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A Study in Scarlet: The UK Red Wristband Scandal, How the Treatment of Asylum Seekers Continues a Long History of Branding the Other

The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 masterpiece “The Scarlet Letter” tells the story of one Hester Prynne, adulteress.  As punishment for her crime Hester is forced to wear a scarlet letter A on her clothes at all time so that everyone in the New England community where she lives can see the mark of her shame.  This public marking has the effect of destroying Hester’s life making her an outcast, a despised other.  It would appear that A stands for alterity as much as it does for adultery. 

When I studied this novel over twenty years ago I will admit I didn’t quite get it but, like the ineradicability of sin itself, it stayed with me so that when I read a couple of weeks ago that asylum seekers in Cardiff had been forced to wear red wristbands by Clearsprings Ready Homes in order to be fed, I finally got the point of Hawthorne’s enigmatic work.

The Red Wristband Policy

I particular, the management at Clearsprings Ready Homes did me the profound intellectual service of reminding me of Hawthorne’s judgement on this tragic heroine: “The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude!” For after all, these poor people, these seekers of safety in our midst, are simply looking for a passport, a mode of entry into a region where their lives and rights are no longer at risk.  They are looking for the secret key to a magical kingdom, a United Kingdom, where they can live as normal human beings. Instead, in Cardiff and also in Middlesbrough where the doors of accommodation occupied by asylum seekers were painted red, they found they had gained entry into another territory entirely. 

The Red Wristband
When the story broke parallels were drawn with the use of the yellow star by Nazis to brand Jews as subhuman.  This was understandable as recently Denmark had caused controversy by passing legislation to confiscate the goods of asylum seekers entering the country as a down-payment on their processing fees.  Yet the two cases are quite unrelated.  The Danes are taking valuables from potential citizens to cover their costs to the state, a process of taxation that, paradoxically, makes all asylum seekers proto-citizens.  It might sound mean-spirited, and it is, but the symbolism of taxation suggests that these immigrants have almost made it, are almost European.  For there is nothing more European than taxation.

Danish Policy of Confiscating Goods

In contrast, in Middlesbrough and Cardiff, when immigrants are branded with the symbolically suggestive red colour it is not that something is taken away from them, as in Denmark, but that something is added.  The mark is like an anti-halo, a little bit extra added on to your being to show your human deficiency.  More important is location of the red brand.  The door and the wrist, dwelling and nourishment, reduce UK immigrants to a much lower human status than those trying to enter Denmark.  While Danish immigrants are treated, almost, like European citizens, British immigrants remain resolutely sub-British.  Their basic needs, their biological needs are marked out in red suggesting they have reverted back 30,000 years to the beginning of our great experimentation in social living and sustainable farmed sustenance.

I think the parallels with Nazi Germany are overstated and run the risk of denigrating the horror of totalitarianism.  Yes, the Jews were branded with yellow stars but in fact Jews had been forced to wear different clothing, hats, yellow cloth and so on, for centuries so that the Nazis were simply continuing the profound anti-Semitism at the heart of European culture.  This historical sense does not seem to be in play with red doors and red wristbands.  There is no clear historical precedent here, not calculated thought or developed ideology.  It just occurred to private sector managers that using a clear colour code would help them go about their well-subsidised business more efficiently.


Instead the red-brands reveal for me a pre-historical power that has never left us. The marking out of the other in our midst reaches its apotheosis with the yellow star, certainly, but the process of ‘branding’ has been with us for longer than we can trace.  RenĂ© Girard notes that the practice of scapegoating is a feature of all pre-legal, Steven Pinker calls them “pre-civilised”, societies.  

The aim of scapegoating was to sacrifice someone in the community to assuage violent urges within and between us, whether these might be tensions between groups in the community, or a sense of threat hanging over the whole community.  The victim chosen had to resemble the tribe, had to be a suitable stand-in for a desire of revenge or retribution against one’s neighbour, yet dissimilar enough that you did not mistake the scapegoat for a lawful member of the tribe whose death might promote a sense of guilt or, worse, a need for revenge.  The scapegoat had, in other words, to be one of us but marked out as not quite one of us. 


