Last week, we filmed the home secretary, Suella Braverman, refusing to apologise to a Holocaust survivor for using dehumanising language about refugees. Her comments shocked the conscience of Britain – and then she made things worse by pressuring our organisation, Freedom from Torture, to take down our video of this shameful exchange. We are standing our ground: here’s why.
Joan Salter is an 83-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, forced to flee Belgium and travel across Europe until she was finally reunited with her parents and given safety in Britain. Many of her relatives perished in the Holocaust. She was honoured with an MBE for her efforts to educate people about how these horrors came to pass.
On Friday evening, Joan travelled to an event in Braverman’s Fareham constituency to ask why the home secretary uses inflammatory language when referring to refugees. Joan said that when she hears Braverman using words like “invasion”, she is reminded of the language “used to dehumanise and justify the murder of my family and millions of others”.
Torture survivors in therapy tell us they too feel targeted by the home secretary’s language. They share Joan’s alarm because they also have first-hand knowledge of where this dehumanising rhetoric can lead. This is why we accompanied Joan on Friday, filmed the encounter and placed a video of it on social media.
Like the millions who have now watched the video, we were shocked by Braverman’s response. As the video went viral and was reported on in the media, the Home Office called our press office and asked for the video to be removed. They also broadcast their request on Twitter, insisting that the home secretary listened carefully to the testimony, expressed her sympathy and set out why it is important to tackle illegal migration. They also stated that the video had been “heavily edited and doesn’t reflect the full exchange”, adding: “Since the footage misrepresents the interaction about a sensitive area of policy, we have asked the organisation who posted the video to take it down.”
We strongly reject the Home Office’s claim that our video “misrepresents” the interaction. We abridged the footage to remove prefatory remarks Braverman made, mainly about her own family. Braverman thanked Joan for her question, and said that she “shared a huge amount of concern and sympathy” over the “challenge” of illegal immigration, adding that her own parents were not born in Britain. She added: “I won’t apologise for the language that I have used to demonstrate the scale of the problem. I see my job as being honest with the British people and honest for the British people. I’m not going to shy away from difficult truths nor am I going to conceal what is the reality that we are all watching.”
We made the full video available to media outlets right from the start, and they quoted from it liberally. None of the edits changed the meaning of Braverman’s reply to Joan. So, we will not remove it. The full video is available on our website so that viewers can judge for themselves.
The Home Office’s request was perfectly polite, and they have not threatened us. But menace is not the only test of an overweening state. There are serious questions to be answered about why the corporate functions and communication channels of a government department are being used to pressure a civil society organisation to help hide offensive remarks made by a minister. It has even been suggested that the Civil Service Commission should consider whether this violates provisions of the civil service code on political impartiality.
This is hardly the first time the Home Office has attempted to dodge scrutiny and conceal its mistakes. Just last week, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration criticised the department for failing to provide adequate support to torture survivors in immigration detention centres like the scandal-ridden Manston asylum centre in Kent.
Rather than attempting to fix the problems, Braverman responded by scrapping annual investigations into the treatment of vulnerable adult detainees and has rewritten the law to remove one of the few safeguards that protects torture survivors in detention. This chilling response underscores why Freedom from Torture refuses to take money from the Home Office and remains funded largely by public donations.
This is yet another example of creeping authoritarianism in this country, including plans announced today to further restrict the right to protest, moves to place ministers beyond the law by repealing our Human Rights Act and limiting the scope of judicial review.
Our video has triggered an outpouring of public support for Joan and her dignified attempt to explain the dangers of anti-refugee rhetoric to Suella Braverman. It has been viewed over five million times, with overwhelmingly positive reactions.
That the country is standing with Joan is no surprise to us. Polls show that most of the public want Britain to remain a place of safety for people fleeing torture, war and persecution. After war broke out in Ukraine, we saw this compassion in action when the British public volunteered to welcome more refugees than the government has in ten years. A popular refugee rights movement under the banners #TogetherWithRefugees and #RefugeesWelcome is getting stronger by the day.
Now it is up to all of us who care about refugees to follow Joan’s example by standing up for their rights. Even if ministers do not care about us, we must show that we do care about one another.
Sonya Sceats is the chief executive at Freedom from Torture