immigration: a political landscape of rhetoric

Immigration… What is there to say about the unjust rhetoric, policies and practices we are seeing in the UK? It’s the worst it has ever been, with all mainstream parties, the media and popular discourse shifting massively to the right on this issue. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, the heyday of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech and No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish signs, the government of the day welcomed immigrants into the country. They needed us to revive and kickstart the economy.

In the run-up to the 7th May elections, I wrote this piece for Real Media.

An upcoming election, rising inequality and an economy yet to recover from recession: into this mix comes the most virulent anti-immigration rhetoric seen in the United Kingdom for decades. ‘Coming over here and taking our jobs and benefits’ is no longer a phrase restricted to political fringes but mainstream, with all political parties talking tough on immigration. Although two UKIP MPs elected into the House of Commons is a sign of the times, it intensifies a trend rather than breaks with the past. After all, the issue was never if UKIP would garner enough support to form a government but rather whether they would change the political landscape.

It is now a brave politician indeed who brings nuance, talks of the benefits of immigration or highlights injustice and lies at the heart of political decision-making and media stories. ‘Facts’ are twisted and misrepresented in a widening gulf between rhetoric and reality. Much media reporting and political pronouncements do not stand up to scrutiny.

In 2013, Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, said ‘large amounts of taxpayers’ money is being lost’ through treating ‘health tourists’. Research however found more people left the country for medical treatment and that health tourism was a lucrative source of income, with medical tourists spending £261m on hospital care, hotels, restaurants, shopping and transport. The Lancet called plans to charge non European temporary migrants and overseas visitors and prevent health tourism ‘not only ethically, economically, and politically unsound, but downright unhealthy.’

Closely linked is the charge of ‘benefit tourists’ from European Union member states. The Daily Telegraph reported a EU study had found 600,000 unemployed migrants living in Britain. Only upon reading the report will you find this was the ‘non-active’ population over 15 and included children, students and pensioners. They are 600,000 out of 20 million, or 3 percent. Their employment rate is 77 percent compared to 72 percent for UK nationals. A fifth of the British working age population claims child benefit and tax credits – but only 2.1 percent and 1 percent of immigrants from other EU countries do so respectively. Even the dreaded migrants from Eastern Europe have a 60 percent lower likelihood of being on welfare. In fact, a Guardian investigation found unemployed Britons are drawing much more in benefits and allowances in wealthier EU countries than their nationals are claiming in the UK.

The OECD even stated public debate about immigration is being distorted by unfounded concerns about financial burdens immigrants place. Indeed, the Office of Budget Responsibility says immigration is beneficial and more immigrants are needed to balance the books and prevent rising national debt.

So, it turns out immigration is good for the economy. Some have argued that although this may be true, it is the working class who feel detrimental impact, especially since the ascension of 8 mainly Eastern European countries to the EU in 2004. In fact, econometric studies find little evidence that migrants from these countries increased unemployment or reduced wages.

2008 study found immigration actually increased average wages by £4 a year. When broken down, this reduced wages of the bottom 10 percent of earners by around £1 a year but increased wages of the top 10 percent by £5 a year. Differential class implications can be seen – but impact on the working class is far less than claimed in populist discourse.

Indeed, vagueness, inaccuracy and deliberate misinformation around facts characterises the anti-immigrant stance. Jeremy Hunt saying ‘large amounts of taxpayers’ money is being lost’ is on the same spectrum as the Home Office saying ‘we consider that these questions place too much emphasis on quantitative evidence’ when asked to provide evidence of ‘benefits tourism.’ Media and politicians often inflate the numbers of immigrants and their impact on jobs and services, mask lack of evidence with overblown rhetoric and focus on immigration out of all proportion to its importance.

Unfortunately, deliberate distortion of facts shapes perceptions. Evidence based refutations of these myths are less read than the originals. A sustained campaign of misinformation and propaganda is heightening in the lead up to elections, creating an echo chamber between politicians, media and ‘the people’ reflecting this back at each other, with very little room for reasoned debate. Language used to describe immigration is highly hostile, with inflated figures and threatening imagery.

The discussion is also highly raced and classed.

