Suddenly, the large room became busy as more migrant families filed in. It was the day after Thanksgiving in the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas a few miles from the Rio Grande river. The US immigration authorities had delivered several families, including many children and babies, to the centre. As usual, they had been deprived of their belts and shoe laces. Central American migrants sent to the centre can number between 200-300.
In terms of migrant numbers, that’s more in a few hours than the totality of those who took the life-threatening journey across the English Channel during November and December. To many that work with migrants the coverage of the recent channel crossings has seemed exaggerated just a few hours after a major announcement concerning registering EU citizens living in the UK.
The McAllen migrants were offered prayers, a shower, clean clothes and something to eat. There is a distinct character to the refugee world where people cross borders. An army of volunteers and paid staff then delivered them to the nearby bus station with a brown envelope containing their papers covered with a large white label: ‘Please help me. I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take? Thank you for your help.’
Over the past five years the McAllen team has become used to helping thousands of fleeing migrants and to receiving volunteers from the international community. Although I could not speak Spanish for one football adoring staff member I had something he really valued: my Wales football shirt.
In refugee camps across different continents I have found that mentioning Wales and Gareth Bale opens hearts and minds. I’d first come across the potency of the Gareth Bale brand in refugee circles in Eidomeni on the Greece-Macedonia border in 2015. Eidomeni had become a massive refugee crossing point into northern Europe. Young men from war-torn Syria were pleased to talk about football for a while. Some of the refugees were photographed on the Croatia-Slovenia border. One of those photos provided a backdrop to the now infamous ‘breaking point’ UKIP EU referendum poster. Most of the migrants went to countries other than the UK.
Britain has never come anywhere near being at breaking point in its receiving of refugees. Brexit’s fake migration crises were prolific. The flood of the imaginary Turks highlighted in some newspapers during the last days of the referendum campaign have never turned up and it’s now known that Wales had a net international migration figure of a mere +5,090 during 2016/17 – the majority of whom were born outside the EU. A fake migration crisis was sought to deliver a Brexit vote and it was manufactured on an industrial scale.
During the build-up to the US Midterm elections the generational normality of migrants crossing the Mexican border acquired a manufactured political persona: the caravan. Relentlessly, during the final days of the election campaign conservative media outlets and the Trump campaign pushed the line that America was about to be invaded by hardened criminal migrants carrying diseases such as leprosy and smallpox. Sending more than 5,000 troops to the border to meet the caravan may have cost the US taxpayer some $220 million.
Agencies such as Justice for Immigrants pointed out that while the caravan originating in Honduras may have comprised of some 7,000 individuals it soon got smaller with some migrants returning home and others claiming asylum in Mexico. The numbers were not overwhelmingly large when compared with annual averages since 2013.
Overall, the contrived caravan crisis failed to resonate with voters who delivered a blue Democrat wave particularly in the American suburbs. Civil society groups such as the Indivisible movement, with almost 7,000 affiliated groups, had spent months challenging Republican candidates. The Democrats stuck with campaigning on issues that really mattered to voters: especially health care. Broadcasters such as CNN and MSNBC in particular called out every caravan lie and offered solid investigative journalism especially through the likes of Rachel Maddow and Joe Scarborough. They sold the powerful reminder to a Trump weary nation of America’s better ideals.
Wales would do well to learn from the American Midterm experience. Quietly, devolved Wales may have become a world leader in the arena of receiving refugees. Solid partnerships have led to the delivery of successful Syrian community sponsorship and national resettlement schemes. The Welsh refugee doctors’ retraining scheme has produced over a hundred GMC registered doctors working throughout the UK and the concept of being a Nation of Sanctuary is making progress. The red shirt has integrity.
Wales is still an idea in the making. That idea deserves better than fake migration crises feeding off human misery. The devolving of broadcasting may become a necessity.
Aled Edwards is former Wales Commissioner for Racial Equality