For the last week, Britain has been consumed by drama surrounding ex-soccer superstar Gary Lineker’s temporary removal from his role as a BBC commentator after he took to twitter to attack the government’s new asylum policy.
In early March, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s conservative government proposed a new law that would make it impossible for people to claim asylum if they entered the country illegally, and that would also make it impossible for people arrested for illegal entry to ever be granted citizenship. Ostensibly, the new law is intended as a way to crack down on undocumented migration across the English Channel, which, government data shows, has increased by orders of magnitude in the past five years. However, critics, including Lineker, contend that the policy breaks international law and is part of the ongoing push to lockdown the U.K.’s borders, making a country that, historically, has had a fairly generous approach toward refugees and asylum seekers — it welcomed large numbers of political refugees after the failed European revolutions of 1848, opened its doors to many refugees during the two world wars, and, again, was something of a haven during the Cold War — as unwelcoming as possible to these vulnerable individuals. Human Rights Watch slammed the government for “using the age-old playbook of stoking fear and division.”
While the U.K. has admitted, at speed, well over 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war, migrants from elsewhere in the world have not met a similar openness. The U.K. has resettled only roughly 20,000 Syrian refugees since the civil war began there over a decade ago, and in recent times has resettled only a few hundred Tigrayans per year fleeing the brutal war in Ethiopia that has cost more than half a million lives.
All told, the UNHCR estimates that the U.K. ranks behind 17 other countries in Europe in terms of the numbers of asylum applications received, measured as a percentage of the country’s total population. Harsh policies toward asylum seekers tamp down the number of applications, and those same harsh policies then tamp down the number of approvals issued by the government.
In recent years, the U.K. government has reached an agreement with Rwanda allowing it to deport asylum seekers to that country, even though the vast majority of such individuals have absolutely no connection to the nation whatsoever. It has held asylum seekers in abysmal detention centers for months on end; it has placed strict caps on the number of people who can claim asylum; and has empowered barely trained workers, newly hired from supermarket chains and fast food companies, to make essential decisions regarding applicants’ eligibility for asylum.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for Lineker was the dehumanizing language the government used to describe these asylum seekers and to justify its draconian policies. Hard-right Home Secretary Suella Braverman asserted that these immigrants were “overwhelming” the country, and blamed the would-be asylees for conditions of grievous overcrowding at government-run detention centers. Lineker tweeted that the government’s lack of empathy was beyond “awful” and was reminiscent of the demonizing language the Nazis used against those they deemed racially inferior in the 1930s and 1940s.
The BBC, which mandates its commentators avoid straying into controversial political topics on their social media feeds, responded with fury, ordering the sports start to “step back” from his commentary work. Lineker, who said that he believed he had an agreement with the BBC allowing him to tweet on issues around immigration, went on the offensive, saying that he wouldn’t stop writing on issues he viewed as being of moral importance. And, so, for a week, there was an impasse.
To show their solidarity with Lineker, numerous other sports commentators refused to appear on BBC shows, forcing Britain’s national broadcast network to have to slog through its signature sports broadcasts with no interpretative voices. A week later, however, the BBC backpedaled and agreed to let Lineker back on.
Score: one for Lineker, zero for the BBC — which used to pride itself on holding the feet of the powerful to the fire, but whose recent leadership, hand-picked by the Conservative government, has taken the idea of journalistic “objectivity” to apparently mean a shameful willingness to toe the government’s line, however morally dubious that line may be. Witness the ludicrous spectacle of the BBC recently canceling an episode of esteemed naturalist David Attenborough’s latest series after he went on the verbal offensive about humans wrecking the environment — a political soliloquy that the BBC apparently worried would offend powerful Conservative political figures. In reaction, a growing number of U.K. viewers and listeners are refusing to pay the “license fee” that has funded the BBC throughout the century of its existence.
The Lineker brouhaha has put both the U.K.’s increasingly dismal asylum policies, and the BBC’s unwillingness to stand up to the government, under the spotlight. Yet Lineker is now back in his job, and the spotlight is shifting, once again, to other issues: to banks in crisis, to storms in California, and so on.
For the asylum seekers trying to find sanctuary, however, the suffering continues. All across Europe, right-wing governments are making it harder for asylum seekers to enter their countries. The U.K.’s shameful asylum proposals are just the latest example of the powerful battening down the hatches to keep out those so desperate that they are willing to risk life and limb in order to get to a country that, they hope against hope, they will one day be able to call their home. The Lineker saga is a sorry addendum to this process, an effort to prevent a revered sporting figure from speaking out on one of the great moral issues facing the U.K. today.
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