Theresa, and the even uglier face of little England

“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14(1)

On Monday (5th October), almost 100 migrants drowned in two separate incidents in the Mediterranean, north of Libya.

It is disgusting to have to admit that the current international climate means that the primary significance of this mass drowning is not the mass death of men women and children in one of the world’s calmest seas, but the fact that it means almost 3,000 (in fact, 2,987) people have died in the Mediterranean this year alone, and, if you live in the UK, because of its timing.

Because one day after the 95 dead men, women and children were discovered off the Libyan coast, UK Home Secretary Theresa May stood up at Conservative Party Conference in Manchester to announce a plan to ‘limit the right to claim asylum in Britain’.

We’ll come to that slightly shady and certainly morally dubious ambition, but before we do, it’s worth a glance at some of the other statements made in a speech referred to as ‘chilling’ by the Refugee Council, perhaps more damningly as ‘irresponsible rhetoric’ by the more reliably Conservative-supporting Institute of Directors, and by James Kirkup, writing for the staunch Tory Daily Telegraph, as ‘awful, ugly, misleading, cynical and irresponsible’.

Because the language and logic Ms May expounded in Manchester on Tuesday was the kind of wild, rhetoric-heavy and research-light ranting one might expect from the wilder, less media-prepared members of UKIP, the BNP, France’s Front National, or Greece’s Golden Dawn.

She claimed, seemingly without any trace of irony, that she was proud of Britain, in part because of the state’s record on offering a secure place to stay for people not fortunate enough to have been born here, and immediately followed it by claiming that: ‘for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down, while some people are forced out of work altogether’.

That is, ‘foreigners come over here, steal your job, and steal your money’.

Now. I understand that this argument seems simple. And I understand that the easiest way to win support is to stigmatise ‘the other’.

But that does not make this claim true. In fact, this is a deliberate lie on the part of the Home Secretary, and I do not make the claim lightly: I can in fact prove it to be so.

First of all, Ms May’s claim that immigration is the cause of low wages is demonstrably not the case. Immigrants simply do not come to the UK, get offered jobs at £15 per hour and argue against them, stating ‘I would far rather be paid around £3 per hour, if that’s alright with you, and I won’t accept this job until you offer me far less to do it than you are at present.’

That is, immigrants have literally no control over the wages they are offered: if wages are affected by immigration, it is because employers refuse to pay decent wages, so employers would be to blame for the low wages paid.

But there’s another, far more important, point. Because Theresa May knows that there is ‘little evidence that migration has caused statistically significant displacement of UK natives from the labour market in periods when the economy is strong.

How does she know? Because that statement was included in an analysis of the effect of immigration on the labour market in the UK, entitled Impacts of migration on UK native employment: An analytical review of the evidence. Why should Theresa May know this? Because not only was the report issued in March 2014, four years into her time as Home Secretary, it was commissioned, researched and written by her government’s own Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

It gets worse, because even within her own speech, Ms May stated that: ‘at best, the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero’. That is, even on May’s own terms, there is an economic benefit to immigration, albeit a small one.

But the speech was worse even than that ‘opening salvo’, because Ms May spoke not only against immigration in general, but as we have already noted, against granting asylum specifically.

She argued that the UK’s asylum system was ‘not right for the modern world’ because it favoured people who are ‘young, fit enough and have the resources’ to reach the UK under their own steam, whilst she claims she wishes to ‘offer asylum and refuge to those in parts of the world affected by conflict and oppression, rather than those who have made it to Britain’.

This is an eye-watering, froth-flecked, sharp-clawed idea: that those who have fled war and reached the UK should be penalised and sent back to the terror they have escaped simply because they have managed to escape that terror, rather than waiting for the OK from a nation whose asylum process is internationally-renowned for being overly strict, and taking an extraordinarily long time by global standards.

