I wrote something more personal than usual, for Open Democracy.
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.
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.”
A regular aspect of life as a migrant is keeping on top of immigration changes that could affect your visa…and the fee rises. Migrant Rights has the details on the latest fee rises.
“The biggest increases fall on family members of migrants who are residing in a category which entitles them to take employment. To prove to employers that they have such an entitlement the family member is obliged to obtain an Immigration Employment Document (IED), and from 6 April will have to pay £601, up from the current £433, and increase of 38.8%
The unit cost to the Home Office of processing these applications is well below these amounts. Naturalisation typically costs £144 to process, IEDs come in at £278.”
I don’t think most people are aware of how high these fees are, but I suspect that the government’s argument that the fees reflect the value of the visa to migrants would really resonate with a lot of the public.
What’s staggering though, is how much the fees are and yet how inefficient the UKBA continues to be. A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that the agency is still flailing in terms of efficiency – amidst this disarray, the government’s desire to extend border to checks is farcical. But it won’ t stop the Immigration Bill.
Meanwhile, behind the figures are human beings whose lives may be on hold while they await a decision, or an appeal.
“Language matters. Witness the disturbing stereotyping of Roma people. But there are also dangers in silencing debate. Branding people as racist when they questioned the benefits of mass immigration crushed open debate very effectively until Gordon Brown derided Gillian Duffy as a “bigoted woman”. People listened to his sneering comments from the back of his limousine and something snapped.” – Sarah Woollaston
At some point, we’re constantly told, those with reservations about immigration were silenced. The jack boot of liberal oppression ground them into the dust, but they are now emerging blinking into the light of day, taking deep gulps of air and haltingly speaking The Truth, which has gone unspoken until very recently.
The Truth being, of course, that immigration is bad for British culture. The NHS. Housing. Social Cohesion. Etc. (It varies but the main thrust is that the economic data on migration is not enough – there is something intangible and British being lost.) I do agree that economic data is not the only thing to take into consideration, but as Kenan Malik points out, the social science on the effects of diversity and how people feel about it offers a snapshot in time. It’s also not the final word.
“The existential fear of immigration is almost as old as immigration itself. Had Arthur Balfour been able to read Goodhart’s account of the creation of an England ‘full of mysterious and unfamiliar worlds’, of an England that ‘is not English any more’, he would undoubtedly have nodded in agreement. Balfour was the Prime Minister in 1905 when Britain introduced its first immigration controls, aimed primarily at European Jews. Without such a law, Balfour claimed, ‘though the Briton of the future may have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution… nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we would desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come.’ Two years earlier, the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration (an ‘alien’ was, in the early twentieth century, both a description of a foreigner and a euphemism for a Jew) had expressed fears that newcomers were inclined to live ‘according to their traditions, usages and customs’ and that there might be ‘grafted onto the English stock… the debilitated sickly and vicious products of Europe’.” – Kenan Malik
As far as I can see, those opposed to immigration have never been stopped from airing their views. But quite rightly, critics have drawn attention to the way in which those views are expressed, and the impact of a majority rounding on a minority, who are all too often stereotyped and miscast as the symbol for unrelated social ills. People are confusing criticism with silencing. Your view may be contested, but as far as I can see, when you have Blunkett on the BBC warning of race riots in Sheffield because of the Roma and Nick Clegg chiming in with the accusation that Roma culture can be offensive, I don’t think your problem is being heard. In fact, I don’t think the Roma community, maligned and stereotyped in the national press by politicians with a bully pulpit, can muster the same resources in response.
Undoubtedly, when the economy was good (granted, for some, not all) some voices were less audible – but I don’t think that was down to pro-immigration forces so much as poverty. The working classes were marginalised and in many ways continue to be. They were and are failed by a political elite who have found it quite useful to deflect criticism for not building houses, schools or hospitals, (even before the effects of immigration are factored in) by capitalising on fear of the “other”. These are the same elites who would rather subsidise underemployment with tax credits and then demonise those who claim them rather than ensure that work pays and everyone earns a living wage. Not one conviction has been brought under minimum wage legislation since its inception. The dividing line is not between local and foreigner, but between rich and poor, a point made excellently by Zoe Williams in the Guardian:
“The same rhetoric that divides “migrants” from “citizens” also divides “citizens” and “taxpayers”, in a sort of child-parent dichotomy (the citizen has rights, the taxpayer pays for them).” – Zoe Williams
When it comes to politicians scrambling to leap on the anti-migrant bandwagon, silence is not the first word that springs to mind.
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!
This week is apparently Immigration Week on Sky News. Which is nice, obviously, because we
don’t talk about it enough. I haven’t had the opportunity to watch much of the coverage but they seem to have had an array of guests, including fact-checker, economist and all-round sensible person Jonathan Portes, which is encouraging.
That said, what a fortnight it has been: the Immigration Bill annnounced, the launch of Movement Against Xenophobia and Go Home text messages. Here’s my top of the pops:
“We pretend to aid in development of poor countries, while in reality we export economic models that cannot work. And then we impose on their people our unattainable visas.”
