Seven hundred this weekend, and 400 last week, and 300 in February. Last year, more than 3,000. All these souls, swallowed by the Mediterranean as they tried to make the passage from Africa to Italy. They travelled in dinghies and rickety ships, and they likely paid traffickers huge sums of money for the privilege. Not one of us would trust our lives to such a vessel, but then we are safely here, and they were over there. They were escaping war, or poverty, or Isis, or violence. No one would have undertaken this dangerous passage unless they were leaving something much, much worse behind. No one could have overcome their fear at boarding these flimsy craft unless they had hopes of something much, much better beyond – hopes all snuffed in salt water when the boats went down.
Because when the boats go down now, there is little chance of rescue. In November, the Italian fleet suspended its search and rescue mission for migrant boats, called Mare Nostrum (“our sea”). Although the EU contributed €30m to fund it, the Italian government still had to supply a further €9m per month, and the remaining EU nations were unwilling to provide more and risk offending popular anti-immigration sentiment. When Katie Hopkins declared in her Sun column that she would send “gunships” to deter the boats carrying migrants she described as “feral”, a “plague” and “cockroaches”, what she wrote was monstrous – but she did not, after all, actually kill anyone. That honour belongs to the politicians of Europe who terminated Mare Nostrum, every one of them making the repugnant calculation that dead Africans in the sea would be more electorally palatable than live Africans on their soil.
The body of a migrant after a boat sank off the shores of al-Qarbole, some 60 kilometers east of the Libyan capital Tripoli, on August 22, 2014. Photo: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP
So yes, it’s nice to condemn the usefully loathsome Hopkins, but what she has said is merely a frank statement of the politics our government has been enacting at our borders in our name for years now. If we didn’t think of migrants as a “plague”, why else would we detain those whose applications for asylum have been rejected in facilities such as Yarl’s Wood? Here, the guards – employed by private company Serco, but acting on behalf of our state – refer to inmates as “beasties”, “animals” and “bitches”. A report by the campaign group Women for Refugee Women tells how women at Yarl’s Wood are watched over even when they shower; some describe being sexually abused by the staff. Unsurprisingly, more than half of the women interviewed were on suicide watch. There is no public uproar. How much less than human must we think these people are, for us to tolerate such treatment?
If we didn’t consider migrants “feral”, would we subject them to the kind of brutal controls that we do? Those who seek asylum in the UK are not permitted to work, and then we begrudge them every penny we allow them. While a claim is being processed, asylum seekers are given a place to stay plus £42.62 a week, with an extra fiver if they have a baby – which might just cover the nappies. If their claim is refused, that goes down to £35.39, which they receive on a payment card that can only be spent on certain things in certain shops. What’s the worth of that £7.23 to us? Very little, except perhaps that it feels like a punishment. You tried to make a home here, we turned you down, and now we can make your life as miserable as possible. I’ve watched a man thumbing that card and choosing between soap and apples at the checkout. So many miles travelled to decide whether you can afford hygiene or nutrition in the Co-op queue.
A protester outside Yarls Wood, an immigration detention centre in Britain, in 2003. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty
If we thought migrants were more than “cockroaches”, wouldn’t we give them better treatment than dawn raids? Wouldn’t we try to offer them justice and consistency, rather than peremptorily reversed and then suddenly enforced deportation orders? This brutal cycle of faint hope and deep desolation could not have been designed better to crush those it is used upon. The “evidence” that asylum seekers are required to provide in support of their cases is a savage tax on their dignity. Are you really gay? Were you really raped? Show your scars and let us judge you. Tell us your fears and let us weigh their worth.
Yet the parties still tell us we need to do more. You can drink your tea from a Labour mug pledging “Controls on immigration” if you so desire – because however much cruelty we enforce, there will always be a politician ready to say that they would go a little bit further. They’d do it for us. This is the civilisation we think we are defending from incomers. Here, we drive those who wish to make a new home into compulsory poverty. We take the traumatised and pay profit-making companies to turn them into prisoners. And then we have the nerve to damn Hopkins for speaking the violence we consent to have committed in our name. 700 this weekend, and 400 last week, and 300 in February, and last year, more than 3,000: all these souls, and we’ve barely even begun to count the human cost of our vicious insularity.