In other words, she is arguing that the UK, the world’s fifth richest state, which has more money than 128 other states combined, should require people to remain in poverty and at daily, even moment-by-moment risk of death, in the hope that the UK might eventually get around to giving them the chance to stay there for a few months.

One might ask Ms May to consider that the people who have escaped have done so because they simply could not stay a second longer, terrified of imminent death by bullets, bombs, fire and/or decapitation by rabid terrorists, and that to punish those people for saving their own lives by delivering them back to near-certain death is shockingly inhumane and indeed inhuman, but as with her deliberately incorrect statements on immigration’s economic impact, it seems likely that she already knows.

In fact, we must conclude that the UK’s Home Secretary has learned literally nothing from a summer in which thousands of people have died, and hundreds of thousands risked death, at sea because they faced almost certain death in their homelands.

Nor does the policy even make sense on a purely ‘UK self-interest’ foundation. Ms May promised in 2010 to reduce net immigration to the UK to 100,000 per year. Last year, the figure was 330,000.

But only 25,000 people were granted asylum in the UK last year – less than one eleventh, or eight per cent, of the total number of people to have entered the UK. Ms May’s plan will prevent people in danger of death from reaching the UK, and simultaneously fail to deliver the arbitrary net migration target she has set herself.

Ms May knows all of this.

So I would simply request that anyone who reads this blog remembers Article 14 of the United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights, as quoted at the start of this piece, and the words of the Refugee Council’s chief executive Maurice Wren: ‘May’s intention to close Britain’s borders to refugees fleeing for their lives is thoroughly chilling… her idea that the few refugees who reach Britain’s shores under their own steam are not in need of protection is fundamentally flawed. Becoming a refugee is not solely the privilege of the poor or infirm.’

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We must presume that Ms May’s speech indicates her intention to prevent the 3,000 people currently waiting in limbo in Calais to discover whether they will be allowed to stay somewhere safe from entering the UK: that she will not allow them to find refuge, shelter, hygiene, and safety in the world’s fifth-richest state.

It is fortunate that she seems impervious to embarrassment, as last Friday (2nd October), four days before her Manchester tirade, researchers from Doctors of the World and the University of Birmingham released a report confirming what numerous commentators – including me – have been stating for months: that conditions at The Jungle, where 3,000 people are perched on the edge of the Channel, are not fit for human habitation.

The report states that the Jungle, a collection of one- and two-person tents, where people have been living for up to ten months now, is ‘far below any minimum standards for refugee camps’ and confirms, in the words of Leigh Daynes, director of Doctors of the World that: ‘The Calais refugee crisis is a humanitarian emergency of the first order in one of the world’s most thriving nations. Refugees are hungry and distressed, and they live in diabolical conditions.

Among its findings were that a lack of washing facilities, and of equipment for food storage, was resulting in stomach cramps, diarrhoea, and vomiting, while a lack of debris collection had led to an infestation of rats and mice, which carry bacteria which can cause organ failure. It found there are just 40 toilets – one for every 75 people, way below the one per 20 people minimum set by the UNHCR.

Some inhabitants reported having been teargassed and beaten by police, and many people reported that not only were they able to eat only one meal per day, they were also suffering from stomach conditions because food was so scarce they had to make it last weeks, or even months.

Frankly, none of this is new. The United Kingdom – and indeed France – have known about the situation at Calais for many months, and unlike their respective populations (who have made collections of cash and useful items in an attempt to aid the people trapped at Calais), have chosen to act only by building higher fences to keep people from entering the UK, and by sending dogs to attack them.

It would be simple – and given the higher fences have so far cost £7m – cheaper, to simply do the decent thing, and at least build decent accommodation for people while they await the outcome of asylum applications. Winter is drawing in, and without sensible, committed and humanitarian response, the death toll at Calais is likely to rise.

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Commentators in some corners – notably those who hope to present modern Conservatism as something better than a movement driven by cold hard cash – have argued that Ms May’s speech may just have been her own thoughts, exposed as an attempt to bid for her party’s leadership.

