Tuesday, 05 February 2013

Starting to get serious: how we treat asylum seekers It’s fairly routine to come across a report of a working party or an official inquiry that laments certain conditions that were found. Of course, if an investigation or inquiry is set up with busy (and sometimes expensive) people deliberating, we’re not going to be surprised if there proves to be a good reason for it. But occasionally the reality that an inquiry discovers is so disturbing that it deserves wider attention, and should command that attention. Today saw the publication of one example, from the cross-party parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people. Former children’s minister Sarah Teather, who chaired the inquiry, said ‘The evidence we have heard is shocking and appalling. It is an affront to this country’s proud tradition of giving sanctuary to those fleeing danger and violence.’ For the Children’s Society, Matthew Reed said: ‘Children and their families are being forced to live in appalling conditions that are unacceptable by anybody’s standards. No child, no matter who they are or where they’re from, should be treated with such a complete lack of human dignity.’ It sounds pretty serious to me. I don’t want to live in a society in which vulnerable families are separated routinely and people are treated like this: ‘The inquiry received evidence documenting reports of eggs thrown at houses, stones thrown at babies and children hounded from school. Evidence details how flats where asylum seekers lived were targeted in arson attacks; in one case a man begged to leave the area after a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of his home. The most extreme form of this violence has been the murder of asylum seekers in cities across the UK.’ Fortunately, the system is not always the end of the line: ‘One woman started to go into labour, did not have a midwife, did not know where the hospital was, and it was only the kindness of strangers in the street that got her to hospital.’ Is that what’s known as big society? It’s hardly contentious to point out that the Tory rhetoric of ‘benefit scroungers’ is at best unhelpful and in practice likely to be a consistent contributory factor here. The report notes that ‘Some segments of the population, including some frontline professionals and statutory agencies, have vastly inaccurate ideas about asylum seekers and the reality of their lives. This has fuelled a hostile reception for many thousands of children and young people, desperate to live in peace and safety.’ (Emphasis added) And as if the evidence were not bad enough, its publication surfaces another distasteful feature of contemporary life – the inevitable trolls who see no reason, hear no reason, and speak no reason; for whom it is easier to dismiss this systematic inhumanity as ‘self-inflicted destitution’ (you can find examples in the comments section here). It’s scary when people are insistently wrong about these issues; when they also seem to take pride in being devoid of any kind of compassion it’s close to terrifying.
From Muck Flick to Bad Sir Brian Botany: an ironical salute to posh neighbour disputes In today’s Observer, Catherine Bennett picks up on a piece in the Telegraph about a planning dispute between super-rich neighbours in west London. The story is almost worthy of a Carry On movie, the villain being Jonny Foreigner (with a distasteful lineage) Gert-Rudolph "Muck" Flick. Herr Flick and his partner have a desperate need for extra space – swimming pool, gym, cinema, that sort of thing – requiring some disruptive excavations which the council has approved: ‘Kensington & Chelsea has ruled that the digging out of their planned, two-storey basement, forecast to cause two years of disruption in the Onslow Square area, along with the pointless destruction of the house's 1884 Red Room gallery, should have its blessing, since it would only end in "visually discreet additions" to his existing £30m house.’ Julian Lloyd Webber, president of the Onslow Neighbourhood Association, has said previously that ‘If we can’t preserve this area, nothing is safe’ - and for all I know he could be right. Nothing may now be safe, there’s a thought. Bennett’s article reviews other posh people’s tiffs and suggests that culturally we expect neighbourhood disputes to be ‘almost exclusively the province of the disadvantaged, strongly linked to poverty and poor education, limited social skills and a propensity to spit.’ It’s reasonable to suppose that people who live in dense proximity, who have fewer opportunities either to escape or to protect their own territory, would be more likely to experience tension in relationships with neighbours. But where there’s a chance for the muscles of power and egotism to be rippled, the wealthy often like to express themselves to excess. The pointless epic tangle between Boythorn and Dedlock over rights of way to a trivial stretch of land in Bleak House comes to mind. My favourite example is probably still the reported problem faced by King Abdullah of Jordan a few years ago (Smell thy neighbour). But while it makes good entertainment when the Haves are subject to disruption in their protected enclaves, I wonder how far it really is from historic examples of dynastic rulers, religious zealots, and megalomaniac industrialists, who can turn disputes with the neighbourhood equivalent of national, ethnic or faith groups into devastating wars if they don’t happen to get on very well, or if their egos need something. Disputes between the powerful and the oppressed, manifested at neighbourhood level, are different, and rather more common than publicised spats among the Haves. Sometimes these get mediated by a little neighbourhood vigilantism. So let’s take the chance to celebrate the poetic come-uppance of Bad Sir Brian Botany: Sir Brian had a pair of boots with great big spurs on, A fighting pair of which he was particularly fond. On Tuesday and Friday, just to make the street look tidy, He’d collect the passing villagers and kick them in the pond. “I am Sir Brian!” (sper-lash!) “I am Sir Brian!” (sper-losh!) “I am Sir Brian, as bold as a lion - Is anyone else for a wash?” Sir...

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