The scapegoating of migrants and refugees crossing the English Channel in the middle of a pandemic is a recipe for disaster and danger.
Stoking racial division as means of distraction is straight out of the Trump playbook, so it makes sense it is happening at a time when the UK government is reeling from its complete mishandling of the worst pandemic outbreak in Europe.
Prime minister Boris Johnson suggested on Monday that he wants to change the law to "send away" more people who reach the UK from France, ahead of a meeting with the country on Tuesday. The UK government said it wants to work with the French authorities to make the route across the channel "unviable" after migrants and refugees.
Johnson called crossing the English Channel a "very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do" after a small surge in migrant boat crossings from northern France to Dover.
This response furthers the right-wing closed-borders ideology and its fallacy of being “tough on crime.” The whole agenda is seemingly dictated by, and simultaneously legitimises, people like Brexiteer Nigel Farage who only a few months back was fear mongering on this exact issue.
A group of Tory ministers said the government should do "whatever it takes" to deal with the problem, saying many of their constituents were angry that migrants had been put up in "expensive hotels" and given "immediate access" to financial support.
This is all a part of the larger Brexit story.
Multiple studies found psychological predictors of xenophobia were strongly linked with voting to leave the EU and it's impossible to ignore the fact that anti-immigrant sentiment was a large theme in the 2016 referendum campaign. A YouGov poll also found that 73 per cent of Brexit voters (and Tory voters) feel very little or no sympathy for the people travelling across the Channel.
Meanwhile, humanitarian groups criticised the government's latest move to criminalise migration.
Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said: “It’s incredibly disappointing to hear the prime minister using such inaccurate and inflammatory language to describe men, women and children who are desperate enough to make perilous journeys across the busiest shipping channel in the world. Seeking asylum is not a crime, and it is legitimate that people have to cross borders to do so."
Earlier this week, a RAF transport plane even flew back and forth surveilling the waters between south-east England and northern France following a Home Office request for assistance to patrol the Channel, as if refugees in overcrowded boats it were some kind of pressing military threat.
All of this is smoke and mirrors − and the government know it.
If the government was actually concerned about immigration issues their focus would not be specifically on the English Channel. Home Office data shows the vast majority of immigrants do not arrive in the UK via small boat crossings. Rather the images allow for a visible and visceral fear, something tangible for politicians to point to as a problem.
This tactic is straight out of the Trump playbook.
This form of rhetoric and scaremongering is nothing new, and recalls US president Donald Trump’s push to stop the “invasion” of “caravans” carrying "bad thug" migrants across the southern border in the US — which ultimately was just an appeal to his base, and was unsurprisingly no longer an issue once the 2018 mid term elections were over.
Government scapegoating is turning the plight of desperate people into a circus. Recent arrivals have included entire families from Yemen, Eritrea, Chad, Egypt, Iran, Sudan and Iraq, many hoping to claim asylum once they reach the UK. But coverage of the migrants on Tuesday included a journalist waving and shouting “Are you Ok?” at channel-crossers in a small dingy from a giant boat. After travelling for miles and now being crammed into an overloaded, unsafe vessel, it's fair to assume that they are probably not Ok.
Ultimately, beyond questions of “deservedness” and what counts as “legal” immigration from otherwise socially, politically or economically non-viable countries, it is key to look beyond government rhetoric. This government should be held accountable for their implementation of austerity measures, the abysmal record on the pandemic, and beyond. This is an easy, and frankly obvious, distraction from everything else.
So next time a panic like this is whipped up, ask yourself: what is the government trying to distract me from?
Because this, rather than a non-existent "invasion", is probably real issue.