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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why immigration is a feminist issue – and how to take action

This piece I wrote was just published in Feminist Times.

Government policies are intensifying in anti-immigrant focus. The draft immigration bill contains proposals to charge immigrants for using the NHS, force landlords to check the status of tenants and require checks before opening a bank account or being issued with a driving licence.

Struggles around immigration should be a central part of the feminist movement. These laws and policies are the cutting edge of black communities’ experience of state racism with women particularly affected.

In the 1970s, immigration officials conducted ‘virginity tests’ on South Asian women who arrived in the UK to marry fiancés. These state sanctioned sexual assaults were based not only on biological myth but also on racist and sexist stereotypes.

In its early months, the Coalition removed legal aid for non-detention immigrants, including women who had experienced domestic violence. After a legal challenge from Southall Black Sisters, it announced an amendment to cover domestic violence cases but what of other vulnerable women?

These policies, thirty-five years apart, are just two examples of the injustice of immigration policies and how they affect women.

 You can read the rest of it here.

I end by saying:

All feminists need to support women migrants by allying with these campaigns and actions. The struggle for the rights of immigrants should be one that concerns us all.

Southall Black Sisters is organising a demonstration against the UKBA and its ‘Go Home’ posters

Date: 24th October 2013

Time: 10.30 – 12.30

Location: EATON HOUSE, 581 Staines Road, Hounslow, Middx TW4 5DL

the UKBA has shifted the ’Go Home’ message to reporting centres in Glasgow, Croydon and Hounslow. The UKBA has used a picture of a destitute person lying on cardboard with the following statement‘Is life hard here? Going home is simple’.

As a result, there have been calls for inquiries and investigations into the government’s tactics. There is also a growing appetite to build an anti-racist movement. If the government can revert to the racism of theNational Front’s ‘go home’ slogans of the 70s then we too can invoke the spirit of solidarity that underpinned the anti-racist movements of the 70s and 80s.

Join us in demonstrating against the Government’s anti-immigration campaigns. We will not tolerate underhand tactics used to instil fear and divide us. Let us return to the streets and make our voices heard. We need to fight for our rights.

Please try to attend if you can and publicise the protest to all individuals and organisations you think may be interested, including via Twitter or Facebook.

How politicians and the media made us hate immigrants

A piece I wrote on the rhetoric around immigration used by politicians and the media and the need for an alternative narrative was published last week on openDemocracy.

Most people, apparently, agree that immigration is out of control in the UK. Supposedly we all think immigrants are to blame for lack of jobs and housing. Public opinion seems strongly behind harsh measures being taken to stop immigration. This scapegoating and stereotyping of migrant groups is becoming an ever more prominent feature of British life.

Politicians and the press are locked in a cycle of ever-heightening anti-immigrant rhetoric that they present as ‘what people really think.’ The current debate does not address how government and media have been instrumental in the creation of anti-immigrant narratives.

Media outlets often inflate or speculate about numbers of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. Newspaper and TV images play into the dominant stereotype of the young dangerous man breaking into Britain and threatening ‘our’ communities. 31 percent of headlines and 53 percent of text about asylum across all newspapers has negative connotations. Language used to describe immigration is highly hostile across all newspaper types, with ‘illegal’ and ‘bogus’ the most commonly used terms to describe immigrants and asylum seekers.

In addition to mis-reporting, there is also ‘over-reporting’. In 2002, for example, 25 percent of Daily Mail and 24 percent of Daily Express articles were about asylum.

Challenging this thinking seems hopeless, but each of us can start by refusing to use terms such as ‘illegal’, ‘bogus’ or ‘criminal’. In doing so at an individual level, we start to reconceptualise a range of experiences of migration that fall outside easy labeling. This avoids inaccurate generalisations that allow separation of immigrants into a class of people seen as sub-human. In this way, we move from encouraging and colluding with the exercise of state power to actively resisting it.

You can read the rest of it here. 

