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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let us talk about racism when discussing identity, belonging and multiculturalism

I read the speech of David Cameron, Prime Minister, to the Munich Security Conference with more than a little anger at the partial nature of his analysis.

He was talking about Muslim young men turning to extremism and violence because they did not feel British, and this is all he had to say about racism:

So, when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them.’

That is it. Not mentioning impacts of racism on feelings of identity and belonging not only shows a complete lack of understanding, but decontextualises the situation and denies the reality of the power dynamics at play.

‘…we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values…. instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.

If this analysis is correct, I should be among the immigrants to the UK most likely to feel British. I moved here when I was five. I have never lived in areas with big Asian communities. We have always been one of very few black families in the area so I have never experienced these ‘segregated communities.’ So why did it take me until I held a British passport, age 18, to even start feeling English? Why did I, at the age of seven, automatically support the football team playing against England even though I had no idea which country it was?

The reasons, as for many black immigrants and communities, is not due to the ‘failures of multiculturalism’ or ‘living in separate communities.’ Rather, the cause is years of racism, everything ranging from the direct attacks to the daily grind of living in a country that has policies, institutions and discourse that do not take you into account,

We lived in Oldham when we first moved here in the late 80s/ early 90s. Believe me, learning to read ‘Paki go home’ and getting beaten up regularly because I was a ‘Paki’ was not a fun induction for a five year old Indian girl to the ‘British way of life.’ While at university, I had stones thrown at me on the street in Nottingham because ‘your people bombed the Twin Towers.’ My Asian male friends were asked to leave a pub in Leeds because they were making others feel uncomfortable. Obviously a group of Asian men together are terrorists plotting to blow up the country. Last year, I had a skinhead spit at me on a Sunday afternoon while I was waiting for the bus at Finsbury Park tube station in north London. I had told him to stop harassing an Asian couple, quite newly arrived in the UK. Apparently ‘their lot’ had not only stolen his mates’ jobs, but also beaten them up. Luckily the bus came before he hit me but nobody waiting at the bus stop did anything to stop him in the meanwhile. I was told afterwards that perhaps I should not have intervened because it was not safe. However, I can handle this more than the couple that was getting harassed in the first place, having experienced similar things ever since I can remember. I wonder if David Cameron has ever felt as ashamed of the United Kingdom and ‘being British’ as I did then? It is not surprising that I felt closer to this woman and man who had spent just arrived in this country than the British people waiting at the bus stop who, like me, had grown up here.

I know I am not the only black person who has had such experiences.

Saturday morning (perhaps just before Cameron delivered his speech?), I passed a group of men walking down the road singing/ chanting. I first thought it was a protest that I’d missed out on finding out about. They joined their mates outside a pub. I noticed the England flags and actually thought of going to check out the England match that had somehow slipped under my radar. That’s when I noticed the men wearing the EDL jumpers. I later found out that they were on their way to the demonstrations in Luton.

I do not think David Cameron will ever know how I felt at that moment; an instinctive physical and visceral reaction. It was broad daylight, there were plenty of people around but I was still scared. Why did he not talk about the fact that I, in the country in which I was brought up in, did not feel safe walking the streets of London this weekend? What sense of belonging are we supposed to feel?

I know I am not the only black person who feels this way when they walk past EDL or BNP supporters.

What and whom was he trying to signal, knowing the EDL were marching the same day? He says it was an unfortunate coincidence, but this is the effect it had:

Some of crowd were jubilant, saying that Cameron “had come round to our way of thinking”. Paul Bradburn, 35, from Stockport, said Cameron was “coming out against extremism”. He added: “The timing of his speech is quite weird as it comes on the day of one of the biggest EDL demos we’ve ever seen. If he wants to start sticking up for us, that’s great.”

Coalition approval ratings are down, but is going for the BNP/ UKIP vote really the way forward?

I know the EDL are not reflective of the majority of Britons. However, I can say the same to David Cameron. He talks about Islamic extremism. Why is he not talking about the racism on the streets, in our schools (it would be good to learn about slavery, the British empire and colonialism by the way), in our policies, in our institutions and perpetrated by individuals?