Sadly for those people – who I have no doubt are eager to believe their political idols are capable of human feeling – there are several clear flaws to such a position. First, it is a damning indictment of the Conservative Party if its Home Secretary could regard such a speech as a pitch for leadership, second, as noted above, the party has had several months to provide humanitarian aid to the people at Calais, yet has chosen to build a fence and set dogs on them – at a greater cost than it would have taken to provide them with decent shelter.

And thirdly, on 7th October (Wednesday), the UK government withdrew two rescue boats, HMCs Protector and Seeker, from the Aegean Sea, the sea in which 159 people, 35 of them children, have drowned in the last month.

As noted above, death at sea is a continuing occurrence on the perilous crossing from Libya to Lampedusa, as well as on the crossings used by Syrians to reach the Greek islands.

And the importance of UK ships’ involvement in search and rescue operations was underlined on Monday, when within hours of 100 people being found dead at sea off the Libyan coast, the UK’s HMS Enterprise rescued 639 people from a wooden boat in distress – part of a wider operation in which 1,830 people were saved from death between Libya and Italy.

Despite the success of Enterprise (which has saved 1,689 people from drowning in the last three months; its predecessor HMS Bulwark saved more than 5,000 in the previous five months), and the continuing death at sea of those crossing from Libya and the East Mediterranean, the UK government has chosen to move away from rescuing people at sea, and to begin, instead ‘policing’ the waters.

This plan, which it is hoped will enable the arrest of the people who own the boats being used to transport people fleeing war and terror, is flawed on its own terms: because there has been no UN agreement on its operation, it can only be undertaken in international waters, rather than in those closest to either the Libyan or Italian coasts, making it extremely difficult to pinpoint any such craft.

And perhaps more importantly, it is yet another example, along with the UK’s building of walls at Calais, and Hungary’s at its borders with Serbia and Croatia, of Europe turning its back on the people in most need, choosing to ‘protect’ its borders from the desperate, striving to escape death at home, rather than helping save their lives, at sea as well as on dry land.

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When we consider the international refugee crisis, we cannot talk exclusively about the UK, EU, or even the Mediterranean, and not also consider the major centres of the crisis itself: Libya and Syria.

Regular readers of this blog will by now be familiar with the major issues at play in Libya today – two illegitimate and powerless governments at either end of the state, two militias which each support one of them, and fight one another, plus two more illegal militias: Ansar al Sharia, aligned with Al Qaeda; and IS in Libya, which currently controls Sirte, also battling to attempt to seize power in Libya.

Delegates from the two ‘governments’, (the Tripoli-based GNC – made up of most of the previous Libyan government, plus a few politicians elected in May 2014 – and the HoR; based in Tobruk, and comprised of most of the politicians elected in May 2014, but declared illegitimate by Libya’s High Court), have been taking part in dialogue to attempt to create a new government to end the war, which has been raging for close to 18 months (Libya’s first Civil War lasted eight months).

It is by no means guaranteed that any agreement will end the war – as noted on this blog, neither of the two current ‘governments’ have any control of the four militias, and there is little to suggest the new government will easily command them either – but it is literally the only possibility currently available for peace in Libya at this stage.

On Monday, the GNC and HoR delegates returned to Skhirat, Morocco, to the UN-led talks, and late on Thursday night, the UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary General, Bernardino Leon, announced the names of the proposed members of the new ‘Government of National Accord’.

Though the proposals must still be voted on by both the GNC and HoR (the deadline for this is 20th October), they appear at first glance a significant – and interesting – step forward.

Fayez Sarraj, the man chosen as Prime Minister, and leader of the six-person Presidential Council (which will select and elect Libya’s President at a later date), is a clear attempt by Leon to present a man no-one could object to, but who might equally please neither the HoR, or GNC.