For more information, do follow Action Against Racism and Xenophobia, read Bad News for Refugees and look through the Migrants’ Rights Network website. For voices of immigrants themselves (seldom heard in public debate on this), I recommend reading Migrant Voice.

we need to change the very language we use to talk about immigrants

A piece I wrote on the language popularly used when talking about immigration was published yesterday on The New Statesman’s blog:

Immigration has rarely been far from newspaper pages in recent times. A report, released last week by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, looked at the 43 million words that made up the content dealing with migrants and migration in all 20 of Britain’s main national daily and Sunday newspapers between 2010 and 2012. It found that the most common word used to describe “immigrants” across broadsheet, mid-market and tabloid newspapers was “illegal”. This far outnumbered any other word. Water based metaphors such as “flood”, “influx” and “wave” were frequently used to describe “immigrants” and “migrants”.

These results fit our current political discourse. We are living in times of severe hostility towards immigrants. The language used shows just how normalised these views have become. I grew up hearing “go home Paki” and seeing those signs everywhere in Oldham in the early 90s when I first arrived in England. I never would have thought it would be the government, not far right racist groups, who would be telling people to “go home” twenty years later.

You can read the rest of it here.

fighting anti-immigrant racism in the UK

A piece of mine on government policy on immigration and activist response has just gone up on The F-Word this evening:

Intense debate and action on immigration is a recurring theme in British politics. Hostility towards immigrants has always been a feature of British society but it seems to have particularly intensified recently. In June, Theresa May introduced a refundable £3,000 bond for visa applicants from countries seen as at high risk of overstaying. In July, a government van campaign seemed to take its lead from far right groups, warning that people should ‘go home or face arrest’ if in the country illegally. The most recent furore has centred around spot-checks of people at underground stations that seem to be targeting only black people. This is hardly news to some of us as it has been happening for some time, but the news of the racial profiling in particular has led to it being picked up by the media and many speaking out against the practice.

I outline things that people can do at the end:
  • Sign the petition and tell Theresa May and the Home Office to stop targeting immigrants
  • Get in touch if you are able to translate rights information into other languages, take part in distributing information on rights and/or conduct the street survey. You can email aarxgroup [@] gmail [dot] com or tweet me (@chitranagarajan)
  • Attend one of these public meetings (registration required)
  • Follow the AARX blog for updates
  • Donate to enable distribution of advice and information, a programme of public education on the reality of immigration, information and resource packs for migrant community organisations and more – get in touch with 0208 478 4513 or rita [dot] chadha [@] ramfel [dot] org

tell Theresa May and @ukhomeoffice to stop public targeting of immigrants

I have been working with a number of people in the last couple days to contribute to the organisation and mobilisation against the targeting of immigrants that has been happening in the last couple of months. I blogged about government action taking place and activism against it on Friday.

Since then, a few of us have been working on putting together a petition which has been taken forward by Black Feminists and the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London. I have been struggling with internet connectivity the whole of today – but the petition has finally gone up.

The government’s current initiatives and plans for immigration reform are undermining democracy and our communities. Recent events, particularly the ‘Go Home’ van campaign and the deployment of Home Office enforcement officers to urban areas, where they have been carrying out identity checks on those they suspect of being undocumented migrants, are aggressive, intimidating and involve racial profiling.

Such activities, that include the posting of pictures of arrests on Twitter using #immigrationoffenders, manipulate and inflame public anxieties about immigration that are already being exploited by extremist groups. At their worst, they incite racism and intolerance within our communities. They reverse the progress that has been made by current and previous generations to address these very issues.

It is with great urgency that we ask that the government review its approach to immigration policy so that it sustains and fosters equality instead of spreading fear and suspicion of others.

We ask that the Home Office use social media with greater care and responsibility, avoiding sensationalist language and inaccurate terms to describe those apprehended and detained.

We demand immediate and permanent withdrawal of the ‘Go Home’ van campaign and of Home Office agents to carry out spot checks.

The present policy harms us all.

