Let’s really talk about immigration

Originally published on hackeryblog in July 2011

Is Maurice Glasman right? In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, the Labour policy advisor said: “Britain is not an outpost of the UN. We have to put the people in this country first.”

Many conservative commentators, perhaps spoiling for a fight, are shocked and seemingly annoyed at the lack of outrage from the left. But Glasman’s comments are unsurprising in a climate where the political consensus (with the exception of Vince Cable) is that immigration brings more costs than benefits to Britain.

Recently an Afghan refugee living in Athens asked me, did I think life would be any better for people like him in the UK? He fled Afghanistan after being violently targeted for working with foreign forces and now he faces the same problem in Greece, could he find sanctuary in the UK?

In theory, yes. Lord Glasman and the likes of the English Defence League use only rhetoric and not violence to attack immigrants. But even without violence or overt racism, there is a strong anti-immigrant climate, where immigrants and refugees are criminalized (many are illegal until proven innocent just by entering the country) and too often the subject of simplistic, chaotic debate. I fear life for him would be hellish in many other ways here.

After years of fretting over not talking enough about immigration, the political and media classes are edging closer to an open debate on the issue. Though cogent points are occasionally raised, the current debate is still based on rhetoric and sketchy moralizing. The head of the Institute of Race Relations went so far as to describe the government’s latest plans to toughen rules on family migration as “pure mischief”’.

“… the government is still in thrall to the rightwing press even if it isn’t Murdoch’s. These proposals are for appeasing the readers of the Daily Mail and Telegraph. …Since the 1980s anyone bringing any family members to the UK has already gone through stringent tests,” Frances Webber wrote in a letter to the Guardian.

Over at the Sunday Telegraph, a campaign is under way calling for the review of the use of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the ‘Right to respect for private and family life’, in British law. The Telegraph argues that too many foreign criminals avoid deportation by claiming Article 8 rights. One of the paper’s stranger headlines states: ‘Human rights laws are protecting the wrong people’.  Should human rights be for all human beings or just British ones? The paper uses the grisliest cases to support their argument making quite clear that these are people who really don’t deserve rights. And who wouldn’t condemn the man (who happened to be an asylum seeker) that stabbed a kind headmaster or the one that killed a 12-year-old girl?

The idea that foreign ex-offenders should be detained or deported based on the risk they might reoffend (a rule not applied to British nationals who commit crimes) became official Home Office policy under the last government. Yet while there is at least a debate about the application of this policy, there is a deafening silence on its collateral damage. No mention of foreign ex-offenders like Mohammed, an asylum seeker from Sudan, detained for 18 months by the UK Border Agency after serving a prison sentence for using a false passport to try to leave Britain. He committed a crime, paid the price, and yet he remained imprisoned long after his sentence was served. As of October last year, 2,795 immigrants and asylum seekers were detained at detention centres in the UK; 470 for between two and four months, 195 for between four and six months, 300 for between six months and a year, and 260 for more than one year.

The sudden collapse of the Immigration Advisory Service earlier this week means life will be even harder for immigrants or refugees in need of legal help. The charity gave free legal advice and managed most of Refugee and Migrant Justice cases, another legal charity that went bust last year. The government’s Legal Service Commission blamed the closure on financial mismanagement, the IAS blamed the structure of legal aid fees, and the Daily Mail blamed asylum seekers for making false claims.

But could it be something to do with problems in the rarely scrutinised asylum process? In a report on the quality of decision-making in female asylum cases, Asylum Aid found that of the 87% of applicants interviewed were initially refused asylum by the UK Border Agency (UKBA), 42% won on appeal to a higher court. Another investigation, this time into bail hearings for detained immigrants, found that 40 of the 115 cases they observed had no legal representation. “The systemic observations demonstrated that there is an overarching issue of lack of due process, underpinned in many cases by a culture of disbelief,” the report says.

These figures aren’t surprising when read alongside a UKBA whistleblower’s revelations that at the asylum processing centre where she worked officials took pride in refusing applications and one manager told her that, “If it was up to me I’d take them all outside and shoot them.”

Then there is the political landscape. The advocates of Blue Labour, a political idea sprung from the ashes of the Labour party’s 2010 election defeat with Glasman at the helm, want to talk about immigration, but not about indefinite detention, trafficking or irregular migration. Instead they want to talk about how rising immigration has disenfranchised the white working classes, by undercutting their wages and contributing to the trend for multiculturalism that forgot poor white people.

There is anecdotal evidence from politicians about white working class people having real fears about immigration, but these are always coupled with serious economic concerns. Jobs, the provision of social housing, low wages. Such concerns are prevalent among all working class people, white, black or brown. It is less about immigration and more about economic difficulties. The Institute for Public Policy Research found that in areas that experienced high immigration, people were less likely to support the British National Party. And factors linking different areas with high BNP support were in fact political and socioeconomic.

But it suits politicians to pit the poorest and most vulnerable against each other. I was surprised when a black homeless man told me recently that it was the Polish who had taken all the Olympic regeneration jobs meant for East Londoners. Meanwhile, those with the real power administering the regeneration escape blame. Similarly, there is much talk about immigrants being given priority of social housing over indigenous people. But what of the recent Dispatches revelation of widespread corruption in the rented accommodation sector where slum landlords prey on both the poorest Britons and immigrants? Glasman is wrong; Britain does not put foreigners first but neither does it prioritize the needs of the white working class.

If politicians were serious about tackling immigration, why don’t they tackle the reasons driving it? People move because of poverty and conflict. The famine in the horn of Africa didn’t just happen this summer, it has been years in the making. And the conditions that created it also led to many Somalis seeking refuge in Europe. The Afghans coming to Britain aren’t coming to live in sheds and claim benefits; it is because international forces are fighting a war in their country. Some working class communities face huge unemployment because when British industry declined, nothing replaced the skilled worked it once provided.

These issues too complex to be bundled into one debate about ‘immigration’, that politicians try to do so implies they aren’t at all serious about tackling the underlying issues.