“Overall, then, any government or political party has real problems on immigration: concern is high, views ill-informed, government is not trusted, they have limited policy levers they can pull, and the areas in their control are the ones people are least concerned about (such as students and highly-skilled non-EU workers).”
And that, I would argue, is a real immigration problem.
In January this year, the idea was floated to advertise in Romania and Bulgaria about how awful Britain is to dissuade would-be immigrants. An approach not unlike the infamous Go Home Van. (by the way, who is dreaming up these mad schemes?) Anyway, one Romanian counter-campaign has just won an advertising award for its tongue-in-cheek adverts with the strapline “We may not like Britain, but you’ll love Romania.” Funny, but it also shows how offensive pretty much everyone else in the world finds this xenophobic rhetoric.
I was packing my bags to come home to Malawi on holiday when news of Lord Ashcroft’s latest poll on immigration came out. Headlines: 6 in 10 people thought that immigration produced more disadvantages than advantages for the UK.
“Whatever people’s view of immigration itself, few think any recent government has had any real grasp of it, or that any of the parties does today. Most do not feel there is any strategy for dealing with the number of migrants, for their successful integration into British society, or for managing the effects on housing, infrastructure, jobs, the NHS, schools, or the benefits system.”
I sighed and got on my plane, thinking that we are getting the public reaction that Lynton Crosby’s false advertising on immigration has paid for. But now, looking back at the information, I see a lot to grasp hold of.
Besides public mistrust of politicians, the poll also revealed that most people hold complex views about migration, depending on what questions they are asked. The clusters at the extreme ends of the spectrum – staunchly pro or against immigration at all costs – are in the minority. It’s worth reading the analysis by Sunder Katwala of British Future and his feedback from an event he spoke at addressing the research. The research also echoes the findings of Action Against Racism and Xenophobia, who polled public responses to the Home Office’s “Go Home” campaign and found that most people found it “unacceptable.” I find the results encouraging; the majority of people are capable of looking at individual issues and are open to discussion – but the public mistrust of statistics is a worry and a situation all too often exploited by those who seek to decry any figures they don’t like by simply declaring them “disputed”, even if they come from the neutral Migration Observatory at Oxford University, for example.
In his piece, Katwala links to another British Future article I had missed, from earlier in the year, about the thorny topic of integration, an issue I’ve expressed my concerns about in a previous post. While I have concerns about some of the coded language often used in discussions about “integration” and “assimilation”, the discussion needs to be had and the British Future research was interesting with regards to forging a “new deal” on migration:
“…there is potential for a broad social as well as political consensus which articulates hat our democracy needs to insist on for integration to work, but also on where the boundaries between the demands of common citizenship and the freedoms of personal choice should lie in a liberal and democratic society.”
I’m grateful though that the article acknowledges the muddled thinking on this issue – with the onus all too often on migrants alone:
“There is strong evidence that new Britons have a strong commitment to integration, though many people may not expect that to be the case. 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. To some extent, the research suggests that Britons would like to ask new Britons to be idealised versions of the selves that we would like to be: patriotic and aware of our history; committed to their families; hard-working and finding the time to volunteer too. Linking the question of integration of new Britons with citizenship for new adults and the norms across our society could be helpful.”
So, how do we build the new “us”?
Three news pieces caught my eye this week and raised my hopes that the counter narrative on migration and race is getting stronger, reinforced by factual research.
One. A long read but a good one – The Institute of Race Relations paper which looks at past and present political and media discourse to determine that:
“The rhetoric on migrants shows how politicians and the media have created, and embedded, racism in British politics.”
It makes for sobering reading because it shows how the main political parties and the media have reinforced each other’s messaging and perception of the public mood to develop a “politics of grievance”:
“The electorate is also seen as ‘entitled’ to be racist, politicians are simply giving them a voice, and the myth of the lack of debate on immigration and asylum is wheeled out. “
I think the main reason that politicians do this is because they see the very real grievances of those who struggle with lack of school places or housing and pressure on health services and they know that this is the result of policy failures of successive governments. Just this week the Local Government Association reported that there are hundreds of thousands of houses waiting to be built that have been approved at local level but held up by central government. Unfortunately, a person (stranger) down your street is easier to see than a faceless official in Whitehall and that’s where the blame falls.
Two. Formidable Labour MP Diane Abbott has warned that Labour has to do more to change the discourse on immigration. Keith Vaz said the same last week. I just doubt that this will happen. Ed’s heart might well be “in the right place” as Abbott kindly suggests, but actions matter. Language matters. And Labour is scrabbling at the bottom of the barrel that the Tories have rolled out, hobbled by opinion polls that suggest that the public is very hostile to migration at a time of high youth unemployment – even though figures show that the two issues are not linked. The papers say this is proof that immigration must be tackled by politicians; it shows me that they’ve done a fine job so far…misleading everyone.
Three. This is a good time to mention that new research from the impartial Migration Observatory shows that the press uses overwhelmingly negative words when discussing immigration. The most common word is “illegal”. The most common adjective for asylum seekers is “failed”.
Which brings me back to the first article, which concludes:
“It is surely time to reinvent and organise an effective wider anti racist resistance movement bringing the many campaigns together. The Tories’ racist ‘Go Home’ campaign on ‘illegal’ migrants may have become the last straw.”