Anyone who cares about people being treated with humanity and respect will have been shaken by Priti Patel’s plan to deport people seeking safety here in the UK to Rwanda. It’s a dangerous and inhumane plan, and unfortunately it’s just the latest in a long line of hostile government policies which target people trying to make Britain home.
We know this government could easily welcome people forced to flee – just look at the Homes for Ukraine scheme, or the way Poland has welcomed over 3 million Ukrainians since March. Yet instead of granting Black and brown people fleeing war the same safe routes here, this government chooses to use certain refugees as a political football every time it lands itself in hot water.
In fact, Priti Patel first briefed the Times about the Rwanda plans in June 2021, just as Boris Johnson’s ratings were taking a nosedive at the beginning of Britain’s third Covid wave. It’s just one example of how this government points the finger at minorities, to deflect attention away from the harms their decisions cause. They want us to blame refugees, trans people and environmental activists for our hard times instead of the people in power: the ministers who handed crony contracts to their billionaire mates, slashed funding to our councils and partied while the rest of us locked down.
As migrants’ rights campaigners, how have we responded? Well, we have relentlessly expressed outrage at Priti Patel’s cruel asylum plans. This is understandable. It has felt necessary to call out the downright horror of the Rwandan deportation scheme. We have wanted to expose the devastating effects of the home secretary’s new Nationality and Borders Act. However, we have often failed to paint a clear picture of the society we want to live in and the solutions that will help get us there. Without giving people a vision of the world we want to see, it’s easy for our audiences to feel despondent and hopeless rather than motivated to take action.
There is, however, huge ground for us to build on going forward. The government’s punitive new anti-refugee act may have passed, but the movement demanding justice and dignity for people who move is growing stronger every week. We have seen councillors and archbishops demanding greater welcome for people seeking asylum, we have seen crowds resisting immigration raids in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London and we have seen a huge coalition of people successfully halt the first Rwanda deportation flight.
As this movement grows, it’s important for us to recognise that outrage won’t be enough to oppose this government’s inhuman polices. We need to communicate our values, and bring more people on board with our vision for a fairer, free-er and more solidaristic society. That means showing people that a different world is possible.
“As this movement grows, it’s important for us to recognise that outrage won’t be enough to oppose this government’s inhuman polices.”
Compassion, care, fairness, equality – these are values most of us hold dear. When we begin our messages by appealing to these shared human values, rather than jumping to condemn a problem, this helps us build common ground between ourselves and our audience and helps shift people’s opinions. It can be tempting to jump to condemnation of a policy we know is egregious – like the Rwandan deportation plan – but evidence shows that beginning with condemnation often turns people away from our messages rather than bringing them in. Relatedly, if you’re basing your argument on morality, criticising the financial cost of the policy weakens rather than strengthens your argument. Would asylum deportation schemes be any less immoral if they were cheap?
Often, we also denounce policies without identifying the politicians responsible, or the motivations they have. We talk passively about harmful immigration and asylum systems leading to ‘marginalisation’, for example. This makes change seem unwieldy, if not impossible, and lets the powerful off the hook: if marginalisation is something which simply ‘happens’, how are we supposed to stop it? If we’re trying to encourage others to act, we should talk about who is peddling these policies and why.
We know that government ministers flouted lockdown rules and that they’re backing billionaire bosses instead of struggling families. We know that this government is stoking fear and hatred of minorities to divert attention away from their own political failures. As well as
identifying the devastating effects ministers’ policies will have on people, we need to point out politicians’ motivations. Calling out this government’s divisive scapegoating tactics for what they are helps us mobilise people to act and unites people from across different backgrounds.
Finally, when we talk about people who move for work, love, safety or study (and often a combination of these), we should also try and use person-centred language as much as possible, rather than categorising people as ‘asylum-seekers’, ‘migrants’ or even ‘refugees’. Most of us have moved at some point in our lives. People who have crossed borders are no different – like all of us, they have families and dreams, good days and bad days. When we’re trying to elicit empathy and understanding, it makes sense to talk about what unites us, rather than reducing people down to a legal status or their negative experiences. In this vein, wherever possible, it’s helpful to use language like ‘people who’ve fled harm’ rather than ‘vulnerable asylum-seekers’, and ‘people who’ve made the UK home’ rather than ‘migrants’.
“When we’re trying to elicit empathy and understanding, it makes sense to talk about what unites us, rather than reducing people down to a legal status or their negative experiences.”
The anthropologist David Graeber once said “the world is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently”. There’s great truth in this statement. The decisions power-holders make are political choices, and they could just as easily make different, better choices. Wherever possible we should point out those alternative choices – like family reunion routes for people seeking safety, or short affordable pathways to citizenship.
Right now, instead of focusing on solutions, we tend to repeat and refute our opponents’ arguments, with statements like ‘seeking asylum is not a crime’. This only helps reinforce unhelpful and stigmatising framing. To engender hope and action, it helps to talk about practical steps forward and the world we want to build towards. For most of us, that’s a society where everyone is treated with respect and dignity, regardless of race, religion or gender; where our communities are welcoming, inclusive and caring, and where people feel safe and free. When we remind people of the kind of society we could be, celebrate the progress we’ve already made, and excite people with our visions for the future, we make our movement a team that people want to join.
Nadia Hasan is communications officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.
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