Newspeak and doublethink from James Brokenshire

Half of the world's refugees are children

Blog by Pauline Diamond Salim, Media Officer at Scottish Refugee Council

It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words…

This old quote from Nineteen Eighty-Four must be running through James Brokenshire’s mind this morning.  With one cynical comment, the UK immigration minister has managed to re-frame an entire humanitarian crisis.

On the day the UN reported the number of Syrian refugees has topped four million people, headline after headline across the UK repeated Brokenshire’s comment from yesterday’s EU home affairs committee: ‘most Med Sea migrants are economic’.  As a sentence it’s not even grammatically correct, but who cares about grammar? We’re tossing aside the whole meaning of words for political gain here.

Brokenshire made the comments yesterday in a House of Lords hearing on the Mediterranean crisis. He gave no evidence to back up his statement but, when pushed, admitted it was an ‘estimate’ that the majority of people risking their lives to reach Europe are ‘seeking jobs, not sanctuary’.

A deeply cynical estimate and a statement clearly intended to shift the terms of the debate.

The crisis in the Mediterranean is so complex, the suffering and loss of life so awful, and so close by. There are no easy solutions. Most of us just wish it would go away. Then along comes the immigration minister with a new proposition: most Med Sea migrants are economic. So they are not desperate! They are not climbing into rickety boats, pregnant, because they face torture or death if they stay at home. They are not refugees. They are economic, whatever that means. It certainly doesn't sound like people in need. They’re just seeking jobs not sanctuary. So we don’t need to feel guilty, or ashamed, or helpless or angry at our government for refusing to meet its obligations under international law. Let’s just drop the word refugee and redefine it as ‘economic migrant’. Problem solved.

By redefining 'refugee' as 'economic migrant', Brokenshire, and the newspapers that parrot his words, perform a pretty spectacular bit of doublethink. But the consequences of his words will be even more damaging for those who do seek refugee protection in the UK. How do you prove you are a refugee when the immigration minister has decided, before considering your evidence, that you are seeking a job, not protection under international law?

The UN, which, unlike the UK immigration minister, doesn’t rely on estimates but instead gathers evidence on the ground, reported last week that a third of the men, women and children arriving by sea in Italy and Greece are from Syria. The second and third most common countries of origin are Afghanistan and Eritrea. These are countries where people are at well-documented and widespread risk of violence, persecution and human rights abuses. Are they really seeking jobs not sanctuary?

Brokenshire has obviously learned a thing or two from Orwell. “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

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(1) Comments

  • Jamie Spurway
    16 July 2015, 12:47

    Excellent piece Pauline. Comparisons to 1984 are often trite but these fit frighteningly well.

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