The press calls it the silly season.
Those long hot days of summer when everyone is out of town and nothing much is happening. News editors scratch their heads to find headlines that will keep people buying the paper, watching the TV. Usually it is a “dog bites man” story, something weird or remarkable.
This year it is something not silly at all but very very nasty. It is the coverage of the situation at Calais and the comments of our politicians who fear the rabid right wing press.
That it is being helped along by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary is appalling. Phillip Hammond is quoted as saying that the UK’s “number one priority” is to send them back their country of origin. He talks of these people – yes they are people – as “desperate migrants marauding around the area… a threat. Europe can’t protect itself and preserve its standard of living and social structure if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa.”
Can you imagine? It’s the mid 1930s and Jews are being persecuted by the Nazis in Europe. Many try to escape to Britain. The Prime Minister of Britain talks of “swarms of Jews undermining our way of life, taking our jobs, sending their children to our overcrowded island”.
There are a mere 5000 people – yes people – at Calais. Most are from the Middle East and North Africa, many from Eritrea.
They are the ones of have suffered persecution and chanced their lives to get here. You can bet they are bright, brave, resourceful and eager to work.
Their right to asylum is written in our laws and international law. And they are just the sort of people Britain needs and has always accepted. But the right wing press and its friends in government like to portray them as animals, scum. And why are they coming from countries like Libya? Because this government misread what was happening there, thought they could stabilise it by dropping bombs on it and then decided to give up and walked away.
These are shameful days for the United Kingdom.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles published by Portobello Books.