You have to admire Priti Patel. As a woman of colour in public life, the daily abuse she must endure has to be eye-watering. To persist and to function in such an environment is testament to great fortitude and determination on her part. If you’re expecting some snippy remark to deflate this praise, you’ll be disappointed. Her personal courage is not the point at issue.
Her heritage is one underpinned by migrations – note the plural. Her paternal grandparents left India for a better life in Uganda before being persecuted and expelled from there to start another new life in England. In 1972, Idi Amin, Uganda’s dictatorial leader, denounced Asians living there as ‘bloodsuckers’, imposed draconian deadlines by which they had to leave and then turned a blind eye to the robbing and exploitation of those desperate to get out alive.
It is estimated that some 28 thousand such refugees came to the UK. Leicester City Council, in a move for which it has since furnished a fulsome apology, issued adverts warning these displaced people not to come to a city where they would fail to find either work or accommodation. Ironically, the contribution of Ugandan Asians to the city’s wealth and culture in now universally acknowledged. Those expelled from Amin’s Uganda became a by-word for hard work, self-reliance, economic success and a willingness to contribute to the greater good of society.
The good councillors of Leicester were not alone in their coolness towards desperate people. Minutes from government meetings, released some thirty years after the expulsion, reveal talk of sending refugees to either the Solomon or Falkland Islands. Abiding concerns about demands on existing resources – housing, schools, health provision – also formed part of the prevailing discourse.
All of which has to make you wonder about Priti Patel, brave and determined as she may be. The calmer weather of the past few weeks has prompted large numbers of frantic people to part with staggeringly large sums of money – reports speak of anything up to three thousand pounds – to ditch any such belongings they have clung to during an already perilous journey and to jump into a cramped dinghy. From there they are pushed out to sea to hope for the best. Many of those in these fragile, vulnerable vessels, including the children among them, are victims of actions and atrocities that are beyond the imagination of almost all of us.
Which makes the responses of a woman whose immediate family carries the memory of migration and persecution even more bizarre. Where previous governments wanted to dump her grandparents on the Falkland Islands, Patel has suggested some form of holding stations in Rwanda. No, seriously. Because setting up the apparatus to deal with displaced persons in offices just a few thousand miles away in central Africa makes such obvious sense. Until a few weeks ago, she had been content to house refugees in military barracks, unfit for human habitation and acting as petri dishes for Covid infection.
Charged with fielding questions about her cunning Africa plan, a Home Office spokesperson choked out the response that ‘we will not rule out any option that could help reduce illegal migration and relieve the pressure on the broken asylum system.’ That’d be the broken asylum system you’ve been running for the past eleven years, would it?
And Priti’s response to this problem? A pledge of £54 million pounds to work with French authorities to weed out the trafficking gangs, cooperate with coastal police and turn back those who have already been displaced, harassed and robbed. ‘I have absolutely discussed this with my French counterpart,’ she insists – which has to be something of a relief, coming from a member of a government not renowned for its listening skills where those from foreigner-country are concerned. ‘The British people have had enough of illegal migration and the exploitation of migrants by criminal gangs,’ she firmly asserts. Unfortunately, a search through any of the responses to this proposal, from former chiefs of the border police to migrants themselves, suggests that this is a strategy that is doomed to failure.
It might be disappointing that a woman of Patel’s background and experience displays such heartless and poorly informed behaviour, but we shouldn’t be surprised. She has chosen to spend her working life surrounded by colleagues whose attitudes to those less fortunate themselves is founded on the firm belief that if you come up short in life, it’s almost certainly your own fault. It’s an ideology deeply embedded in the Tory psyche and it currently manifests itself in everything from enforcing miserable, petty cuts to foreign aid (a measure making forced migration even more likely for thousands of people), to belittling those campaigning for social justice to harbouring a genuine belief that the rules are only for the little people. By her friends we should know her.
Patel and her government colleagues will answer that those pictured above are different from the desperate boat people because they were legal migrants. But when you’ve been brutally forced from your home and have to take your chance on an overcrowded lilo, that distinction may be rather too nuanced for those involved. Maybe she could just pause for a moment and consider those wading ashore as the potential success stories of the future. It may not play as well to the baying right-wing gallery, but it might just turn out to be the proper thing to do.