The hostile environment, detaining children and the dangers of dehumanisation

22 June 2018

The Trump administration finally, on World Refugee Day, signed an executive order, after weeks of simultaneously denying its existence and defending its necessity, purporting to end the policy of separating children from their parents. 

I will leave it to the many excellent US lawyers and legal commentators to explain why this Order is woefully inadequate – from its vague and loose language, its proposed return to indefinite family detention and its utter failure to ensure children who were subject to separation can be returned to their families. This whole episode has revealed the deeply troubling path we are on in relation to our language and attitude towards migrants. A path we, in the UK, are unfortunately familiar with. 

While the President’s disdain for immigrants has been clear from the day he declared his candidacy, the utter lack of compassion and indeed, the clear contempt for them was on display as never before this week. In particular his tweets about migration to Germany, his comments about America becoming a migrant camp and his warnings of infestation, incite a dehumanisation of migrants which will have lasting consequences well beyond this foul policy. Humans do not infest countries, and for the President to proclaim otherwise is the very definition of dehumanisation. 

The process of dehumanising this population is not new or unique to the Trump administration but in both their determination to maintain this policy for so long and in the way they chose to defend it, there was a brazenness that seems new. If you can look at pictures of children in cages and you can hear their screams as they are taken from their parents and you can continue to justify this policy, you cannot truly see these families as humans deserving of respect.

This week the Italian interior minister has talked of expelling the Roma community, thereby pursuing a policy of hostility, as in the UK. Much like one of the early defences of the child separation policy, the hostile environment was intended to act as a deterrent, to deter ‘illegal immigrants’ from coming to and remaining in the UK. It was not, as we have heard, meant to impact those here lawfully. With the Windrush scandal  we have clear evidence that the impact has gone further than may ever have been intended but serious questions remain about whether a policy of hostility, even towards irregular migrants is ever justifiable. 

The first definition of ‘hostile’ in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is ‘of or relating to an enemy’, the second is ‘marked by malevolence’. Are immigrants, even ‘illegal’ ones, our enemies? Is the desire to seek a better, safer life for you and your family an action deserving of a malevolent response? 

Please do not mistake this article as a call for open borders, but enforcement of immigration rules can be conducted in a way which is civil, respectful of due process and which accords its subjects the dignity they deserve. Not all who migrate are asylum seekers and many who believe themselves to be so may not meet the requirements to be recognised as so. This does not, however, make them our enemies and we should still acknowledge that their intentions are honourable and, often, admirable. 

Migrants deserve to be treated with dignity, not because they are highly skilled or because of what they may be able to contribute to our country. They deserve to be treated with dignity because they are people and the fact of their migration, even if it is irregular, does not negate their basic humanity. 

Trump’s executive order may end this shameful chapter in American history, but he is yet to rescind the rhetoric which got us to this point and that will continue to corrode. I fear that unless and until we can change course on how we see migrants, there may be worse things on the horizon. 

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