For me the red wristband is a symbol of scapegoating, not a rhyme of the Nazis as Giles Fraser puts it in his article for the Guardian on 25th of January.  In scapegoating the human is reduced to an animal, literally becoming an animal in most cases.  But why are we like goats?  Well, like goats we are living beings, we need sustenance and shelter and the basics of existence as day to day survival.  Unlike goats, however, we also pay taxes, elect leaders, possess nationality.  In making asylum seekers wear a red mark to be able to access food, or painting the doors of their temporary accommodation red, we remind them of their inherent animality.  You seekers, we are saying, those who beg us for asylum, you are not yet here, not yet on these shores.  You may think you are in Cardiff, in Middlesbrough but you are not (for some this may come as a relief over time).  You are not yet a citizen, you are simply a being, a stateless, nationless, rightless living thing. 

The red wristband reduces asylum seekers to goats, animals, what Giorgio Agamben calls ‘bare life’.  It reminds them that they merely exist, that they survive, but that as yet they do not live, at least not as a human, not as a citizen.  The irony is that the red wristband is hardly needed.  The rapidity with which the noble denizens of Cardiff turned to abuse was not really facilitated by the red wristband.  British people don’t need bright red prompts to turn nasty and they can spot the disenfranchised with almost uncanny ease.  At the same time immigrants don’t need a wristband to remind them that they are less than human.  That’s why they came here in the first place. That’s why the practice has so traumatised them. 

Passport to a New England

Yet just as Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter was a passport to a new region, a special region mostly unvisited by her community, so the red wristband is also passport of a kind.  You see there are several nations in one on these islands and the asylum seekers have gained entry into one of these secret nations in Cardiff.  Even if they gain entry, even if their asylum is granted, these immigrants will still be branded as other, they will stay take the blame for overcrowding in schools, funding crises in hospitals, sexual assaults on women and a whole host of other contemporary ailments. 
And of course they will remain branded: by their skin tone, the way they dress, their accents, the company they keep, their past.  

In a way, as people in their cars shouted abuse them, these immigrants were welcomed to a particularly British way of living with diversity.  A combination of tolerance and abuse is as much a sign of being British as paying heavy taxes to support the state is a sign of being Danish.  My point being that the yellow-star sewn onto the clothing of Jews was a means of slowly removing citizenship through violence and discrimination—Jews had to be stripped of citizenship at least initially before they could enter a concentration camp.  Whereas the removal of valuables, the painting of your door and the wearing of a wristbands operate in the opposite direction.  They represent the violence and discrimination of becoming a citizen in contemporary fortress Europe. 

We are All in the Red

Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” is a prophetic work, not in predicting a totalitarian future, but in unearthing a scapegoating past that has never left us.  Prynne’s community was one dominated by the theology of predestination, of the preterit and the elect.  You could not earn your place in heaven, it was handed to you at birth and your actions could make no difference to that.  To show to your neighbours that you were saved you had to literally show it, symbolise it, wear your virtue as a mark every day.  

Europe is becoming the same.  We Europeans, through no intrinsic virtue of our own, in fact due to centuries of violent conquest and politically motivated warfare, have become the chosen few. And we are few, very few indeed. 

But let’s remember one thing that Syrians and Somalis can teach us.  A citizen one day can become an animal the next.  The scapegoat is simply someone similar to us but in some way marked out as different.  They are the one we feel we can sacrifice so that the rest of us can live in peace. 
But how long will peace reign, how strong can Europe stand, will there even be such a thing as a European in a couple of decades?  

In the end we are all goats in waiting and we would be wise to listen to Hawthorne’s chilling summation of the practice of red branding: “...if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom...” We are, in other words, all Hester Prynne.  We are all asylum seekers. We are all illegal immigrants.  Because we are all human.  Heed Hawthorne’s words and remember capricious reader, all that separates us from the goats are passports and our taxes.


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