A month ago today, Save the Children UK launched an appeal to raise £500,000 to address the issue of serious child poverty in the UK. The appeal was made in the light of children going without hot meals, warm coats in winter, new shoes as well as ‘luxuries’ like school trips and treats.
The response fell along all-too-familiar lines; liberals appalled that any child in a rich, developed country should go without what many of us would regard as the basics, and what I will refer to as poverty-sceptics, who denied that child poverty here was possible, decried the use of the ‘relative poverty’ measure (although it should be noted, many of the children concerned would fall beneath the absolute poverty line), and naturally, some spectacular BTL derailing of first person testimony.
One of the familiar lines that is produced in these circumstances, particularly in regard to the relative poverty measure is that compared to the developing world, is that there is no poverty here. At all. Deaths caused directly by malnutrition are something that happens ‘over there’.
Child EG, born of ‘African Christian’ parents was less than a year old when he was found in his cot by an ambulance crew in Westminster. A post-mortem found no food or liquid in his digestive tract at all, despite the presence of food close by. He had been seen by a paediatrician a week before, and was showing no signs of either malnutrition or dehydration. In 7 days he starved to death, neglected by a mother who it was later discovered had ‘an acute, rare and ultimately fatal cerebral condition’. She died two days after EG.
The family (Mrs G and 2 children-a four year old survived her mother and brother’s death) were asylum seekers. Successful asylum seekers, as it happened. Mrs G had been granted ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in 2009. I can only imagine how happy she must have been to know that she was safe & could be secure in the knowledge that her children would grow up free from whatever troubles had led her to seek asylum.
Hideously, however, Mrs G’s being granted asylum was where her problems in Westminster started; in effect she, and her children fell through the gap between the support offered to asylum seekers and mainstream welfare services. (For more detail the Executive Summary of the Serious Case Review is available online as a Pdf; google “Child EG Westminster”).
How are these two events, a poverty appeal for British children, and the death of a baby whose parents sought asylum from Africa connected, other than the brute fact of a child having starved to death in one of the richest boroughs of one of the world’s richest cities?
There are three interlocking issues at play here, in my opinion, with a common theme: our treatment of asylum claims, our attitude to economic migration, especially from the developing world, and our separation of the poor into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. The common thread is our suspicion of the ‘other’.
Asylum seekers are people who live at the very margins of our society. But as this case has so tragically proved, even after we accept that they belong here, we don’t embrace them. Far too often, any discussion of asylum drifts into examining the reasons for economic migration, without any real examination of the reasons why people might need to migrate, let alone any positive proposal for how we might help.
One way that we are helping is via the DFiD aid budget, which is ring fenced, currently standing at 0.7% of GNP, but this ring-fencing is the target of increasing criticism, at ‘a time of cutbacks at home’. I’m certain that I’m not exaggerating when I say that every time a defence is made of this policy, sooner rather than later someone will say ‘But we should help our own people first’, or words to that effect. In this instance, the poor here may be undeserving, but they are less undeserving than people abroad. Until a charity with a longstanding engagement with poverty abroad points to poverty here, of course.
This case has made me weep, for which I will no doubt be denounced as sentimental. But I wonder, how many of the people who will insist that we should help our own people first, would support the Save the Children appeal? And how many of those criticising that appeal on the grounds that ‘real’ poverty is something that happens elsewhere, would support the DFID ringfence? I wonder and I weep.
The gap in services through which Child EG and his mother fell to their deaths isn’t merely a systemic error. It is symptomatic of a society that is happy to admit that poverty exists, as long as it does so at a comfortable distance, and doesn’t tug at our conscience too closely. “The poor will always be with us” has become “It couldn’t happen here”. But it has. It did.