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Fear of foreigners is political Viagra for our limp leaders

Suzanne Moore


Check their teeth. The lying “hulking” children let in from Calais. That small handful are not children at all. Use computer software to determine their true age, these quasi-criminals. Tory MP David Davies wants their teeth X-rayed. That’s right. While thousands of people have been festering in the camps about to be demolished, the public is being told we have overextended our “famous hospitality” by letting in these boys. We don’t want to be a soft touch.

I note that no one is talking about the Eritrean girl who was also let in this week, because she is a girl. Because God knows that the women and girls in the camps qualify as vulnerable. Some are forced into sex work. Many dress as boys or stay in the tents to avoid the smugglers, but let’s not bother with details here. They, too, could be lying. Check their teeth. Like you would with a corpse. Or a cow. This is when dental records are actually used to determine age. But, again, why bother with details? Living or dead. Human or animal. Toxic discourse around migrants has gone mainstream – even if teeth checking has now, thankfully, been ruled out by the Home Office as unethical.

Davies, would-be Teeth-Checker General, argues that people in Britain want to help children, “but we don’t want to be taken for a free ride”. He surely missed a trick here. While checking their teeth, we could also see if they own gold fillings and remove them. Or is that going a little too far? Is that a little too reminiscent of the unmentionable? Of course it is and Britain is a kind, caring nation. Fair, gentle, decent. We pride ourselves on these values. We claim them even as the gutter overflows with sulphurous racism dressed up as realism.

The discourse around migration ebbs and flows. They are “vermin” or “cockroaches”. These people have no place. The great anthropologist Mary Douglas defined dirt as “matter out of place”, and so these people with no place become dirt themselves. No longer human to us: simply threatening and other. There have been murmurs of empathy despite this. Oh, look, here is a drowned toddler and a sinking ship of people, whose names we will never know. Oh, look, there is an interminable war in Syria and children smattered with blood and dust sit half alive and we think something should be done. But it’s far away and it’s complicated.

Calais is not very far away, but it is complicated. Some of the people there are seeking asylum, some are migrants. Some are adults, some are children, some will die trying to get here and will never settle in France. Some have burned off their fingerprints so as not to have to settle in their country of entry.

So the divvying up of these people into vulnerable and not vulnerable enough (they live in tents in the mud?) is a way for us to ration our compassion. The value of compassion has plummeted like that of the pound. What is deemed valuable now is hardness. Stay hard for ever. Permanently hard. Hard Brexit. This is delusional, but it is a bravado whereby the weak and the vulnerable must be punished for reminding us that they exist. This fear of foreigners is political Viagra for a set of limp leaders.

Those who speak up for migrants are often those in possession of some actual facts about the situation. The migration of displaced people is massive and ongoing. Yes, more will come, however many fences are erected; yes, immigration has effects. It is no good simply saying that we are a rich country and can afford it, when so many feel very far from rich. The Brexit vote is being interpreted by the extreme right as a referendum on immigration. I continue to believe it was much messier and more complex than that. But alarm bells are ringing because of the flood of racism that is now permissible.

It is shameful that reuniting some teenagers with their families has caused this latest outpouring. It is shameful that the only moral leadership is coming from the church (and a few good Labour MPs) – although, historically, we know the church will step in when the Tories become too reprehensible. It is shameful, too, that we are now arguing over whether teenagers are teenagers, as if anyone over 18 has no rights at all.

There is now a trap where we talk of the good and bad immigrants, as Nikesh Shukla, editor of the book The Good Immigrant, has said. The good ones win Bake Off or long-distance races or save your aunt’s life in hospital. There are deserving and undeserving migrants. If someone has got from Afghanistan to within 22 miles of our coast, what category are they? There are the innocent ones – little children, maybe a few Syrians – so the rest must be guilty? In their years of journeying, some may have lied to survive. Wouldn’t you?

The reaction to this handful of people is sickening. Maybe some cannot imagine ever having to flee. Maybe it is better to be hard of heart and mind. But this hatred is a brittle creature. Check its teeth, find its age, you will indeed find it a very old thing, rotten to the core, stinking of decay.

If this is what governs our country now, you are welcome to it.