Gary Lineker earns his first yellow card—for protesting against British asylum law

PARIS. England football legend and commentator Gary Lineker never received a yellow card in his 16 years as a top-flight player. But now he is getting his first warning—in the form of a temporary suspension from his BBC presenting job—for likening the language used in Rishi Sunak’s new asylum law to that used in 1930s Germany.

“Good heavens, this is beyond awful,” wrote Gary Lineker on Tuesday to his 8.7 million followers on Twitter.

He commented on a video clip in which Home Secretary Suella Braverman gave a rather apocalyptic picture of the situation in the British asylum reception system. To evocative music and the slogan “stop the boats”, Braverman said that “if you come here illegally, from now on you will not be able to stay, but you will be detained and sent back to your home country, if it is safe there, or to a safe third country, like Rwanda.”

The government’s new bill means in practice that all people who arrive in boats via the English Channel or in other “illegal” ways will be denied the opportunity to apply for asylum—regardless of where they come from and what they fled from.

Pending deportation, they must be locked up. Last year alone, 45,000 people arrived by boat that way across the English Channel. The UN refugee agency UNHCR expressed “deep concern” about the bill, as it would mean “a clear violation of the UN Refugee Convention.”

The British opposition is also critical. Labour says the asylum freeze will only lead to thousands of people becoming undocumented, as the deal with Rwanda is stuck in court and many of the countries of origin refuse to accept their citizens.

Lineker joined the criticism:

“There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”

It is true that Britain accepts fewer refugees per inhabitant than other large countries in Europe. But the comparison with 1930s Germany has sparked anger.

“Disgusting,” responded Home Secretary Braverman, who accuses Lineker of “minimising the terrible tragedy that millions went through.”

Sports minister Lucy Frazer and Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt have also criticised Lineker. But when the 62-year-old football commentator and former star player was asked on Thursday if he regrets what he wrote, the answer was: “Of course not.”

Gary Lineker presents the program “Match of the Day” on the BBC, and as for employees at the public service companies SVT and Sweden’s radio, there are rules about impartiality. They are particularly strict for news journalists, but sports program staff are also expected to follow them.

BBC management initially said only that it had had a “frank discussion” about impartiality with Lineker. But on Friday night, the BBC announced that Lineker had breached the channel’s guidelines and that he was temporarily suspended as presenter of Match of the Day, “until an agreement is reached on the use of social media.”

During his long playing career, Gary Lineker did not receive a single yellow card. But now he seems ready to take a warning for the team.

In football, that expression—“taking a warning for the team”—refers to when a player deliberately commits a foul that can result in a yellow card, in order to avoid an even worse consequence for his own team. And obviously Gary Lineker in this case includes more than just British nationals in his team.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is not any kind of radical nationalist—but rather a conservative realpolitician. However he knows that there is a nationalist-tinged phalanx in his party, the Tories, that calls for tough measures. The images from the English Channel also worry many in the general public. The route is new: as recently as 2018, only a couple of hundred boats arrived via the Channel.

One solution would be to create more legal routes to the UK. But so far the British government has not opened any. And what Sunak wants most—an agreement with France that the migrants will be sent back there—is difficult to achieve.

Before leaving the EU, it would have been possible to achieve (at least if the refugees had first applied for asylum in France). But now Britain is just a “third country” for France and the rest of the EU, and so it has become more complicated.

Emmanuel Macron has an immigration-critical right-wing opposition to take into account, and the governments of other EU countries could also block a deal.

When Rishi Sunak met Macron in Paris on Friday, he received promises of more patrols along French coasts, in exchange for British money. Maybe that can improve the situation somewhat.

Otherwise, all that remains is for Sunak to continue to prove tough at home.

However, the risk is that it backfires. And that more than Gary Lineker are prepared to take a yellow card for the team.

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