Tag Archives: debate

Out of the shadows

One of my favourite columnists, Ian Dunt, has written a great article on the grumpy reception of the UCL immigration report in some quarters and the fact that escapes so many immigration miserabilists:

“The weight of the evidence on the economic benefit of immigration is now so substantive that the debate can be laid to rest. This country is spectacularly lucky. We get people at the point in their life when they are net contributors, skip the bit at the beginning of their lives where you actually have to educate them, and very often the bit at the end where they cost the state in medical care. Meanwhile, our own older people leave Britain to go live in Spain in their hundreds of thousands, at precisely the stage of life where they are about to cost the state more. The fact Britain could be such a winner from this situation and still complain about it is testament to the stubborn negativity of many people on this island.”

Dunt identifies that the economic argument for migration is more or less settled now. And perhaps things are about to get interesting, as those staunchly opposed to immigration are left to talk about what really bothers them: difference. Danny Finklestein hinted at this a few weeks ago in the Times, as have a few other commentators.

“Without the economics to fall back on, anti-immigration campaigners, politicians and newspapers want to make up the facts. Instead, they should show some honour and fall back on the real argument that motivates them: cultural purity. There is no shame or offence in arguing that they do not want all these foreign cultures coming and changing the social landscape in the UK. It is a valid point to make and not a racist one. But let them argue it, rather than pretend it is about the economy. Economically, their policy proposal would do this country extraordinary harm. It’s up to them to show that the cultural benefits would be worth it.”

It may not be racist to talk about immigration or to feel uncomfortable about it – but we’re rarely honest about what exactly does cause that unease.


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In all honesty

Not that immigration is ever really off the agenda, but there has been a flurry of activity on the topic in recent days, particularly as the Tories continue to unveil increasingly desperate and unbelievable plans to reform EU immigration. Two articles, written by Matthew Parris in the Times and British Future director Sunder Katwala in the Guardian, really struck a chord with me, particularly as they sum up two sides of an argument.

In his article, Sunder argues that Britain’s pro-migration majority could be unlocked if they could voice their concerns without being condemned as racist – particularly as to be concerned about immigration does not automatically make you a racist. He cites some forthcoming research by British Future, that I look forward to reading, that shows that while most people are concerned about immigration, they recognise the contribution that migrants make the country. He implores the anti-racists to stop being so shrill about people who air their concerns about migration, because this shuts down the debate that everyone wants to have:

“There is clear evidence that there is an anti-racist majority in Britain, not just an embattled “anti-racist minority”.

Of course, it isn’t racist to talk about immigration – as long you do so without being racist.

That’s the debate people want. Anti-racists would have much to gain from that, if they stopped shouting almost as shrilly as the populist xenophobes – which only closes down the conversation that Britain’s moderate majority would like.”

I agree that the majority of British people aren’t prejudiced. But I have two problems with Sunder’s argument: false equivalence and insincerity (not from him, but in terms of these “reasonable concerns” that people have about immigration).

Yes, the anti-racists are muscular and rebut anti-migrant rhetoric robustly. Why is this? It’s not because we feel like we’re an embattled minority – but because we’re having to punch through a lot of noise. The virulently racist minority, despite their aggrieved persecution complex about how the jackboot of liberalism silenced and continues to silence their concerns about immigration, have their voices amplified and dignified by politicians and the majority of the media. They have a national platform. And while politicians bend over backwards to adopt the racists’ language and terms of reference for the immigration debate (also driving the news agenda and getting the front page headlines), they also cloak these concerns in a mantle of respectability and “common sense”. To the extent that – and here’s my second gripe with Sunder’s article – the root of their dissatisfaction, that apparently echoes everyone else’s,  isn’t even interrogated.

Because, while I do think it’s not racist to be concerned about immigration, it rarely finds its expression in the “moderate” way that Sunder longs for. Too often, it hitches its caboose to the overtly racist and prejudiced minority. And that- I think, is nothing to do with anti-racist counter-narratives, and all to do with the domination of what little public space there is to debate this issue by the frames, language and misinformation of the racist minority.