Mr Sarraj, as a member of the House of Representatives, and close associate of Liberal Mahmoud Jibril, the man who led the National Transitional Council, Libya’s first post-Ghaddafi government, may well be welcomed by the HoR.

But he is also a Tripoli native, and represents the city’s Hay Andalus area at the HoR, which may go some way to helping his acceptance by the current GNC, which is based in Tripoli, and has expressed fears the capital may be sidelined by hardline members of the HoR, who wish for Cyrenaica, in the country’s east, to either be granted greater prominence, or break away from Libya altogether.

Of course, in the extraordinarily fractious atmosphere of Libyan politics, it may be just as likely that being from Tripoli will count against him with HoR members, while GNC members will refuse to accept a Liberal friend of Jibril, and feel uncomfortable resoundingly welcoming an HoR representative.

The Deputy Prime Ministers also appear to have been carefully chosen. Ahmed Maetig, a former businessman from Misrata, where many of the GNC’s strongest supporters are based, was elected Prime Minister by the GNC in late May 2014, when the then serving-PM Abdullah Al-Thinni (now leader of the HoR) temporarily stepped away from his post. He is an independent, and has a record of working closely with the Justice and Construction Party, the party-political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the GNC at present, and effectively represents the interests of western Libya (the Tripolitana region).

Fathi Mejbari, the HoR’s Education Minister, is considered a moderate, with the added example of being from – and representing the interests of – Libya’s east (which is, in effect, Cyrenaica), while the third of the three proposed Deputy Prime Minsters, Mussa al-Kouni, is not only a representative of Libya’s south (Fezzan region) but also a member of Libya’s largest ethnic minority group, the Tuareg.

The final two members of the Presidential Council, neither of whom would be Deputy Prime Ministers, are also interesting choices: Omar Aswad is a representative of Zintan, the home of the largest single militia to oppose the GNC-supporting Libya Dawn, and Mohamed Ammar, a member of the GNC, who has taken part at every stage in the UN-led political dialogue.

Other notable proposals for Ministers outside of the Presidential Council* include two women – of 17 proposed Ministers, but a significant gesture towards future equality at the highest level of Libya’s governance – and the notable absence of Libya’s last PM of a united government, and current leader of the HoR, Abdullah al-Thinni.

It is extremely likely that this will open the opportunity for Al-Thinni tpo be nominated as Libyan President at a later date, but this in itself could prove to be controversial, as Al-Thinni has been a particularly outspoken critic of the GNC, and a staunch supporter of Khalifa Haftar, who leads the illegal Operation Dignity militia, which fired on the Tripoli parliament, and who accuses the GNC of being ‘terrorists’. This association may prove more than the GNC members can bear.

*The full list is: Fathi Hungari; Osama Siyala; Osama Sayd; Tariq Yousef; Abdelsalam Hassi; Shibani Buhamoud; Mustafa Aboushagur; Ashour Shweil; Ibrahim Nayed; Abu Ajila Saifelnasr; Salam Kenan; Mrs Amal Hajj; Mrs Iman ben Younis; Khalil Bakhoush; Mahmoud ben Shaaban; Murad Hamaima; Taher Sunni.

In any case, as noted above, the GNC and HoR must both vote on the proposals – a process which must be completed by 20th October. And it is far from certain that this will happen. The BBC, for example, found it disconcertingly easy to find members of both Libya’s current ‘governments’ who oppose the candidates.

Abdulsalam Bilashahir, of the GNC, commented: ‘We are not a part of this proposed government. It means nothing to us.’ While Ibrahim Alzaghiat, of the HoR, said: ‘This proposed government will lead to the division of Libya, and will turn it into a joke. Mr Leon’s choice was unwise.

But it should be remembered that these comments were both made within hours of the announcement – part of the process now is to persuade the unconvinced of the proposals’ merits – and that of course in a wildly divided state such as modern Libya, there will be extremists on both sides who are naturally opposed to any co-operative working with those who have to date been enemies – the issue is whether those extremists are in the minority, and how many can be persuaded to change their minds.