It perpetuates the myth that working class people are particularly anti-immigration. This is not true. We need to look at structures of power and control as we dismantle the lie of the anti immigrant working class. Who is it perpetuating lies in the media? Passing unjust anti-immigrant laws and policies? It is the political and media elite, dominated by those from upper and middle class backgrounds. Entire sectors, drive by technological change, are disappearing. The recession and recovery, rather than opportunities to take stock and rebalance, are increasing inequality. Into this, comes a steady blaming of immigrants for government failure. After all, it is easy to scapegoat immigrants. It is more difficult to look at causes of inequality and poverty.

It is a heady, potent and dangerous mix of economics and identity intertwined. Those who say ‘it’s not racist to talk about immigration’ point to black British people and note we are also talking about white Eastern Europeans immigrants. This oversimplification disregards the long history of racialising outsiders, with Eastern Europeans the latest in a long line of ‘white people’, including Jews and Irish, imbued with racialised characteristics. It also ignores the reality that black people, regardless of how long they have been in the UK, are always seen as outsiders. This can be seen by both the race profiling over stop and searches and headlines over ‘hidden migrants’ i.e. children of migrants born in the UK. Emily Thornberry’s tweeted photograph of a house with multiple English flags was seen as snobbish, condescending and patronising but the racist connotations of the England flag, growing jingoism and nationalism and the links between internalised racism and anti-immigrant sentiment were hardly examined. The difference between immigration laws, policies and realities of EU and non EU citizens is obviously raced.

In the past fifteen years, politicians and the media have actively created a racist electorate and embedded racism in British politics. At times of crisis, in order to mask lack of action or to cover up the impact of policies on people’s lives, the immigrant bogeyman is consciously and continually constructed and re-constructed in order to maintain popularity and win votes at election time. In this way, politicians offer an invitation to construct a common nationhood, with the seductive promise that all would/ will be well if it just wasn’t for ‘them’ ruining our ‘great nation.’ In this way, immigrants become scapegoats for all that is wrong with UK society, culture and economy.

We need to call the headlines about soon being overrun by ‘growing numbers of foreigners’ what it is: the fear that ‘those people from over there’ will soon ‘outnumber us.’ Enoch Powell’s ‘the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ and rivers of blood for the twenty-first century.

Now politicians have successfully produced a racist public fed with a daily misleading news diet from a hostile press, they are struggling to ride the tiger of public sentiment they themselves have created, with detrimental impact. As the baby boom generation retires and a smaller working age population supports a larger number of retirees, we are likely to see the UK open its borders once more, as it did in the 1950s when those from the former Empire were asked to come and work. The UK needs immigrants to keep up with demographic change.

After all, the UK is a country built by immigration and emigration. The Beaker People, the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, the Vikings, the Romans, the Normans – and this is just until 1066. Bones of an African woman, presumed to be a trader, have been discovered dated to Roman times. Catherine of Aragon brought African attendants with her when she married Henry VII. John Hawkyns sold 300 West African men to planters in Haiti in 1562. The East India Company in the 1600s had British men going over to India to trade and colonise. There were black slaves in most wealthy households at the time. Chinese books were in wealthy British homes from the early 1600s onwards. Shen Fu Tsong was a popular figure in the court of James II. This is all before 1700. Arthur Wharton, who moved from Ghana, signed for Rotherham in 1889. Dadabhai Naoroji was the Asian MPs, elected to parliament in 1892 to represent Finsbury Central.

Voluntary and involuntary migration to and from the land now seen as the United Kingdom – and that forced to other countries by citizens of that land – has been happening for centuries. The UK’s past and current global economic, political and cultural status has and is depended on this. The mythologised past before immigration that UKIP and others allude to never existed. Immigration and emigration is at the heart of what the UK has become.

We need to re-centre the narrative to acknowledge the histories of immigration and emigration that implicate us all and, rather than have all eyes on them, to look at the world through immigrants’ eyes. We have to combat lies with facts. The immigration debate should not be centred only on economics but on justice and human rights. The inhumanity of the current system where families are separated, as spouses of citizens are not allowed into the country because of lack of funds, or where decisions in cases where asylum seekers are likely to win are deferred so officials can maintain their 60 percent ‘win rate’ needs to be exposed. We need responsible politicians who care about the people living in the UK, not about using rhetoric to cover up their failures in an effort to win votes.

Instead of allowing divide and rule tactics to succeed, we need to practice solidarity, truth and justice.

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