On my regular jaunts to the local supermarket I usually go to the newspaper stand and survey the newspaper headlines. I can't help but look particularly at those papers that have become known as the 'red tops' not to mention the other tabloid newspapers. Usually these newspapers carry all sorts of weird and wonderful headlines, well probably not wonderful, and in most cases, in my opinion, definitely not wonderful.
Such tabloids report with depressing regularity on a particular group of people making them the main headline targets of vilification, unwarranted abuse, and persecution. They are of course, refugees who in recent years have become known as asylum seekers. And where the question of asylum or immigration is brought up it appears to me that there are no limits, no standards of human decency to which these so-called newspapers can be held to account. And I get the impression that there are no depths to which they will not sink in their appeal to negativity, to the darkest side of human nature, to petty minded nationalism and racial hatred.
There was for example the Daily Star's headline on August 21st 2003: “Asylum Seekers Eat Our Donkeys”. This story suggested that African asylum seekers used a lorry to steal nine donkeys from an area of east London because apparently, Africans, Somalis in this case consider donkey to be a delicacy. In spite of the fact that the Sun newspaper had admitted making up a story earlier in the year about asylum seekers stealing swans from local parks, roasting and eating them, the story about asylum seekers stealing and eating donkeys got wide coverage on radio stations and in other newspapers. In this case it was the Daily Star's turn to admit that their story too was a fabrication. However, in spite of the inflammatory and derogatory nature of such stories, no action was taken against these papers. Apologies were eventually published by both newspapers but of course, not writ large on the front page.
The war against asylum seekers or to be correct refugees who are seeking asylum is not simply confined to the racist fantasies of the Daily Star or the Sun. This war, a very one-sided war, is a war that is raging twenty four hours a day. In fact you can't pick up a newspaper or view online media without there being some story about refugees. These stories seem to fall in to two categories. They are either stories that vilify asylum seekers, either as scroungers, terrorists or criminals or they are stories of cruelty to asylum seekers. In January of this year the Daily Telegraph ran a headline that 371,000 immigrants were claiming benefits. This headline obviously intended to stir up resentment against asylum seekers was condemned in letter by Sir Michael Scholar, the head of the UK Statistics Authority in which he wrote: "The Statistics Authority recognises that Ministers often want to present published statistical information in the way that best serves their political objectives, and that this is part of the cut and thrust of political debate."
He also stated that 'statistics are both highly relevant to public policy and highly vulnerable to misinterpretation.' In the same letter he added, 'There are some important caveats and weaknesses that need to be explained carefully and objectively to Parliament and the news media at the time of publication. In other words the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith who released the story and the Daily Telegraph who published the story were misrepresenting the truth for political gain. But this political game has real consequences for the people at the receiving end. The underlying racism within our society now finds its expression on the question of immigration, allowing manifest racism and cruelty through the way that we as a nation treat asylum seekers.
In the same month (January 2012) a government Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry met to discuss and look into the treatment of asylum seekers who are being deported from the UK. This inquiry followed the death of Jimmy Mubenga while he was being deported from Heathrow to Angola in 2010. Three G4S security guards escorting him were arrested and are still under police investigation. The MPs added that they were shocked to find that private security escorts used racist language in front of UKBA staff and official prison inspectors. 'It is possibly the result of a relationship between the agency and its contractors which had become too cosy,' said their report. Keith Vaz MP said he was disappointed there had been little progress in the police investigation into Mubenga's death.
One of the most shocking stories of 2011 was of how a boat carrying seventy two political refugees from Libya including children was heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa when it suffered fuel loss and engine failure. The Italian authorities were aware of the situation and also NATO ships were operating in the area. An army helicopter was dispatched some water and fuel and some bread was lowered onto the stricken ship. There was a promise of more aid to come but it never arrived. The boat drifted aimlessly and dangerously for days. Then a NATO aircraft carrier came into view, low flying aircraft flew over the boat and the refugees held up two starving children. But their plight was ignored. Eventually after sixteen days without food and water the boat was washed up on a beach in Libya. Sixty one of the original passengers had by this time died of hunger and thirst including the children; eleven survived. However one died shortly after arriving on dry land and another died in a Libyan jail. The surviving refugees were clear that their plight was definitely ignored and they know that the people who could have rescued them were indifferent to their plight.
No matter what anyone says, no matter how we as a nation might bury our heads in the sand or try to justify the policies on asylum, in effect how we treat refugees, we cannot ignore these crimes of inhumanity to others. Moreover, there is no way we can extol the virtues of the 'Charter for Compassion', call our selves people of faith, or even Christian whilst we remain silent on what in some way has become a silent holocaust. This barbaric treatment of vulnerable human beings has become so normalised and common place that we seem to be no longer aware of it.
We should know that every person is a child of God, there is that divine light in each person, and so each person we have ever met and will ever meet will be in effect, an encounter with God. Jesus reminds us that the King will say, 'In as much as you did it to the least of these you did it unto me.' Throughout the pages of the Bible one of God's most consistent messages is that of the requirement to provide hospitality. It is a requirement not an option. In Deuteronomy (10: 19) we are commanded to 'Love the stranger' and we are reminded of our own vulnerability: 'for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' This message, this injunction, we should write not only on the walls of our churches and chapels but on our hearts as well.