However, having said that I don’t think it’s racist to be concerned about immigration, I don’t think we ever scratch beneath the surface of that. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it, the thought that any one of us may be harbouring prejudices? We often think of racism as the flagrantly prejudiced burning crosses/graffiti’d wall/violent attack variety, instead of its more common, nervy and slightly shifty and uneasy garden variety cousin.

Matthew Parris got to the heart of that with the most honest article on immigration I’ve read all year. He starts off by imagining a conversation with one of these “moderately” disgruntled anti-immigration types, in which the person identifies (as is often the case) pressure on public services and the indigenous population missing out as a key driver of her dissatisfaction with immigration. Parris then imagines that a politician suggests that she might solve the problem by putting aside a pot of money to help local authorities overcome any challenges and plan ahead to provide the services necessary for  a growing population, and to ensure that no one jumps the proverbial queue ahead of Brits (this doesn’t actually happen but that’s another story. It has become part of the anti-immigration canon now). Parris suggests that this person would probably still be unhappy, because, the truth is, the driver for their concern is fear. Fear of Other, fear of scarcity at a time of austerity, and sometimes, straight-up racism. Parris suggests this because we know from experience now that countering lies such as the one about access to services above with facts about the net contribution of migrants to Britain, and the rules for migrants with regards to benefits etc, has little to no effect.

So often I’ve seen commentators exhorting those defending migrants to drop the “dry” statistics articles and make an appeal to the heart. The truth is this – the statistics don’t work not because they’re dry but because the truth of the matter is besides the point. People are feeling a certain way and it’s not connected to reality. Parris suggests that the vast majority of people have not, in their own lives, been directly impacted by immigration, though they may worry about it on a macro level. That doesn’t mean that their feelings aren’t sincere. But just because you feel something (and I say this as a very emotional person) doesn’t make it real. Perhaps because the debate we’re actually having (on the supposed economics of it all, welfare etc) isn’t the real issue. Globalisation, insecurity, cuts to local services – we don’t discuss that.

And the fact that as the song in the deliciously mischievous musical Avenue Q goes, “Everyone’s a little bit racist” – well, at the very least we all have our prejudices – we don’t discuss that. We don’t interrogate why some of us just feel a bit bewildered by all the “difference”….on TV, in London…Britain…the 21st Century. It’s ok to feel that. But let’s be honest about how when we talk about immigration, we are often talking about a host of other things too. Things that make us feel a bit bad about ourselves. And perhaps the problem isn’t the Other, but lies a lot closer to home.

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Go Home: One Year On

We’re roughly a year on from the government’s ill-advised and offensive Operation Vaken campaign. Refugee Action has a great podcast on the campaign and their advice on how to help people who may want to go back to their home countries – basically, a humane and principled approach. It reminds me of how Operation Vaken was never really about helping people, (in my opinion) it was about advertising to the public about the government’s hardline approach. They also raise questions about the claims of the evaluation report, which appears to show the scheme was a success (!), concluding instead that close examination of its claims show that the scheme was, (as well all know) a resounding failure.

“The government currently have an approach to immigration that is actively hostile…we’re really worried about the impact that has on communities up and down the nation”

A Tale of Two Lives

I wrote about former immigration minister Mark Harper’s cleaner, Isabella Acevedo last year, at a time when their fortunes were starkly contrasted in the media. There was broad sympathy for Harper’s “principled stand” in resigning over Ms Acevedo’s irregularities in her paperwork but little to no appreciation for her situation or uncertain future. This week he was promoted back into the Cabinet, while Ms Acevedo is in Yarl’s Wood, after being detained at her daughter’s wedding. The excellent Ian Dunt reported in detail on what happened:

“They really grabbed her. She’s got marks on her arms. They handcuffed her. She said that in the van one of them leaned over and said: ‘We told you we would get you. I was there the last time. I raided your house. We’ve got you now. You’ve nowhere to run’.”

