'Johnson’s government is quicker to demonise refugees than to support them'

A group of people, thought to be migrants, are ferried ashore by Border Force officers, from HMC See

A group of people, thought to be migrants, are ferried ashore by Border Force officers - Credit: PA

It is impossible on these cold winter nights to imagine the terror of setting off on a tiny dinghy in the dark across the world’s busiest shipping channel. My heart breaks for those who have lost their lives on this dangerous voyage in recent weeks. 

The mark of a society is how it treats the most vulnerable, yet Johnson’s government seemingly prides itself on its hostility to refugees fleeing conflict and persecution. As cruel as it is incompetent, first they voted down the “Dubs Amendment” to the Brexit Bill which would have allowed unaccompanied child refugees in Europe to safely join family members in the UK after Brexit. 

Now Priti Patel’s pushing her Nationality and Borders Bill through parliament despite Labour’s opposition. It shamefully penalises people for risking their lives on boats, irrespective of the strength of their asylum claim, but offers no safer alternatives. That’s a clear breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Britain was a founding member.

Catherine West, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green

Catherine West has been fighting for asylum seekers to have the right to work for a long time - Credit: Chris McAndrew

There’s no legal basis in saying people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. The idea is absurd, Greece and Italy would house virtually all refugees to Europe. The UK is a wealthy country, yet we already accept far fewer refugees than our French and German neighbours. When refugees do make it here, we force them to live for months sometimes years on £5.66 a day whilst their asylum applications are processed. I’ve long fought for asylum seekers to have the right to work yet, despite the government’s promise of a review back in 2019, still we wait. 

Johnson’s government is a lot quicker in demonising refugees than it is in supporting them.  Dangerous divisive rhetoric leads to horrific scenes like that in Hastings recently when angry onlookers tried to stop RNLI launching a lifeboat. What have we come to as a nation when saving lives is a matter of debate? 

We need a new narrative, one that recognises the contributions refugees make to our society and stops treating people fleeing unimaginable horror as responsible for the strain on public services created by 11 years of Tory austerity.  

I am thankful that here in Haringey when the Home Office placed refugee families locally this summer, volunteers from Muswell Hill Synagogue, Methodist Church and Wightman Road Mosque came together to form Muswell Hill Welcomes offering meals, English lessons, friendship and legal support to the new arrivals. Kindness and community not cruelty and division. 

The Christmas story at its heart is the story of a family seeking refuge. This Christmas, I hope people can dig deep and support Haringey Giving who do so much to help refugees, asylum seekers and tackle inequality in our borough haringeygiving.org.uk

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Catherine West (Lab) is MP for Hornsey and Wood Green.