Farrukh Dhondy | Had UK Home Secy been in post in 60s, she wouldn’t be here at all

The Asian Age.  | Farrukh Dhondy

Opinion, Columnists

Patel suggested immigrants who attempt to cross the English Channel to land illegally in Britain, should be transported to St Helena

Red, white and blue lights illuminate 10 Downing Street, the official residence of Britain's prime minister, in central London on January 31, 2020, after Britain left the European Union at 2300GMT. Brexit supporters gathered outside parliament to cheer Britain's departure from the European Union following three years of epic political drama.(AFP)

“I am, therefore I think;

Man made God in his own image;

One man’s poison kills those who mistake it for meat;

Sauce for the goose is good propaganda;

There are no stones in glass houses…”

— From The Proverbs of Bachchoo


What name comes to mind when you hear the words St Helena? Most geographically wise people will probably recognise, not a canonised figure of a Christian lady, but will think of the tiny island in the remote Atlantic in which the British imprisoned a historically significant enemy.

Some decades ago, teaching at a London school, in a class of 11-year-olds, I had occasion to discipline a young man called Ahmed. He was the child of Afghan immigrants, a sweet, sprightly boy who had made himself a nuisance just that day. After several warnings, I asked him to leave his desk and wait outside the door till the bell. Ahmed rose from his desk and walked solemnly to the exit and then turning to the class, raised his right arm in a Roman salute and addressed his classmates in a supposed French accent saying “Goodbye my legionnaires! Farewell France!” and turning on his heel he left the room.

I couldn’t keep a straight face.

“He was watching the Napoleon film last night on TV, sir,” one of his mates volunteered in explanation to me and to the class.

It must be a matter of record that those were the words Bonaparte spoke to his soldiers as he was ushered away to be sent onto the ship which would carry him to imprisonment in St Helena. 

As I grew up I knew something of this history and had been introduced to the first imprisonment of Bonaparte by the British in a place called Elba. I don’t know where this place is (OK! I shall look it up on the Internet!) but remember the sentence attributed to Napoleon bewailing his fate, which can be read backwards: “ABLE WAS I ERE I SAW ELBA”

And yet my first association with the words St Helena was the name of the nursery school to which I was sent as a four-year-old in Pune. My sister went through St Helena’s, a girls’ school in its senior years through most of her school life.

The name came back through the media this week when Britain’s Home Secretary Priti ‘Clueless’ Patel suggested that the immigrants who attempt to cross the English Channel from France to land illegally in Britain, should be picked up by British naval ships and transported to St Helena where a detention centre would await them and from which they would be “processed”. In other words, their eligibility for asylum to Britain would be assessed.

Patel’s team told the media that they got the idea through the Australian method of dealing with immigrant aspirants who attempt to get to their continent by boat. The Australian navy intercepts these boats and carries the people in them off to “asylum centres” in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. (Yes, yes, at the same time as looking up Elba I shall look up Nauru. I know where Papua New Guinea is. And: I can bet that Clueless will have had to get her secretary who can operate a computer to access both these as well as St Helena on the internet — and perhaps also Australia to find out where and what it is!)

The Refugee Council, a UK based charity, claims that refugees can and have been left in limbo in these Australian centres and often experience “terrible conditions” which can have a severe effect on their physical and mental health.

One of Clueless’s flunkies from the Home Office said: “The UK has a long and proud history of offering refuge to those who need protection. Tens of thousands of people have rebuilt their lives in the UK… We are developing plans to reform policies and laws around illegal migration.” This source could have proudly gone on to say that when things began to get tough in the 60s, 70s and 80s for Asians from India living in Uganda and in Kenya, very many of them didn’t return to India but sought a life in the UK. Amongst them was the family of Priti Clueless herself who were shopkeepers in Kampala and moved to the UK in the late 60s. They weren’t sent to St Helena or anywhere else but settled here and sent little Clueless to school.

In the last year 5,000 immigrants have attempted to land in Britain via these boats. The same category of aspirant immigrants and asylum seekers from Africa and Asia who cross the Mediterranean in dinghies and boats land in Italy, Spain and Greece. In the same period as the UK’s 5,000, Italy saw 17,000 arrivals and Spain 11,000. I have no idea whether Italy and Spain possess remote, virtually deserted islands in the Atlantic, which they can turn into virtual prison camps — sorry, asylum seeker’s rest homes — but I doubt it. (Look it up on the Internet, fool — Ed.). Their Home secretaries haven’t proposed any such moves but may have if they possessed such places.

Clueless’s announcements, if implemented are going to cost the British taxpayer a lot of loot if the remote Atlantic camps are to be maintained in any humane form. Her proposals are not aimed at solving the real problem of illegal immigration, but more to pander to the uncouth, racist mobs that gathered at Dover port to shout abuse at the illegal immigrants rescued from drowning in dinghies and brought to shore.  

In the long term, after Brexit, again in line with appeals to the anti-immigrant majority, Clueless has announced that UK will adopt an Australian point-based system on immigration, admitting only those who have professional qualifications needed by the British economy. 

Under such a law an Asian shopkeeper couple from Kampala would not qualify. Had Clueless been Home Secretary in the 1960s, she wouldn’t be here.