Few politicians in Britain's ruling Conservative Party are as controversial and unpopular as Home Secretary Priti Patel. Not the former health minister Matt Hancock, not the housing and communities minister Michael Gove, not even the notoriously blundering Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but Priti Patel.
In just two years as home secretary, she has sought to tackle immigration to the point of making absurd suggestions such as the installation of wave machines in the English Channel to capsize the dinghies used by refugees and migrants; transporting asylum seekers to remote places to be processed; and criminalising anyone who rescues refugees from drowning at sea. In her view, Britain should militarise the English Channel, more or less, to stop the "flood" of refugees, despite the obligations placed on governments by international laws and conventions.
When she expressed her opinion of the recent terrorist attack in Liverpool by a Syrian refugee who had converted to Christianity, she apparently broke the long-held convention that home secretaries do not speak out about such matters, as the Independent's Sean O'Grady pointed out. Moreover, she was also flawed in her criticism.
Patel exploited the attack to target once more the British asylum and immigration system which she described as "dysfunctional". She told journalists accompanying her on a flight to Washington last week: "It's a complete merry-go-round, and it has been exploited… There's a whole industry that thinks it's right to defend these individuals that cause the most appalling crimes against British citizens, devastating their lives, blighting communities – and that is completely wrong."
It should be noted, of course, that Patel's party has been in government for the past 11 years, and has had plenty of time to make positive changes to the immigration system. And yet we know that Liverpool bomber Emad Al-Swealmeen had his asylum application turned down in 2014, as well as subsequent appeals, but he was still in Britain; Home Office officials under Conservative home secretaries, apparently, did not take appropriate action against him. Nor, it must be said, did the security services, which failed to prevent the attack despite him preparing for it for at least seven months.
A common trope used by critics of immigration in Britain is that refugees come here for the benefits and housing. In fact, they are often kept in disused army barracks or similar facilities while their cases go through the dreadfully slow asylum procedure. Even if successful, the accommodation provided is reported to be abysmal. Furthermore, they only receive a weekly allowance of £39.63, less than what France offers. Migration is no cynical ploy to make money.
Furthermore, Patel's attempt to blame refugees and even economic migrants for terrorism is off the mark. According to Britain's top counterterrorism officer, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Matt Jukes, has made it clear that the vast majority of terror attacks in Britain are committed by extremists born and raised in the UK, rather than asylum seekers. The home secretary's assertion to the contrary is, I believe, an attempt to divert attention from the fact that she has responsibility to tackle both matters — immigration and terrorism — and isn't particularly competent at either.
Britain's Labour Party has accused Patel of attempting to cover up for her failures over the past two years. Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds told Sky News that her strategy is "dangerous" and that she is "comprehensively failing in this policy… Her incompetence on this issue is dangerous."
What Patel is good at, though, is propaganda. She has managed to convince many people that Britain is buckling under sustained waves of immigration more than any other country. In fact, the opposite is true. Compared with last year, the number of those arriving in the country to claim asylum has dropped by four per cent. And this is nothing to do with Patel's harsh measures. It should be noted that there are fewer than half the number of claims for asylum today than 20 years ago.
Britain has actually been shamed by countries such as Turkey and Lebanon in the response to the refugee crisis arising from the situation in Syria. Britain hosts just over 132,000 refugees – excluding pending cases – while Germany hosts the most in Europe, with more than a million. Turkey alone has just under four million.
Instead of working with counterparts in Europe to tackle people traffickers more effectively, according to Thomas-Symonds, "All [Patel] is interested in is diplomatic spats with the French – that isn't what we need." Recommending that the British government should reintroduce a safe route for unaccompanied minors who seek asylum, he also warned that "we are going to end up in a situation with a possible tragedy next year of seeing people from Afghanistan in the English Channel, unless the government gets this right now."
While the inflow of migrants and refugees is a complex issue with many possible ways to counter and minimalise it — and even more moral arguments about it — Home Secretary Priti Patel is making the situation much worse. As asylum seekers continue to search for peace and security in Britain, she is steering the country ever more to the far right by demonising them. That approach is unlikely to make life safer for any of us as communities and society are split along ethnic and religious fault lines by the daughter of immigrants who really should know better.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.