Check it out: I wrote about the #Dontletthemdrown campaign for Media Diversified.
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.
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.
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.
Three immigration stories that caught my eye in the last week:
ONE This came up during my twitter conversation @WritersofColour discussing immigration when a University professor flagged her concerns about acting as a de facto border agent on behalf of UKBA. In a letter this week to the Guardian from academics raised some pretty alarming issues with what they’re being asked to do, including sharing emails and other sensitive information about international students:
Academics are being asked to monitor attendance and in some cases potentially to share emails with UKVI, said Mette Berg, of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford University. “We have a duty of care towards our students, and there is an issue about this undermining the trust between tutor and student. We are not there to be proxy border police.”
A poll I saw a month or so ago showed that international students no longer feel welcome in the UK – at a time when Universities need their money more than ever. Among other things, students ought to be taken out of the net migration target. The Lib Dems might adopt this policy at their Spring Conference, but (and I know this is cynical, forgive me) I’m sure they’ll drop it in a heartbeat depending on which way the wind blows in (the next?) coalition.
TWO Hugh Muir (love him long time) wrote an interesting little sidenote on immigration post World War I, which goes to show that history is cyclical:
“Black labour had been welcomed, especially at sea, but “when the armistice was signalled on 11 November 1918, the wartime boom for black labour fizzled out as quickly as it had begun”. The cry instead was too many foreigners; British jobs for British workers. Black jobseekers were shunned and the complicit Ministry of Labour resolved not to tell them about benefits to which they were entitled. Destitute, they were targeted. By 1919, there were violent mob attacks in Liverpool, Cardiff and London.”
THREE A great article in the Guardian about the Home Office’s ongoing suppression of migration reports that contain inconvenient truths. This government has form in this regard (*slow hand clap for the Department of Work and Pensions*) but the article cuts to the heart of the debate, such as there is one:
“The evidence to support a rational case against migration is crumbling away. That makes countering the irrational one even tougher. But the really challenging piece of evidence, which can’t be analysed away, is that not talking about it just stokes it up some more.”
Go Home or Face Arrest
The Evening Standard reports today that the Home Office is spending money on advertising hoardings emblazoned withe the phrase “Go Home or Face Arrest,” which are to be placed on vans and driven around certain areas in London such as Barking and Dagenham and Brent and Redbridge, in efforts to tackle illegal immigration.
Like most of the showy and hardline immigration measures promoted by the government, I suspect this is aimed at reassuring the British public rather than dealing with the problem at hand. Interesting, too, that this comes after the Office of Budget Responsibility stunned everyone with their latest report that showed that immigrants will help to contribute to tackling the challenge of paying for Britain’s ageing population in future. This was reported in the newspapers in varying degrees of dismay as as an endorsement for untrammelled immigration.
It’s clear that there’s a PR war here and the Home Office is gleefully ramping up public perception of a threat that they are blowing way out of proportion.
I have a question for Theresa May.
If some illegal immigration is the result of criminal activity, will a billboard really make a difference? Or will it serve to further alienate and frustrate migrants who are here legally?