Equally, it Alzaghiat might wish to consider that the sole reason Libya is not presently ‘a joke’ is that the situation is far more serious – and far more grim – than that. At present, Libya is a failed state. It has no governance and illegal militias, answerable to no-one, kill with impunity on its streets. It is to be hoped that between now and 20th October, he, Bilashahir and others like them can be persuaded of the true situation within Libya, and convinced to act.

If they can be, one minor positive result will be to save the blushes of the HoR, which voted on Monday 5th October to extend its mandate (which was scheduled to end on 20th October) for an indefinite period.

Though it covered its decision with the codicil ‘until a handover can be made to the new government’ and it is arguable that it would be more irresponsible for the HoR to simply cease to exist with nothing to take its place, those points are a rather weak defence against two unshakeable truths: that no democratically-elected government worthy of the name can simply vote to keep itself in power, and that its decision is extraordinarily similar to the GNC’s December 2013 declaration that it would remain in power to May 2014.

At least the GNC set a definite date for its dissolution.

Also on Monday October 5th, Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood elected a new leader, Ahmed Abdullah Al-Suqi, to replace Bashir Kubti, who had led the group since 2011.

The Brotherhood was careful to include, in its announcement of the new appointment, a declaration that it fully supports the UN-led talks, and its members have also been in Skhirat to continue the dialogue.

In Syria, meanwhile, Russian bombing raids have been widely criticised by NATO members and other states, for bombing positions held by anti-Assad rebels, rather than focussing raids on IS.

It began raids in earnest on Monday, claiming to have struck 10 targets in 15 raids. But while some of these targets were undoubtedly IS-held, others appear to have been in the hands of other rebel groups, seemingly confirming the Russian state’s declarations that its intentions are not just to oppose IS, but to support the Assad regime, which itself has slaughtered civilians across Syria.

One Russian aircraft taking part in the raids also entered the airspace of Turkey, a NATO member-state, leading to the scrambling of Turkish jets. The Russians later claimed the craft had strayed into Turkish airspace ‘only for a few seconds’ because of ‘bad weather’. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said: ‘Even if it is a flying bird, it will be intercepted.’ But stressed that there was no ‘Turkey-Russia crisis’, and that communications channels between the states remain open.

It is something of a concern, therefore, that after this coded, but diplomatically civil exchange, in which Turkey simultaneously offered an excuse for its actions and a polite warning that they would certainly be repeated under similar circumstances, while Russia offered an ‘explanation’ for its ‘mistake’; the closest it could reasonably come to an apology, the US felt it necessary to step in and ‘warn’ Russia on behalf of NATO.

Calm heads, rather than ill-judged statements which could cause wider conflict, are needed at this stage.

In the last blog I wrote on this site, I clearly expressed the view that we should not be tricked into supporting the Assad regime in Syria on the grounds that ‘only he can stop IS’ (this is not true) because the reasons we oppose IS – its brutality, slaughter of civilians and disregard for international law – are also characteristic of Assad.

But as I have noted extremely frequently, the cause of the international refugee crisis is people’s desperation: their very real, and very correct fear that if they stay where they are, they are likely to die, and die horribly.

People crossing the Mediterranean to escape war, terror and poverty is not a new occurrence. But by mid-October, the number of people making the crossing traditionally falls, increasing again only when summer returns.

This year, we have not yet reached that point. If war intensifies in Syria, as seems likely due to the Russian ‘ intervention’, and continues in Libya – a traditional destination for refugees – 2015 may be the first year in which the number of people fleeing for Europe remains high, regardless of the change of seasons.

Rory O’Keeffe’s first book; The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis is available from:  http://www.hyggemedia.com/product/the-toss-of-a-coin-voices-from-a-modern-crisis/ and by pre-order from all UK bookshops.

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