The Blog

The Unkindness of Strangers

Last week provided further evidence of how far the absurdities perpetuated by politicians, the rightwing press and the public, can slowly but inexorably shift our collective moral centre of gravity towards the routine acceptance of the unacceptable.

'It seems to me that true religion begins with the law about protecting the alien and the stranger,' wrote the late Auschwitz survivor and interfaith dialogue campaigner Rabbi Hugo Gryn (1930-1996), ' It is there in every religious tradition and it there that men and women discover the idea of humanity. Voltaire said that if we believe in absurdities, we shall commit atrocities. And if we believe in the absurdity that those who are fleeing the country, their home, their families, their job are doing it for a whim then we will be well on the way to committing atrocities.'

In the UK we have been trained to believe many absurdities over these last years. We believe that people on benefits are only doing to it rob the taxpayer. We believe that refugees are not 'genuine refugees' but 'economic migrants' cross deserts and seas, risking their lives and exposing themselves to exploitation and violence, simply do it because they have heard we have 'generous benefits.'

For the last twelve months we have believed that much of the population of Bulgaria and Romania was straining at the leash to get to Britain so that they could all sign on the dole. We believed these lies, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, because it was convenient to believe it, because we were too lazy to do anything else, because it was easy and maybe comforting to abandon common sense and embrace prejudice and hatred, and portray ourselves as an essentially virtuous majority whose generosity has been taken advantage of by the undeserving poor and assorted foreigners.

Last week provided further evidence of how far the absurdities perpetuated by politicians, the rightwing press and the public, can slowly but inexorably shift our collective moral centre of gravity towards the routine acceptance of the unacceptable.

On Tuesday it was revealed that the Home Office has been rewarding officials who hit a target of winning 70 percent of tribunals against appeals from asylum seekers with shopping vouchers, cash bonuses and extra holidays. Many of these initial rejections will have resulted from the UK's 'fast track' asylum system which has been widely condemned by refugee lawyers and NGOS as unfair, inadequate.

But the Home Office, rather than reform this system, prefers to encourage officials to turn down appeals by sending them off with £25 or £50 high street vouchers. A small price to pay for sending someone back to a country where they may be killed, tortured or persecuted, but a big moral price for a society that still pays lip service to the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees..

Then there was the horrific report on the Harmondsworth Immigrant Removal Centre, where many 'failed asylum seekers' are likely to end up, by HM Chief Inspectorate of Prisons. It was at Harmondsworth that the Nigerian 'overstayer' Isa Muazu nearly died from a hunger strike before he was finally deported last month, in the second of two attempts.

The Inspectorate found that guards at Harmondsworth were in the habit of handcuffing detainees whenever they were moved anywhere, even if they were classified as 'low risk.' The examples of ' disproportionate and inhumane use of restraints during hospital escorts' recorded by the Inspectors included a wheelchair-bound detainee handcuffed while being taken to hospital; a dying man who was handcuffed in hospital while under sedation; and an 84-year-old Canadian with Alzheimer's who had been declared unfit for detention and who died in handcuffs.

The Inspectors found that 11 detainees had been held at Harmondsworth for more than a year, including one man who has been there for two and a half years, in a centre that they described as overcrowded, dirty, and bleak. They also noted a rise in inmates self-harming.

None of this should be surprising. Harmondsworth is run by the American GEO Group, formerly the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (WCC) which runs numerous private prisons, correction services and detention centres in the states.

Like Wackenhut before it, GEO is another product of the privately-run 'prison-industrial complex' in the States, which has been accused of running overcrowded, understaffed and unsanitary centres, and a number of incidents involving prisoner deaths, riots, and guards beating and sexually abusing prisoners.

Last year two immigrant activists got themselves detained in the GEO-run immigration detention centre in Florida, where they reported 'substandard or callous medical care, including a woman taken for ovarian surgery and returned the same day, still bleeding, to her cell, and a man who urinated blood for days but wasn't taken to see a doctor.'

This is the company that HM Government chose to run Harmondsworth. No doubt it had it reasons. But the dire conditions at Harmondsworth and in so many other centres is not just the result of budgetary considerations or the outsourcing of Britain's 'detention estate' to private corporations whose main concern is to make money out of it.

Nor can it be put down to 'poor management'. The Inspectorate of Prisons argues correctly that a 'sense of humanity was lost' at the centre. But it's the absence of a wider sense of humanity amongst the British public, media and political class that makes places like Harmondworth possible in the first place.

If a society convinces itself that 'illegal immigrants' are harmful and dangerous criminals, that most refugees are not 'genuine', and that most asylum seekers are 'bogus' intruders looking to play the system, then it is easy for a government to lock them up, and easy for politicians and the public to ignore such things.

Even worse, if you convince yourself that refugees are part of an imminent 'flood' or 'invasion' that threatens to destroy your country, then you can convince yourself that it's actually quite a good idea to treat them as harshly as possible, in the hope that they go away or stop coming.

The result is a situation in which we deport half-blind 'failed asylum seekers, and allow guards to put handcuffs on dying patients and old men with dementia. To return to Rabbi Gryn:

'How you are with the one to whom you owe nothing; that is a grave test and not only as an index of our tragic past. I always think that the real offenders of the halfway mark of the century were the bystanders; all those people who let things happen because they didn't affect them directly. I believe that the line our society takes on the ones to whom we know nothing is the critical signal that we give to our young. It is a test that I hope and pray we do not fail.'

Harmondsworth is one more indication that we are failing that test, and allowing ourselves to become bystanders and even indirect participants at the persecution of those to whom we owe nothing.

And a society that allows such things to happen needs to take a good look in the mirror, and ask itself if it really likes what it sees.