporters and held occasional protests outside the Home Office. I never got any answer back.  

I have engaged with a lot of politicians on this issue over the last few years, some much nicer and cleverer, some stupider and nastier, than one would expect. But Theresa May stands out as somebody who was so uninterested in the real impact of her policies on the individual human being. She was closed to the world, and lived in her own delusions. That was nowhere more apparent than in her resignation speech, when she quoted someone whose life view was so utterly opposed to hers, and laid bare the rift between the May view of the world, and reality.

At the end of May’s speech, her voice broke. There were tears in it. It’s hard to see somebody cry and not want to cry alongside them.

I’ve cried quite often at work over the last nine years. Alongside a trafficked woman who was locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and not released even when she attempted suicide. Alongside a dying refugee woman from the DR Congo, who brought evidence of her terminal illness to her appeal hearing and was still refused asylum. Alongside a refugee woman who was tortured in prison in Ethiopia and then left homeless on the streets of London, where she was sexually assaulted. Women whose humanity had become invisible in the hostile environment.

So I stifled my tears for Theresa May.

Natasha Walter is the founder of Women for Refugee Women, and writes here in a personal capacity.

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy