Theresa May's absence of evidence is evidence of absence

People try to reach the Greek island of Lesbos on 30 September 2015 © AFP/Getty Images

Party conference speeches are often heavy on the rhetoric, light on the detail. They are meant to be rousing and engaging, after all, so I guess statistics, research and, I don't know...proof, often get bumped for metaphors and even (ok, rarely, unless you're Boris Johnson) humour.

But Theresa May's speech to Conservative Party Conference today was so seriously lacking in evidence that the Telegraph described it as "dangerous and factually wrong". Nothing funny about it either. 

The speech focused almost exclusively on immigration and asylum. Unsurprising perhaps, given the world is facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Hundreds of thousands of women, men and children have risked incredibly dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean this year in order to seek safety and protection in Europe.

Thousands have tragically died in the process, including of course three year old Aylan Kurdi, whose heart-wrenching image seemed to (at long last) move the UK government from the damaging rhetoric of "marauding" "swarms", to pledging to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees here in the UK over the next five years.

So it was even more disheartening to hear Theresa May focus so much of her speech today on myths and inaccuracies...I'd hoped we'd left the likes of "cat-gate" back in 2011.

I counted no less than seven references to people coming to the UK to "abuse" the asylum system, but where is the evidence for this?

The UK has already made it so difficult for people to get to the UK to claim asylum – and remember there are no safe and legal ways to travel here to claim refugee status - that the numbers are already incredibly low, just 8% of net migration, as May herself said.

Plus almost a third of people whose asylum claim is initially refused, have that decision overturned at appeal. Decision-making within the asylum system continues to be weighted against asylum seekers first time round.

Then there was the assertion, also oft repeated, that the UK should offer asylum to people in other parts of the world, rather than to those who have made it to Britain.

Of course the UK should offer safe and legal routes, like resettlement, to people in need of refuge, rather than forcing them to take dangerous journeys (though May gave absolutely no detail on how she might do this), but that cannot be at the expense of a fair and just asylum system here.

Instead May seems to want a two-tier hierarchy for refugees. ’Good’ refugees who stay put in (overcrowded, underfunded and sometimes dangerous) camps are ok. ‘Bad’ refugees who have been forced out of the region and undertake the dangerous, long journey themselves are not.

Not only is that very damaging, but it also completely misrepresents how the asylum system must work. Refugee status is not - cannot be - afforded based on how able a person is to travel, it is based on whether that person has need of protection.

The people who have made it to the UK to seek protection are most likely fleeing the same conflicts and the same human rights abuses as those still in the region. Where is the evidence to the contrary?

Throughout the speech, May peddled the myth that the people coming to Europe and the UK are somehow less deserving of protection than those still confined to the region. For example she said that it was Germany's estimate that it would receive 800,000 asylum applications this year which prompted hundreds of thousands of people to journey there.

But we know that the majority of these people are refugees, forced to risk their lives and those of their children because of conflict and persecution, bombs and torture, not lured by European media reports.

And how does she think that hundreds of thousands got the message? And does she really believe they then managed to leave the region, cross thousands of miles by foot (as many do), find a boat and make the crossing in a matter of days and weeks?

There were many more assertions (such as high immigration making social cohesion more difficult, or there is no net benefit to the economy) in this widely criticised speech which, when questioned, May has struggled to provide evidence of, so it is hard to see it as just rhetoric from an ambitious politician.

In fact, the lack of evidence suggests something much more cynical...and more deafening in its absence. 

As our Advocacy Head Allan Hogarth has said today, whether Theresa May likes it or not, the only practical way to even start to turn around the current crisis is a coordinated European response. Join us in calling for it – email your MP and say that, unlike Theresa, you think refugees are welcome here.

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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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