Please sign and share the petition.

mobilising against racist immigration policies (in Southall)

Know the LawWe are living in times of hostility towards immigrants – or anyone who looks like they might be one. A few weeks ago, Theresa May, the Home Secretary proposed a refundable £3,000  bond for visa applicants from India, Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, countries from which nationals are seen as ‘high risk’ of overstaying visas. This got strong reactions from the countries concerned, particularly from India and Nigeria, and has been seen by many to be racist and discriminatory.

Last week, the Home Office ended a pilot scheme that ran for one week only of having a van drive around with the message ‘In the UK illegally? GO HOME OR FACE ARREST.’  The United Kingdom Borders Agency has also been accused of racial profiling people at underground stations, stopping only (politically) black people and asking them to prove residency status. This has been going on for a while but seems to have been only recently picked up by the media.

UKBA advice itself provides that, if stopped and questioned about immigration status on the street, a person does not need to talk to officials. Needless to say, most people do not know this and the automatic reaction when stopped by a person in an official looking uniform is to answer their questions or try to leave.

I grew up with ‘Paki go home’ signs everywhere in Oldham . I know the impact that anti-immigrant rhetoric has on perceptions and treatment of immigrants and on your sense of belonging to the country. I wrote about this back in February 2011. Furthermore, it is creates a climate of fear for anyone who is black.

Immigration law and policy is at the forefront of black communities experiences of state racism. It is by definition racist and classist. Although it is said to affect all equally, its full weight felt by certain types of foreigners (i.e. those from black majority countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America) and its aim is to prevent the ‘wrong type’ of people (i.e. those seen as having ‘little value’ to the British economy) from entering.

That white people in the UK are seldom seen as immigrants, even if they arrived just weeks ago, is an obvious point.  I was at Occupy in November 2011 with the women of Southall Black Sisters and an Australian friend. We were accosted by a group of white men. They told us to ‘go home’ and that ‘a dog born in a stable is still a dog.’ My friend made the point that, of all of us present she was the one who had been in the UK the shortest amount of time yet was the only one that the men did not address when they spoke.

How soon we have forgotten the multicultural Team GB of this time last year, where a third of medals won were by those with an immigrant background.  There was hope that, after Mo Farrah, Jessica Ennis, Laura Robson,  Christine Ohoruogu, Anthony Ogogo, Laura Bechtolsheimer and others  had won at least 11 gold medals, 3 silver and 10 bronze medals,  the narrative around immigration would change.

I am encourage however by the strength and purpose of mobilising against anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Ian Dunt has written a useful guide to what to do if you see UKBA officials stopping people to ask for proof of right to reside. The Anti-Raids Network is mobilising to distribute guidance in different language as to what people’s rights are when stopped. It recommends that you take the following steps if you see someone  stopped by UKBA or police officers on immigration grounds and your status does not put you at risk:

– Immediately make the person aware that they do not have to answer questions & that they can leave

– Remind the officers of the law

– Film the incident, where possible asking the person stopped if that’s ok, or just filming the officers involved. This may be useful in making a claim in the event of an unlawful stop or arrest.

– Record the lapel numbers of the officers involved

– Make other members of the public aware of what’s happening

– Get witnesses’ contact details if the stop leads to an arrest or the person wants to pursue it afterwards

– Attempt to pass on a phone number to the individual if you think the stop will lead to arrest

– Try not to get aggressive or physically obstruct officers if you want to avoid being arrested for obstruction.

If you want to be more prepared in advance for such a scenario, have a camera ready in your bag and your number already written on a card to give to the person.

Then there is the wonderful Southall Black Sisters.* SBS women, hearing that the UKBA enforcement team was active on the streets of Southall, a predominantly South Asian and Somali area, left their offices yesterday to protest in a spur of the moment action.  Watch this small group of women gather crowds and force officials to leave.

‘We don’t want your reasons, we don’t want your lies!’

See here for my analysis of migration, race, class, gender and the State from 2011.

The image used is from the Anti Raids Network.

*Disclosure: I am on the SBS management committee. I thought they were wonderful long before I met any of them though.