They point to grievances about Western foreign policy and say, ‘Stop riding roughshod over Muslim countries and the terrorism will end.’ But there are many people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who are angry about Western foreign policy, but who don’t resort to acts of terrorism. They also point to the profusion of unelected leaders across the Middle East and say, ‘Stop propping these people up and you will stop creating the conditions for extremism to flourish.’ But this raises the question: if it’s the lack of democracy that is the problem, why are there so many extremists in free and open societies?…These are just contributory factors.

Really? The UK has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in the last 10 years, propped up Middle Eastern governments and dictators for their own ends for decades and that’s not to mention Britain’s historic and continuing role in Palestine and Kashmir. Surely anger and despair over foreign policy decisions is more than just a contributing factor here. Don’t take this from me. Michael Scheuer, the CIA analyst who led the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden has said attacks are motivated precisely because of foreign policies: ‘They hate us for what we do, not who we are.’ I don’t particularly trust CIA analysis, but I assumed it carried some weight with David Cameron.

…we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream…

Integration into society works both ways. I’m guessing by speaking against these segregated communities, the Tory government is going to get rid of faith schoolsfree schools and even private schools as well? I cannot think of a way to divide people faster than have children spend hours every day in the company of others just like them. How well are government ministers integrated into ‘mainstream’ British society? What is the mainstream anyway? This kind of language assumes a model of the white person, with anything outside it as deviant and ‘other.’ How many close black friends do people in the government have? I am guessing David Cameron does not have many friends in his inner circle from outside a narrow white, upper (middle) class background. I do not consider that to be mainstream either.

The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don’t want to, is a case in point… do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths?

Can everyone please stop using the rhetoric of fighting for women’s rights to justify any of this? Quite frankly, I have had enough of white people and black men talk over the heads of black women about black women, about our bodies, our experiences and our realities, using gender equality and culture/ tradition arguments to justify their racism, imperialism and sexism. The continuing occupation of Afghanistan is now justified in the name of the liberation of women. As Kandiyoti argues, ‘the challenge to platforms for gender equality comes not just from actors with fundamentalist agendas, but from a conjuncture where women’s rights have been opportunistically intrumentalised to serve geopolitical goals, and neo-liberal policies have severed social justice from gender equality concerns.’

Implicit in all this is a positioning of ‘liberated’ white women against the oppressed black women that smacks of orientalism. Of course, neither characterisation is true. Black men are not savages, black women are not victims and white people, including the government, are not saviours for black women. Yes, ‘the horrors of forced marriage‘ are very real, but violence against women is not limited to black communities. Let us not forget only 6 percent of reported rapes end in a successful prosecution and that2009 showed a dramatic increase in the numbers of women killed by violent partners in the UK. This includes all women. White women are not living in some feminist fantasy utopia of equality and opportunity and black women are not all oppressed.

I do not trust that Cameon has the best interests of black women truly at heart, I really don’t. He may say he does, he may even think he does, but he really does not. If he really cares about black women, he would talk with us and listen to us seriously when we identify what we need.

The reason why some people living in this country do not feel British is not solely because of the nature of the communities in which they live but rather also the nature of mainstream British society and UK government policies. It would have been much more honest of Cameron to acknowledge there continues to be problems with racism, systemic, institutionalised and individualised, in this country. By not mentioning the role entrenched racism plays in all of this, he just ignored our lived reality and experiences. David Cameron needs to stop perpetuating a white-centric view of race relations and have a long hard look at himself, as well as at British society, institutions and policies.

Frankly, I’m just bored by this whole debate. The speech showed a lack of new analysis and seemed aimed at bolstering the popularity of the Tory led government. It seems David Cameron has missed it but we have been having this same debate about multiculturalism since 2004. There is nothing new in his speech, just as there is nothing new in what I have written here. Why do we have to keep saying the same things over and over again? Can we move forward please to the proper debate that is needed?

This piece was first published on Black Feminists on 11th February 2011. It was the first blogpost I ever wrote. Hopefully my pieces have become shorter and more concise since then.