Why do asylum seekers get such a rough ride in the media? There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of the debate which is exploited by certain papers and politicians to trick the British public into thinking things which aren't true. Piled one on top of the other, these misleading contortions combine to create an unreal picture in the minds of the many.
So let's make things simple by painting a picture of the average asylum seeker that the average person can understand.
Imagine you are dosing on a friend's sofa and you suddenly become aware of the sound of flapping. It's a sparrow that's ended up in the kitchen through no fault of its own. It's being chased around the kitchen by a maniac with a rolling pin, so it decides to take its chances by flying into the living room. Home free? Not quite. A man in the living room wearing a suit decides he doesn't really want another sparrow in his living room. So he says that the bird wasn't in any danger in the kitchen at all. He shepherds it into a birdcage, shakes hands with the maniac in the kitchen and hands the shivering creature over. The next thing you hear is a rolling pin smashing down over and over again followed by impassioned squeaking and squawking. The next thing you see is feathers flying, blood spattering onto the window and fragments of bird brain and sinew flying into your Coco-Pops.
If it strikes you that that analogy was a bit graphic then wait for the reality. The Institute of Race Relations counted 57 asylum seekers who had killed themselves since 1989. The actual figure is likely to be much higher. Failed asylum seekers facing deportation have jumped to their deaths from tower blocks, hanged themselves, slashed their wrists and burned themselves to death. Some of these suicides have even happened at detention centres which are supposed to provide a safe and secure environment.
The desperation these people face is unimaginable. This is not the Sunday night blues we suffer from, nor the niggling sadness that lost relationships or underwhelming jobs cause. This is the most desperate, primal of fears about being tortured or killed.
This week 18 failed Afghan asylum seekers briefly went on hunger strike at an immigration removal centre in Lincolnshire, yet the story was scarcely mentioned. If you look at the list of countries where the suicide victims came from, it reads like a list of teams you wouldn't mind England drawing in the World Cup group stages - but not a list of countries where you'd have any hope of encountering a free and fair political or legal system: China, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Congo, Eritrea, Somalia.
And yet still we are sending people back to these countries. The UK Border Agency's official line is that they only "remove" people to where they came from if they do not need protection and have failed to legally obtain citizenship in this country. What's plain is that political pressure to reduce immigration to Britain has a part to play in this story, as does the quality of legal representation each person gets, and likewise their portrayal in the media.
Criminalising failed asylum seekers is a useful way to stop the public caring about them - this happens when failed asylum seekers are locked up in immigration removal centres prior to being kicked out of the country. But it also happens when journalists spend a disproportionate amount of time writing stories about foreigners committing crimes, or insinuating that the immigration removal centres are filled with foreign criminals awaiting deportation when in fact there are also innocent asylum seekers inside.
There's also a shortage of coverage about the reality of families facing deportation, or the sad stories of people who've made their lives in Britain only to be refused leave to stay. Some local papers have, thankfully, begun to carry more stories in recent years focussing on the human angle of these cases.
Yet the journalists who write inflammatory stories - and associated comment pieces - for certain daily national papers are a puzzling bunch. Seemingly devoid of goodwill, you wonder why they didn't just get a job in a large corporation, or as a childcatcher. These hacks are the type of people that would steal all the letter 'R' tiles from your Scrabble set and very precisely defecate onto all the triple word score squares while you were next door making the tea. Then they'd probably try to hit on your ex-girlfriend on the way home. They are the type of people that say all sparrows "deserve what they get" because they have the temerity to "flap around" and "eat British worms."
It's even more perplexing when you realise that the places these hacks want asylum seekers sent back to are the type of trigger-happy, torturing states where journalists are routinely considered enemy number one. Indeed many of those people who come to Britain as refugees got in trouble precisely because they were journalists or politicians or lawyers in a country torn apart by war or corruption. Britain has a tradition of being a tolerant, welcoming haven where freedom of speech and a free press is central to our culture. That tradition should continue.
So, rather than that feeling of bafflement and mild rage you get when you read these unpleasent stories - the same feeling, in fact, that you get when you see two foxes having loud sex in your garden - perhaps a pro-active approach would be better. How about a little fact-finding exercise? It wouldn't be very difficult to raise the money for a one-way ticket to Harare or Tehran or Mogadishu for some of the more well known of this clan of bitter old hacks. Once there they could spend a few months seeing what it's like to be a journalist in hell. Then a sweet-natured asylum seeker could take over their column in London.
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