I joined BBC London’s Sunday Show with Dotun Adebayo to discuss the Queen’s Speech.
When I was a little girl, I had a pair of little red wellington boots that I wore obsessively, whatever the weather, till they didn’t fit me anymore. I’ve never given it much thought until I saw one of the Paddington Bear statues in Paddington station the other day, one of 50 placed around the city to mark the new movie. I realise now that I loved my boots because Paddington had a similar pair, and I adored that bear, even though I didn’t like marmalade. Funnily enough, there’s a lot of celebration and anticipation around the new film of Paddington, even as we have a very ill-tempered and often cruel discourse on immigration. Paddington was effectively an undocumented migrant “from darkest Peru” who arrived with a little suitcase (more than most in a similar position) and was adopted by a loving family.
When I was younger I loved Paddington’s outfit and his propensity to cause havoc. Now that I’m older, I appreciate the gentle lesson of acceptance and welcoming the stranger. I was reading a blog earlier on citizenship as a moral ideal, which I thought threw up some interesting thoughts on citizenship “as a status given to the individual by a community (passport-citizenship)” and “as a moral ideal that exists whether or not it is recognised by the community.”
I think it’s a fascinating exploration of looking beyond the paperwork to how we build our societies.
“The ideal of citizenship lies submerged in our basic obligation to take care of the stranger even when they do not seem a citizen.” – Simon Duffy, from “Citizenship as a moral ideal”
Should we not treat the undocumented, the refugee, the temporary migrant, student – whoever – as a citizen, regardless of their paperwork? Even as I typed that I thought of welfare and benefits – but that’s exactly the problem. That’s a hobbled view of citizenship, which more than just a series of checks and balances – rights and responsibilities. Community, those many ties that bind, goes beyond paperwork. What I think a lot of politicians overlook is that when they posion the well of public discourse, community, brotherhood, or whatever you want to call it – suffers, long after their election is won.
I think sometimes it helps in these discussions to get down to the bare bones and say it like it is. And that is that people are scared of black and brown people coming into your country. That’s essentially what it is. And once you take it down to the bare bones, when you talk about things like the dole, and they’re coming to take our jobs, they’re coming to take our money, all of these incredibly toxic ideas people have, and it is at the end of the day about racism. It’s about people who don’t look like us. But in a country like this you have to ask, who is us? And who made us, us? And what did you do to the people who were there before us became us? And are you ok with that?
—Mona Eltahawy on Q&A, March 31st, 2014, Australia.
Well, these things never go to plan, but this is what I prepared…
What sort of country to do you want to live in?
I ask that question because one of the great fallacies of the government’s hostile environment campaign is that you can isolate a group of people – in this case, to hive off the undocumented migrants from everyone else.
First off, I don’t believe we should seek to exclude a group people, some of whom will be extremely vulnerable to exploitation, simply because for one reason or another they don’t have papers. Immigration status is a complicated web of rules that seems designed to catch you out, speaking as a migrant here.
But secondly, I also believe that you can’t. Just as you can’t separate one group of migrants from another, you can’t introduce punitive legislation that intrudes so much on migrant’s private lives without the rest of society being sucked into the net.
We are told that because of health tourism – an issue that has been talked up and despite estimates, is hard to quantify, students and other categories of temporary migrants will have to pay to use the NHS. And changes to the rules on ‘ordinary residence’ could mean that until you have indefinite leave to remain – a process that can take roughly to six years – you’d be paying for the service, even if you’re working legally here and paying taxes including National Insurance. Many believe that this is the thin end of the wedge in terms of introducing charges for the NHS – but it also introduces an administrative burden on health professionals to check everyone’s immigration status. Otherwise, how do you know who is a migrant?
The same question is being asked at Universities. When Media Diversified – @WritersofColour if you’re on twitter, hosted a discussion on immigration, lecturers tweeted us about their discomfort at having to snoop on their students to comply with immigration rules, something that was raised in a letter sent to the Guardian newspaper by 160 academics last month.
International students are feeling it. In an NUS survey over 50% of international students said the UK government wasn’t welcoming. When asked to name specific measures that bothered them, 74 per cent cited the NHS levy, and 40 per cent cited moves to get landlords to check on their legal status.
Which brings me to my third example: housing. Last year the BBC uncovered routine discrimination against Black people by letting agents in the private rental market – a situation which will likely be exacerbated if we ask landlords- who are not regulated – to start investigating people’s immigration status. For starters, the paperwork isn’t straightforward. But also, will they want to go to the trouble, or will it be easier to just turn away anyone who looks or seems foreign?
At the beginning of my little intervention I should really have asked, do you fancy working for the UKBA? Because that’s what the government proposes to ask doctors, nurses, lecturers and landlords – among others – to do.
We are all being asked to consider our neighbour as immigrants first and people second. And if you seem “foreign”, you’re probably more likely to be asked these questions. These policies risk driving a wedge of suspicion into communities and dragging a lot of ordinary people into a net of surveillance.
So – what kind of society do you want to live in? And more importantly, what are we, the young generation, the open generation, the future of this country, going to do about it?
I’m so honoured to be here with all of you, and those joining us online and around the UK, to ask these questions. And I’m grateful to Open Generation and the Migrant Rights Network for hosting this important conversation and for inviting me to take part, and for all the vital advocacy work that they do. Thank you very much.
If you haven’t already, check out the footage of the Intelligence Squared Debate at the Royal Geographical Society. The motion: Let them come, we have nothing to fear from high levels of immigration. The speaker were David Aaronovitch, Ken Livingstone, Susie Symes, Nigel Farage, David Goodheart and Harriet Sergeant. I was particularly pleased to hear some female voices in the debate for a change!
Research in London, Leeds and Birmingham shows that the British public isn’t a prejudiced monolith. Politicians, take note!
An independent network of researchers have gathered opinions from diverse communities in Leeds, London and Birmingham – and found that the majority of those surveyed disagreed with the approach used in government campaigns against immigration. The research team also found that the public is uncertain what the government is trying to achieve through these campaigns, with almost a quarter believing that the aim was to increase intolerance.
In response to public concerns about the use of the ‘go home’ van in diverse areas of London and the allegations that immigration checks in London stations targeted non-white travellers for questioning, a group of independent researchers have taken to the streets of multicultural Britain to find out what ordinary citizens make of these tactics.
Professor Gargi Bhattacharyya from the group explained,
“These Home Office campaigns target highly diverse neighbourhoods and impact on the lives of people there. We wanted to get a…
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