The officers didn’t appear to know any of the laws they were operating under. Some did not wear badge numbers. They did not explain where they were taking her – or her brother, who had also been detained. They tried to stop the wedding, telling her daughter that she didn’t have the proper paperwork to go ahead. The registrar checked and found everything was in order. The wedding went ahead, but only after the mother of the bride had been taken away.

The Guardian carried an in-depth interview with Ms Acevedo. I’m happy to see that her story is finally being told, but as the article points out, there is an “ugly symmetry” in events. Harper is riding high, while Ms Acevedo’s life and dreams, like so many undocumented migrants, lie in tatters:

Acevedo sobs angrily. “They destroyed a family in one day. They destroyed a dream, they destroyed a home.”

Speaking of Yarl’s Wood, there are a lot of refugee women locked up in there, many indefinitely. Women for Refugee Women has an excellent campaign on this issue and a report that makes for sobering reading.

Operation Skybreaker

 Looking forward from Operation Vaken, RAMFEL has written an insightful blog on the Home Office’s upcoming initiative, Operation Skybreaker:

Looking back Operation Valken also marked a new era in Immigration Enforcement, an era of ‘high visibility immigration enforcement’, of which the arrest of Isabella Acevedo Mark Harper’s cleaner is just one example. Since Operation Valken we have seen an intensification of immigration operations, such as  Operation Centurion, Operation Chelsea, Operation Skyscraper, and a few weeks ago we were ‘consulted’ about the Home Office’s latest brainwave  Operation Skybreaker.

They go on to detail the new plan and highlight some worrying plans, including the co-opting of faith communities (nowhere to hide!) and point out, quite rightly, that:

“voluntary departures under duress are hardly voluntary, and creating and egging on a local hostile environment where your neighbours hate you because you either are, or are suspected of being a migrant is hardly tantamount to safe secure neighbourhoods.”

The toll on community relations is a real worry that the Home Office seems determined to ride roughshod over. Beyond this, though, is the glaring fact that what we need, among so many other things, is a better debate.

In the meantime, so many amazing groups like RAMFEL remain vigilant. And those of us of like mind should, too.


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Retreat and Reframe

Although we’re only 12 days into the year, the immigration rhetoric has been coming thick and fast. But something that I’ve mentioned before is the reframing of almost every other issue that touches people’s lives in terms of immigration. So, rather than discuss the effect of cuts and privatisation on the NHS, politicians discuss benefit tourism. Instead of a jobs plan for unemployed young people, we hear about closing loopholes for foreign workers. I was blown away to see the usually wise and measured Polly Toynbee making the case for the living wage as a way to curb immigration.

With the exception of benefit tourism, which is being over-hyped for political gain, many of the other measures, such as a the living wage, are good in and of themselves, as a matter of social and economic justice. But immigration is the primary lens through which everything is being seen at the moment. This may give politicians an emotional lever to pull, but it’s a toxic strategy. With perceptions on immigration out of step with reality, this just validates everyone’s misperceptions and makes it even more likely that we will see more policy solutions in search of problems.

Something else I’ve noticed is how critics of immigration, such as Nigel Farage, are increasingly dismissing economic arguments as cold, dry figures in favour of a discussion on the social effects of immigration. I think this is partly because most of the economic data shows that immigration is on balance a benefit to the UK. But I also think it’s because it’s easier to debate the nebulous concepts of integration and assimilation. I do think it must be discussed and it is an issue, but I don’t think it’s either/or. And, while I do agree with blogger Sunny Hundal that it’s an argument that we can win,  I disagree with the reasons why he supports a shift in emphasis.

As I’ve blogged before, British Future found that the issue of integration is a vexed one, with the “laundry list” for migrants from often idealised version of who we want to be:

“It can be difficult for migrant voices to be heard whenever the integration debate becomes framed as a question of “them and us” – especially ‘why can’t they be like us?’ – rather than the two-way street of how we work together to make the new “us” work.”

