The recent pronouncements of UK Home Secretary David Blunkett have sent a chill down my spine.
As a left-leaning kind of bloke, I had been impressed at the Labour party's ability to reinvent itself and come in from the cold. Looking in from overseas, I was pleased that the youthful Tony Blair was leading New Labour's charge and I was full of hope that he would put Britain's creaking welfare and healthcare system into intensive care.
I rejoiced that he saw fit to appoint Britain's first disabled minister to his cabinet and the sight of David Blunkett arriving at Downing Street with his guide dog warmed me towards the government.
Today, the dream has gone awry. It is as if some dark magic spell has been undone. The Labour party's saviour prince has visibly aged before our eyes under the strain of apprenticeship to the neo-con grand wizards of Washington and trying to maintain – despite the steaming cauldrons – the illusion that he is keeping his promise to build a better Britain and a safer world, which has, in reality, brought war to the Middle East and division and upheaval at home.
Blunkett is growing into Tony's sinister sidekick – harmless at first sight but with a dangerous sting in his tail. When talking about immigrants, Muslims and other ‘undesirables', his voice has taken on more clipped and threatening tones and one can just imagine him in a secret underground chamber at home training his guide dog to sniff out asylum seekers.
Blunkett's immigration policies are also a dangerous deception – disguised in an ostensibly progressive outer skin, they reek of reactionary populism designed to appease the right wing. But the way to neutralise anti-immigrants and the far-right is not to take on their policies, but to highlight how racist and divorced from reality they are.
It is unfortunate that Blunkett should leap with New Labour on to the anti-asylum seeker bandwagon. Asylum seekers belong to one of the most reviled groups in society and this is due, to no small extent, to the tendency of politicians to blame this voiceless minority for everything from the creaking of the welfare system, to stealing jobs, sponging off the state, and being would-be terrorists.
Blunkett is not alone and is a manifestation of a Europe-wide trend. A plan he proposed last year to build processing camps for asylum-seekers on foreign territory has garnered the support of Italy and Germany and there is now talk of building one in Tunisia. France and Spain are opposed to the plan. Although the aim is, ostensibly, to curb the rising death toll of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, it will more likely reinforce the wall around Fortress Europe that keeps the poor and desperate out.
Instead of proposing more and more draconian measures, Blunkett should be highlighting that, although some asylum seekers may really be economic migrants in disguise, the majority (as countless studies have shown) have actually fled conflict zones. It wouldn't go amiss to highlight that Britain and Europe are not bearing the brunt of the world's refugee crisis but that it is poor countries which can ill afford it that host most of them.
He should also be exerting efforts to make it easier for those who would like to migrate to the UK for economic reasons to do so legitimately. As society greys, Britain – like much of Europe – will need more skilled and semi-skilled workers.
The ‘citizenship' debate is another case in point. Rather than expanding it to find an apt definition for a cosmopolitan age, he is narrowing it. He has variously called for immigrants to be made to speak English at home and to make them sit ‘citizenship' tests.
In my view, we need to go beyond the narrow confines of the stereotypes the home secretary is helping to propagate because, nowadays, it's not so easy to pigeon-hole people.
This was driven home to me during a recent trip to London. Although I grew up in the UK capital, was educated in the British system, have worked for numerous British organisations, and am well-versed in British culture, history and politics, this cannot be discerned from my Egyptian passport and I have to jump through bureaucratic hoops every time I enter the UK. Do, I then, deserve such tough treatment upon entering the country?
Although I don't live in the UK, I think I could quite easily pass one of Blunkett's proposed tests. Does that make me more eligible for UK citizenship than immigrants who have lived in the UK for years and contributed to society and the economy? Does the fact that their English isn't so good or they don't know much about British history make them less valuable to society? I know of UK citizens who have very little contact with the UK and know next to nothing about what goes on in it and would probably not pass the proposed exam. Should they, then, be stripped of their British passports? The issue is a complex one in a complex world and pretending that there are black and white answers does not help find solutions.
That's not to mention the obvious questions of where do you set the bar and what does one do with all those English people who don't know the words to ‘God save the queen', have never been to a Shakespeare play, and don't know when William, the Conqueror invaded England.