Prime Minister, we need to talk about people

David Cameron tells the UK: 'Our migrant communities are a fundamental part of who we are and Britain is a far richer and stronger society because of them.'

Yes, Prime Minister! How right you are. I couldn’t agree more with you that 'immigration has brought significant benefits to Britain' and that the UK should be proud of – should celebrate – 'a long tradition of providing sanctuary'.

Right now these words of yours are more important than ever, because for some reason this supposedly very British tradition of offering sanctuary and protection to those in need, of supporting 'the aspirations of hard-working people who want to get on in life', seems to be missing from the current narrative when we talk about 'migrants'.

I put migrants in inverted commas because, of course, what we really mean when we say 'migrants' or 'immigrants' is – simply – people.

Those PEOPLE who are in Calais trying to reach the UK for protection, sanctuary, or for the chance of a better life that they can 'get on in', are overwhelmingly from countries like Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Sudan – countries where we all know conflict and human rights abuses rage on, forcing people to leave and search for safety.

Most people fleeing Syria and Eritrea (at least) will be genuine refugees who are in desperate need of protection. We know that the few thousand people trying to reach the UK from Calais are a tiny, tiny proportion of the world’s migrants and refugees – a tiny proportion, even, of the number of people hosted in other European countries.

Three charts that prove 'swarms' of refugees really aren't coming to the UK http://t.co/MuyQq0fShx pic.twitter.com/MYmIh6Rscy

— The Independent (@Independent) August 8, 2015

And we know that, as you say, people who come to live in the UK make a substantial contribution to the UK economy.

So it seems strange, Prime Minister, that the language you and your colleagues have used recently seems to be so lacking in the integrity and compassion that citizens across Europe are showing refugees; and that you have prided yourself on before. Referring to people as 'swarms' or 'marauding', then, is not only deeply damaging, but completely inaccurate, given the small number of people in question – and the fact that these are people simply in search of a safe and sustainable future, something you yourself recognise as a legitimate aim.

In fact your statement that it is essential that 'when people come here claiming asylum…they’re properly looked after and we’re generous in the way that we treat them' is so much more relevant in these current times than the seemingly constant misleading and shameful attempts to demonise and dehumanise.

David Cameron criticised for describing migrants as a "swarm" trying to get into Britain http://t.co/nz2Pv0x5wA pic.twitter.com/mB1cPWvfaA

— Sky News (@SkyNews) July 30, 2015

As Philip Hammond is criticised over "marauding" migrants rhetoric, No 10 refuses to repeat the claim http://t.co/IDsf4vYCjZ

— Total Politics (@TotalPolitics) August 10, 2015

Of course we can’t know precisely how many of the people who are trying to get to the UK want to claim asylum (and which of those would be granted it) until they actually arrive here.

And since the UK refuses to provide any safe and legal route for people trying to get into the country in order to claim asylum, thereby forcing people to make dangerous journeys clinging to rickety boats and the undersides of lorries, your claim that 'Britain will always offer a welcome to people fleeing persecution' is all the more significant.

How, Prime Minister, can we 'welcome' anyone when getting to the UK is so treacherous that at least nine people have died trying to cross the Channel just in the last month?

As many commentators have said in recent weeks, the language we use to talk about refugees is important. Negative and dehumanising language leads to negative policies devoid of humanity.

So, Prime Minister, let’s return to the language of welcome and of generosity, of tradition and strength.

And then let’s actually mean it.

Warm welcome in Palermo, #Sicily today as survivors of the latest #Mediterranean shipwreck disembarked. #Italy pic.twitter.com/h196jgyU1O

— UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) August 7, 2015

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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