 I think it’s pointless to discuss the social impact of immigration without looking at other (often economic) factors – in the form of decisions about spending – on housing, schools, hospitals because  pressure on these resources contribute to community tensions, with immigrants all too often the lightning rods for frustration at lack of resources. 

And finally, there’s the subtle rehabilitation of Enoch Powell; Nigel Farage agreed with excerpts of his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech when presented with some of it on Sky News. Hugo Rifkind of the Times wrote a blisteringly excellent column on this, and putting Powell’s speech in historical context and warning that “If Britain wants to debate immigration, the Rivers of Blood speech is emphatically not the place to start.”

I will go into this further in another blog post, but I think part of the resurgence of interest in what should be an entirely discredited speech is because along with the oft-repeated clarion call that critics of immigration have been silenced by the establishment thus far comes the accusation that this is because all too often, race and immigration have been linked. Well, we may be living in a brave, new world but the bad news is: Powell’s speech was racist then and it’s racist now. And while to be against immigration is not racist, the way in which this opposition is expressed sometimes is. That’s why having “Go Home” emblazoned on the side of vans last summer was never a polite suggestion but the co-opting of a nasty, racist far-right slogan that offended and wounded so many ethnic minorities.

And, yes, we may be talking chiefly about Romanians and Bulgarians at the moment, who are white, but the stereotyping and othering of the Roma people has historical roots and is – yes, I’m going to call it – racist.

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Let them Come

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!

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I do love twitter. It’s hard to explain to the uninitiated, but for a newshound like me, dipping in and out of news streams through the course of the day is a pleasure.

And so it happens that a couple days in a row now I’ve come to hear about some immigration debates and research via people I follow on Twitter. Like many others, I’m happy to watch Jonathan Portes taking David Goodheart to task for his lazy prejudice and truth-starved statistics on immigration. I was also intrigued to hear about a Spectator Debate on immigration via Mehdi Hasan, who was tweeting about the fact that he’d be taking part, as would, among others, David Goodheart and Peter Hitchens. Then just today, I see that Sunder Katwala of the excellent thinktank British Future, is speaking at an event organised by Lord Ashcroft, called “Immigration on trial”.

Well, no one can say anymore that we’re not having the debate (though that’s still the go-to argument for those whose views are contested: “You’re stifling the debate!” – no, we’re just saying that you’re wrong. Disagreement is not the same as shutting you down, this isn’t Communist Russia etc etc)

However…I can’t help feeling, as an immigrant myself, very much talked about and not talked to. I also think it’s strange to have so many abstract debates. Well, sure, have the debates, but behind all the rhetoric there are people. People like me, with lives and loves and an intricate web of human relationships. And white people (because invariably when we talk about immigration, plaintitive cries about “Britishness” and the loss or absence of it usually reveal that Brown or Black Britons are still very much ‘other’ and what they really mean is ‘white homogenousness’) are just as human as the rest of us. They leave Britain for Australia, Canada, somewhere in Africa, East Asia – there they may work for a while then return home, or they may fall in love, set down roots, stay forever – or seek to return with their families.

Immigration is, at its heart, a human story. Facts and figures are so important to illuminate the debate, but in this globalised world we live him, the movement of humans, which has happened throughout the ages, is happening more and faster than ever before. It’s not something “happening to” Britain; it happens everywhere. Britons move around; so do Africans, Indians, Canadians, Americans. An abstract debate may be of interest to some but it doesn’t address the real human impact of immigration, or the human experience of the immigrants themselves.

Do we need policies? Absolutely. Do we need facts? No doubt about it. But discussing immigration like it’s something you can stop or opt out of  is just ridiculous, unless you’re also going to ground all Britons too. One man’s immigrant is another man’s expat, after all.

My ears are ringing

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