Melanie McFadyean: the challenge of changing public and political attitudes to asylum - Refugee Council
December 7, 2010

Melanie McFadyean: the challenge of changing public and political attitudes to asylum

Posted by Philippa, Communications team

Last Wednesday, we were delighted to hear from freelance journalist Melanie McFadyean when she spoke at our AGM about the challenges of changing public opinion and getting asylum issues reported in the news.

Melanie has written for publications including the Guardian, the Independent, Sunday Times, Indie on Sunday, and the Observer, and regularly writes passionately about asylum issues.

She has kindly allowed us to publish her speech notes here for you all to read, so please share this with your online friends and networks:

“I have thought about the questions put to me for this short contribution. What are the challenges and opportunities for the refugee sector? How to engage with public opinion? Which Refugee issues need the most attention?

I can’t speak for other journalists but it’s my experience that we depend on charities and NGOs, such as the Refugee Council, Medical Justice, Helen Bamber Foundation,  Bail for Immigration Detainees, Women for Refugee Women, Asylum Aid and many others to inform us and urge us to write the stories, but getting them into print is a continuous struggle—although the Guardian and Indy in press terms have been very good and pick up important stories, covering them well.

There is a small but well networked  world of committed activists, campaigners, NGO and charity workers, researchers, academics, volunteers—so much work and good will, commitment and research, help and compassion.

There is a wonderful continuum stretching from people like Heather Jones and Gill Butler, Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, to the senior professionals running organizations such as the Refugee Council.

This continuum is not a hierarchy, each is vital in his or her way, and interdependent. It’s a marvellous symbiosis and one that is friendly to journalists and into which they can tap.  But sometimes it seems the sector talks to itself and eachother. A few journalists are interested and run with stories when they can.  Even so that symbiosis of sector and press just has to go on struggling to get the story out.

How to engage with public opinion? It’s hard. I don’t have easy answers. I am struck more than ever as I try to write about asylum and immigration, by the  rot at the heart of the asylum system, hidden inside language that manages to sanitize the cruelty perpetrated in the name of ‘faster’, ‘fairer’, ‘firmer’ and other such seemingly constructive sounding measures.

Policy and the language in which it is couched are predicated on a tacit sympathy with a strong current in UK public opinion which, fuelled by fear, persists in believing that we are in danger of being over run by floods and waves of foreign scroungers.

A snapshot of recent statistics shows what a small numbers are claiming asylum and how high the rate of refusal is. 24,485 applied for asylum last year. In the first 3 quarters of this year 13,160 applied. 11,895 were refused. 28,000 were in detention, 1065 children were locked up.

Even so, the asylum system with its increasingly complex bureaucracy is being endlessly patched up with ever more punitive measures. These are enshrined in jargon and spring from a collusion with and manipulation of this fear.

It’s not a conspiracy by politicians and immigration officials. The asylum machine has gathered momentum over the years and is almost a thing of itself, rolling on. The continual new measures are not constructively and the system, the machine, is intrinsically and increasingly cruel, apparently logical but essentially chaotic.

The latest tranche of measures aimed at getting rid of families says it all. Layers and layers of policy are overwritten into the culture of contempt which underpins and overlays the way in which the asylum system gathers momentum without gathering evidence, without stopping to think, without analysis of how this could be more humanely handled.

Imagine starting from the position that a small number of the world’s refugees are arriving here, fewer all the time, and many from countries the UK has a hand in screwing up. Let’s do everything we can to accommodate them and find them roles in our community. If you sat the policy makers and politicians round a table and put this to them they’d think you were away with the left wing fairies, it would be clouds and cuckoos.

With time and research, we could demonstrate that not only would this be more humane but almost certainly more cost effective. Current asylum policy is driven by that fear but also by the urge to asset strip the welfare state and privatize whatever can be privatized. Detention costs a fortune—money being poured into the coffers of horrible multi national corporations which profit from misery.

Imagine suggesting to the politicians and policy makers that they take away the money wasted on detention and misery, and out it into programmes to retrain, rehabilitate, and create a place for people fleeing here for their lives, in our community. Let them work, let them live here, let them feel useful, let them belong.

Instead, what is happening is that attitudes are calcifying into a consensus, an acceptance of cruelty, contempt, brutality, punishment, detention dressed up in jargon that makes it sound reasonable in the way jargon can. (The Final Solution and collateral damage being the most famous examples of this). And so it has become a matter of shoulder shrugging that the UK treats its asylum seekers at best like gate crashers, at worst like the untermensch.

It is the attitude that makes it possible for a man to die in a packed airplane while under control and restraint by G4S guards, or escorts as they are known—another euphemism—despite his obvious desperation and terror. I wrote a comment piece in the Guardian about this. There were over 300 replies, among them one from someone who said as a club class traveller, he would have found the noise irritating. The contempt for asylum seekers has reached an all time low. If that was someone’s idea of a joke, God help us.

And this shoulder shrugging is encouraged by policy and those who make it. New cruelties keep appearing in the current pilot schemes to find alternatives to detention for families and children. The new plans are as ever couched in clinical office speak: ensured return, open accommodation, limited notice. Innocuous sounding phrases—but woven into the rhetoric is a hard core message. The new measures are designed to deal with “those who refuse to depart…the least co-operative families,” and to “prevent families from planning some form of disruption on the day of removal and to prevent them from making themselves unavailable.”

And so we are to have state sponsored ambush—a 21 day period during which those families who haven’t cooperated, will be given removal notices but not told when the raids will happen. Those eligible for these anodyne sounding measures—open accommodation, limited notice—will have previously tried to stop their removal, have a history of non compliance or have “indicated verbally that they will not co-operate”. What does ‘indicate verbally’ mean? Who is to record and report this verbal indication? This summons up images of the Stasi with its network of spies.

