Voices: Gross mistreatment of asylum seekers seems to be part of Sunak’s plan

Whether or not a grubby deal was made by Rishi Sunak to bring Suella Braverman back into government, the outcome is an even greater attack on asylum seekers – and on migrants generally.

This is not an accident. We are in the middle of the biggest assault on living standards in living memory. The situation is going to get much worse after the fiscal statement on 17 November. Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are believed to be aiming for £50bn in cuts along with a budget surplus, which is the height of neoliberal economic vandalism.

Budget deficits are natural in a downturn, even when the economy is structurally much stronger than it is now (following 12 years of Tory rule). Aiming for a budget surplus in the middle of this downturn will entail ferocious cuts and a further sharp cut in living standards.

It is entirely predictable that Sunak would want to reappoint someone who has managed to outdo even Priti Patel in her crassly vindictive implementation of the Tories’ policy on refugees. Braverman’s comments could easily have been uttered by Enoch Powell.

Talk of an “invasion” by asylum seekers seems designed to be inflammatory. The remarks were made very shortly after the disgraceful scenes at Manston detention centre and the contemptible firebombing of the processing centre in Dover.

The national mood – which can lead to the sort of gross abuses we’ve seen at Manston, and the far-right attack in Dover – has been created by a succession of Tory home secretaries and by those who are more intent on fighting what are euphemistically called “culture wars” than in resolving the crisis of asylum seekers.

The crisis is genuine. But it has nothing to do with invasions, or swamping, or other nonsense. It is the product of successive governments over many years – and it has now reached a new low.

The government knows that the first step it could take is to establish a humane processing centre in northeastern France that could efficiently establish eligibility. This has been on offer for some time. There is no conceivable valid reason to reject it, as successive home secretaries have done.

The only possible conclusion to draw is that this workable solution is rejected precisely because it resolves the crisis, and would do so with the overwhelming majority of asylum claims being accepted. British officials would then be obliged to bring successful claimants to these shores by much safer methods than those by which they currently arrive. The use of detention would then also fall away entirely, as it should. Yet that would entail ministers and officials working closely with their French counterparts.

Albanian officials also now speak of Britain’s unwillingness to engage in serious cooperation with them on the issue of their nationals seeking asylum.

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International cooperation, upholding international law, and common humanity do not appear to be priorities for this government. Maintaining a permanent dog-whistle campaign against asylum seekers and all migrants is the priority. You cannot fight a culture war if the cannon fodder are out of harm’s way.

It is reported that, in the recent Tory leadership contest, Sunak was able to split the vote of MPs belonging to the shadowy European Research Group by offering to plough on with efforts to undermine the Northern Ireland protocol, to maintain the reactionary immigration policy, and to offer some of them jobs. Whatever the merits of those reports, they seem to describe key parts of his policy quite well.

The new attacks on living standards are yet to come. But we should be clear that Braverman’s policies are the lethal distraction that the Tories need to smooth the path for austerity.

Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington