Refugees and the UK: Language, logic, and policy

An often repeated phrase in the UK is “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. This has never been true. Words have always held an intense power, and how we speak about certain topics shapes our view of them. In particular, when we use negative and dehumanising language, we risk encouraging actions and policies with terrible consequences. 

For over a decade, politicians have chosen to describe the influx of refugees as a ‘crisis’ or even an ‘invasion’. These words have created such a negative image of immigrants that a YouGov survey concluded nearly half of Britons had little sympathy for migrants crossing the Channel. It is therefore hardly surprising that over the last decade the UK has opted for policies that have been fervently anti-immigrant. 

Priti Patel has even gone so far as to appoint a ‘clandestine Channel threat commander’, and has suggested plans to have Navy warships patrol the UK’s waters. It has also become ever more difficult to migrate to the UK legally, leaving many little choice but to attempt the crossing in dangerous, life-threatening ways. In 2019, such policies saw 39 people suffocate in the back of a lorry. This year, they have led to 27 drowning in the Channel. Words, and the policies they enable, have the power to kill. 

Following the Channel deaths, European powers have come together to discuss how to prevent further tragedies. This excluded Britain, whose invitation was revoked as what has been termed a ‘political crisis’ grows between France and the UK. This “political crisis” seems to refer to a series of squabbling efforts to blame one another for the kinds of tragedies that have become all too common in recent years. There is no apology, no desire to do better, just a commitment to not take the blame. 27 people have died, and all politicians can do is point the finger at someone else.

Disgustingly, beyond the narrative of ‘it wasn’t me’ is a repetitive chant of ‘not in my backyard’. Many politicians agree that refugees must be given a safe home, but no one is willing to provide one. This is reflected by the British public, many of whom believe that our asylum system should deter people from seeking asylum. But why shouldn’t they come here? It is, after all, undeniable that the UK has played a major role in causing the political nightmares many people are fleeing. The British Empire, the foundation for our modern economy, was built on the resources we stole from countries that now face economic turmoil. And us Brits spent much of the 19th and 20th centuries turning otherwise harmonious communities against each other, manufacturing ethnic tensions, many of which persist to this day, to make colonial territories easier to control.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, for example, the British divided the northern region of the Middle East in such a way that saw the Kurdish population split between 3 different states – Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Now a minority in each, the Kurds have faced constant persecution. And many of those who died crossing the channel, including the first victim named, were Kurdish. Having played an instrumental role in creating the environment many sought to flee, the only moral course of action is to make it easier for people to claim asylum in the UK.

Many would agree on this point, but few would deem it practical. Most argue instead that making it easier to seek asylum would be a drain on the UK’s economy and lead to such an influx of refugees that we would run out of space to put them. This is not true. The practical solution and the moral solution are actually one and the same. Since we first started to feel the repercussions of Brexit, we have seen mass shortages in supermarkets. This is not from a lack of produce but from a lack of labour, as companies struggle to find enough staff to harvest fruit or butcher meat. Allowing refugees into the country and permitting them to work would provide an ample workforce to fill these vacancies. 

In this sense, both logic and morality dictate that we welcome refugees, and make it easier for them to claim asylum. But this won’t happen unless we begin to think about the words we’re using. How we talk about people influences how they are treated, and the dehumanising language often used when speaking about refugees encourages dangerously inhumane immigration policies. So, consider your words carefully, semantics matter.

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