The more they try to hold the creaking system together, the nastier it gets. The new measures are designed to make “the system sufficiently firm that it is not possible to resist departure through non co-operation.” People remonstrate during forced removals as a last resort.

The thrust in all policy is to harden up the endgame when all the evidence shows that improvements in the overall system of asylum and early legal support, result in voluntary returns rather than enforced removals. The pen pushers who come up with this jargon, have abandoned the basic humanity that would enable them to see that it people whose destinies are determined by their jargon, their bureaucracy. Life is too precious to be left to bureaucrats.

So no more detention? It depends how you define it. An Open Accommodation centre is to be opened this month in Croydon for families who have refused the first options. They will be free to come and go but, “We will,” writes the UKBA” know whether they remain in residence.” They will be given no cash or vouchers, the centre will have CCTV. A refusal to go to the Croydon accommodation centre will result in loss of current housing and benefits. It’s detention by another name. There are inadequate safeguards for children in the Croydon pilot where they can be kept for up to 28 days.

A similar pilot run in Kent three years ago resulted in failure. Only one family left voluntarily and families reported feeling ‘coerced and frightened’ and said there was a ‘climate of fear’ in the centre.

There are rumoured to be other even more draconian alternatives in the pipeline—detaining one parent, using increased reporting restrictions or electronic tagging. These new measures ratchet up the levels of fear to such a degree that one imagines people will vanish off the radar and join the many thousands already living in destitution or the black economy. It will create new levels of panic for families and children caught up in the tangles of ill conceived red tape.

And if this is what they do to children and families, what are they doing to the forgotten people—the destitute, the detained? The treatment of children is one aspect of the asylum story which campaigners have been able to raise successfully, that politicians can attach themselves to and that editors give space to because it involves children. In features pages you rarely see stories about the men and women going through six kinds of hell in the UK and there is virtually nothing in any of the magazines.

A psychiatrist once said to me that the people she worried about were the silent and easily forgotten ones, men, and women, quietly crushed, out of sight in detention, in destitution, and occasionally if they are lucky, welcomed warmly into communities.

But many aren’t. Harmit Athwal at the Institute of Race Relations has kept a log of deaths among asylum seekers, a horrific catalogue of suicides, racist attacks, people jumping from windows and balconies when immigration come to the door. Her research  published in 2006, entitled Driven to Desperate Measures, lists 221 asylum seekers and migrants who died in the UK between 1989 and 2006 either at their own hand, as victims of racist attack, in transit or in work related situations. Fifty eight had committed suicide, twenty two in prison or detention centres, thirty six in the community.

When it first came out in 2006 there were no takers in the press. Nobody wanted to cover it apart from the excellent London Review of Books which gave us several thousand words. In that piece I wrote about suicides among asylum seekers. I have yet to meet anyone outside of the asylum zone who is aware of the public self immolations in the UK, let alone other suicides of asylum seekers and migrants, amongst them people who have hung themselves, drunk anti freeze or bled to death after self harming in prison. Eleven asylum seekers have set fire to themselves in the UK, most in public places, most since 2000. The last—the twelfth who set himself alight in Leeds just before Christmas last year—survived.

There is no official data on deaths of asylum seekers, only what Harmit Athwal has painstakingly put together. Since publishing that list which was ignored by the main stream media, some 55 more have died—16 have committed suicide, there may well be more. I was commissioned to write about this earlier this year but when I turned in the copy I was told apologetically that it was too much of a list and too grim.

Editors don’t want the stories partly because they are familiar, because you could fill pages every day, because there is some compassion fatigue and because the spirit in features is for upbeat stories.

There are exceptions, of course there are –as I said The Guardian, Independent, New Statesman all do a good job and there have been a handful of brilliant TV documentaries as witnessed in Rachel Seifert’s excellent Dispatches programme on Channel 4. But I would like to see the stories written fairly and truthfully in the tabloids. Fat chance.

60 years on from the Convention, in this anniversary year, everyone here knows hundreds of terrible stories about what happens to people coming here to seek sanctuary. The challenge is to change minds.

Politicians will only change when the people whose votes they know to be secured by being tough on immigration, are convinced on evidence rather than prejudice that tough is not what’s needed.

We have to we find a way to communicate the evidence to people like this unnamed person who wrote to the Guardian recently attacking it for its “constant trumpeting of the ‘mistreatment’ of asylum seekers.” It’s more urgent than ever that we deconstruct the myths as the cuts threaten to divide people ever more deeply with those at the sharp end already being most affected and asylum seekers are already scapegoats. The correspondent’s friend, the letter said, was having a hard time making ends meet after her husband abandoned her. Bureaucracy was militating against her, her house was falling to bits and ‘by the end of the month she’s existing on noodles’.

The letter writer has a point—nobody should be reduced to this kind of penury and the welfare state should ensure that – that’s what it’s there for. But her point was that given her friend was reduced to eating noodles, asylum seekers shouldn’t get compensation for maltreatment, as several have to the tune, the letter writer said, of some £10m. “ The Guardian will—and the left already has—lost its support by abandoning its indigenous people who are also facing hardships and who, being struggling citizens and taxpayers, might hope they receive some sort of priority from the limited pot,” concludes the letter writer. This is an irrational equation.

We have to find a way of breaking that matrix of ignorance, fear, political manipulation and capitulation to the irrational as the asylum system, an unwieldy behemoth, lumbers on.”