Suella Braverman has had a taste for scandal and, apparently, she likes it. In the latest saga, she’s called Channel crossings an “invasion on our southern border”. But if you’re shocked, you haven’t been paying attention. These are no longer the days when such comments can be cast off as the spit-filled ramblings of red-faced Farageans. These are the days in which the Home Secretary herself dreams of jetting refugees to Rwanda in body restraints. The medium has shifted to the right, and the parameters of acceptability with it. “Right” may not be a fair characterisation: this is not a slide towards conservatism, it’s a slide away from compassion.
What does it even mean to be a home secretary anymore? The brief has been consumed by incendiary political warfare, with real policy falling by the wayside. Just as the Home Secretary is a guardian of borders, so too should she be a granter of asylum. But that is no longer what it means to be home secretary. Asylum has been redefined from a human rights issue to a security one (the trafficking brief has literally changed departmental hands). Of course, there are relevant security concerns when it comes to those seeking asylum, but they should not be the only concerns.
Some members of the Conservative Party are clinging on to remnants of centrist respectability: the immigration minister Robert Jenrick, for example, has rejected his boss’s decision to “demonise” arrivals as “invaders”. He is nobly fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives have set themselves on an eastward slide on which it is difficult to back-track. Perhaps they sense their only hope of staying in power is by terrifying us into voting for them.
A good example is the current “crisis” about overcrowding in a migrant centre in Kent. This a crisis of the government’s own design – not least because the Home Secretary chose not to secure accommodation for the predicted arrivals, but for so many policy reasons beyond that: for the lack of processing centres on the French border, and for the lack of safe, legal routes beyond there. By forcing people into overcrowded facilities, the government has curated an optic of chaos, a vision of a nation “overwhelmed” (another right-winger’s choice of wording), a fiction of “invasion”.
The problem being that Ms Braverman is not just creating a fiction, she’s legislating for it. We have stuck our heads in the sand when it comes to the growing global displacement crisis, praying to the sand gods to make it go away. And unsurprisingly, the more we shift attention away from creating effective asylum routes on to closing our borders, the more obstinately unauthorised Channel crossings have risen.
A home secretary who sees a displacement crisis as an “invasion” is a policymaker living in a fiction. Policy has become politics and people have become pawns. We need to rehumanise this narrative. “It’s pretty simple,” the Syrian refugee Steve Ali told me on Media Storm, the podcast I host, when talking about how to combat the fear being spread: “Just tell both sides of the story.” From their own voices, the story of people making the crossing is neither one of invasion nor one we need fear. “We’re not asking for something impossible,” said the Iraqi refugee Bahir, “we’re just asking for human rights.”