They're not thinking what we're thinking: The state-sponsored scapegoating of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers has to stop

6 Jan 2014

So it turned out the predicted flood was of the more wet and disruptive kind. The surge of migrants arriving for British shores on 1st January by boat, bus, plane, train, and magic carpet- as the papers almost went as far as to say- did not materialise.

As 2014 beckons, the situation for recent migrants in the UK is looking uglier and uglier. With two major political parties trying to outdo one another in inaccurate and harmful rhetoric ahead of a crucial electoral stepping stone in May, and a government desperately trying to drag attention away from the precariousness of our economic situation, those thinking of finding a better life here need to prepare for an onslaught of thoroughly un-British coldness upon arrival.

 

This year sees European elections in May, which are roundly expected to see a surge of support for UKIP, with the party possibly topping the polls. This situation is being replicated across many EU countries, with electorates moving to the margins, particularly the Right, in a collective rejection of the EU and one of its main (mostly positive) pillars - free movement of labour. Notwithstanding the especially worrying electoral trends in Greece and Hungary, many of the supposedly open economies which have been less affected by the present economic climate are also seeing their leaders increase the anti-migrant rhetoric, for example the Netherlands and France.

The problem with the EU in the UK is that it is not seen as neutral and established form of government, and therefore it is not accepted by the electorate. This has been fuelled in large part by hostile and unrepresentative media, which never reports on the good stories that you only need look around you to find. For example, the EU Objective 1 has funded improvements and investment in deprived areas of the UK, such as the south Welsh valleys. However, it has also been helped along by the system itself, and the distance - both geographical and in thinking - between elected and non-elected European representatives and their electorates, who compete in a very difficult market for jobs and services. As a consequence, rightly or wrongly, people perceive those running the bloc as overwhelmingly pro-federalism, free movement, fiscal union and so on, and as part of a process or a project, rather than a settlement. The recent Euro crisis has also shown that there needs to be action to make the fiscal peg fit into the monetary hole, something that has only exacerbated this perception.

This has meant that national governments, political parties and the media have tried to exploit people's uncertainties and insecurities about their jobs and finances by blaming and scapegoating the one fairly clear-cut principle - free movement - of an otherwise confusing system. I'm sorry to say that if the debate over the barriers coming down on Romanian and Bulgarian inward migration is anything to go by, they have succeeded- with only troubling consequences for the human beings involved.

I'm sure you've all read real hate and scaremongering on social media, with claims encouraged by supposedly respectful and upstanding traditional media, which comes close at times to Enoch Powellite stirring, and even incitement to racial hatred. For example, I've seen posts online warning about Romanian women who will come to your front door, gas you with a substance similar to chloroform, rob your jewellery cabinet, and leave you there to come round to an empty house. I will not accept that this ill-feeling has not been at least affected by headlines in certain sections of the press; statements about '29 million immigrants' and criminals put about by public figures; and a concerted campaign by one governing party of this country to use anti-immigrant sentiment as a means to win an election. They can't be allowed to get away with it, when the real causes of youth unemployment, lack of housing, an NHS under pressure and so on are decades of neglect and lack of ideas by some British politicians elected by British voters in good faith.

Thankfully, over the Christmas break Nigel Farage did make a sensible statement, reminding voters of the key obvious difference between economic migrants, and asylum seekers fleeing here from persecution on a conditional basis. Only Farage could have made this statement, as people who have turned to UKIP for various reasons often now only believe him as able to 'tell it like it is' on immigration. So grudging respect to him for that.

However, around the same time the Prime Minister was visiting a squat in London to 'reassure' people that those who are begging on the streets or whose asylum applications have failed will be deported. Merry Christmas to you too Mr Cameron! He simultaneously conflated failed asylum seekers from a non-EU country with those who have a legal right to be here, by blaming what he was witnessing on New Labour's policy 'spiralling out of control'.

In my job, which often involves meeting people who cannot work due to the fact that they are non-UK or EU citizens so choose to volunteer, I regularly meet asylum seekers and refugees who are met with all sorts of stigma and obstacles here - yet one individual still told me how much the UK is a land of opportunity with fantastic people. This same person seeking asylum was turned away from several charities because of their status, and had to walk 10 miles to a volunteering placement that really interested them because they could not be given travel expenses. I have had similar stories from economic migrants from within the EU. These people are not benefit tourists, and are not the reason why your son or sister can't find a job.

Recent announcements that foreign nationals will have to pay for some NHS treatment (including some emergency services) are a way the government can justify introducing charges for the rest of us in the future. If the principle of only receiving treatment if you have already paid can apply to them, and the government can get away with it because it's aimed at 'immigrants', what's to say they won't stop unemployed people from accessing NHS services in future?

The point of the 'cradle to grave' principle underpinning Beveridge's welfare state and Bevan's NHS is that when receiving services, it doesn't matter if as an individual you have not paid into the system yet - it assumes you will be able to pay it back at some point later in your life through work and general taxation, and, until then, the state agrees to collectively cover the costs. If the principle of only-getting-out-what-you've-paid-in as an individual (increasingly seeping into acceptability on the back of anti-immigrant rhetoric) is applied logically across the board, it would also apply to ill children. Of course I am not suggesting that the government wants to deny free health services to our children; however, this illustrates the point that anti-immigrant sentiment can one day come round on you, the hardworking and law-abiding UK citizen. As the vast majority of immigrants come here to work and pay taxes, the same fair principle of services being free at the point of use should apply to them too.

I have touched on a lot of issues here; however, it is important that all of them are remarked upon to illustrate the breadth of the impact negative scapegoating of immigration is having on our society. Not just on immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, but also service users, young people and the unemployed, who may either be targeted next, or at the very least will suffer because the real solutions to their economic problems are not even being debated while the distraction over immigration meanders on.

The positive to come out of all this are the groups who are working together to improve community relations and tackle scapegoating campaigns. I am proud that my home city of Cardiff is poised to become a City of Sanctuary, joining a list which started with Sheffield in 2007 and Swansea in 2010. City of Sanctuary is a movement aimed at welcoming refugees and asylum-seekers, who have had enough to worry about in whichever country they fled from, by local government, schools, media and business coming together to offer sanctuary and support to them and their place in the community.

So, when you think about voting in May, or when the next irrational panic takes hold when a new nation joins the EU, or barriers to migration are debated, remember the real reasons behind our present economic situation, and the real consequences of allowing half-truths and exaggeration to go on unchallenged. Immigrants are not the bane of modern Britain, no matter how often Mr Cameron and Mr Farage tell you they are.

By Luke Jones

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