Confronting prejudice with charm: migrants in the UK

"We know it’s not easy to confront the tabloid press. We know we’ve taken on a huge challenge; we may make it; we may not. But as migrants, we must deal with it". This is why 100,000 copies of a free newspaper written by migrants will be distributed across the UK next week, says the paper's editor Nazek Ramadan

Nazek Ramadan
10 February 2012
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The second edition of the free newspaper Migrant Voice is published this week. This edition celebrates the contribution of migration to life in the UK and captures migrants’ ambitions and aspirations for the future, including those of Brits living abroad. It traces migrants in Europe’s royal households and blames Olympic flames for sparking romance between royals and their future migrant partners. It introduces us to migrants’ many talents in the food, music, fashion, sports and arts industries. It also highlights the impact of some of the newly introduced policies such as the cap on migrant workers, and the restrictions on students’ visa on both migrants and the UK economy.   

I really am concerned that there aren’t enough migrants coming out and speaking out. If we were visible, if we were vocal, this debate really wouldn’t be happening the way it is.  Sunday Morning Live on BBC1 ran a poll asking people, ‘Is Britain full up? 90 per cent of people who called or texted said ‘yes, it’s full; there are too many migrants’. Viewers had been given facts showing that the percentage of foreign born nurses in the UK is 40%. In London alone, it rises to 47% of nurses working for the NHS; when including the private sector it is over 60% of nurses and care workers. 23% of doctors in London are foreign born, with an even higher percentage outside London: without migrants the National Health Service would be on its knees, but still, 90 per cent of people who called in to the BBC said there are too many. 

So for me the concern is, why is there this hardened attitude?  We’ve been hearing this again and again. Maybe the change for me is that we’re now hearing statements from high level politicians that we used to hear from low level politicians in the past. Like the statement the Prime Minister asking people to shop their neighbours if they suspected they were illegal immigrants.  Like the Employment Minister saying it’s ‘unacceptable’ that British firms employ people who were born abroad when there’s unemployment in the UK, without saying those jobs were vacant and that the UK didn’t have the skilled labour to fill them.

The way the recent statistics about the ‘371,000 migrants on the dole’ were presented was unfair to migrants and nurtured the already negative public perception that surrounds us. More than half that number are British citizens and just two per cent of the number featured in headlines are suspected of claiming benefits illegally.

There is little mention of the benefits migration brings from helping the economy. Migrants make up 93% of the workforce in hospitality, 95% in underground cleaning staff, and 56% in the care sector according to the 'Migrant Capital' report by Migrants Rights Network. 67% of the largest firms in London  estimate that foreign nationals make up more than 10% of their workers. Migrants are also highly skilled professionals,  lawyers, artists, businessmen and popular athletes and footballers. Mo Farah and Sir Trevor McDonald were not born in the UK, but that does not stop us thinking of them as Great Britons. Migrants bring new talents, ideas and richer tapestry.

When I arrived here 26 years ago my concern was for my children; they were very small, but they were going to live and grow here, go to school here, and as parents we were concerned about the safety of our children.  Before the 2010 election, in Barking and Dagenham in east London, there were on average three or four attacks every day on people who looked like migrants. Every time there’s an election migrants feel depressed, because we know immigration is a big topic, and political parties start competing on who is the toughest, and who is going to bring the numbers down. We just watch in horror sometimes.  This is why I left my previous job before the last election, and I invited people like me who were concerned about this; we said enough is enough; we cannot just sit back and let this carry on.  So we set up Migrant Voice and published the first edition of the newspaper just ahead of the 2012 elections, so that we could say, ‘We are here.  This is also our home, and we care about it’.

Where we’re coming from is we should stop blaming others and complaining, and we should do something about it. We should look at ourselves and see what we can do to change things. We don’t believe people hate us just for the sake of it.  We strongly believe that people really don’t know us. And we haven’t been active in coming forward and presenting ourselves. It’s up to us to tell them who we are.  If you brand someone as racist, why would that person want to listen to you and support you? We don't believe that making someone feel bad is the best strategy to make them come and support you. We’re about opening up dialogue and communication between migrants and the host community.  You can’t blame the host community because what they know, what they hear, is what's published in the Daily Mail and the Sun newspaper; this is the media they read and they believe.  And we’re not making any effort to tell our story and to stand up to the relentlessly negative slant on migration issues by part of the media.  When they say asylum seekers are killing and eating the Queen’s swans, or asylum cheats are crossing every border in Europe to come and enjoy our generous benefits system, nobody is challenging these insulting claims to people who are working here, trying very hard to make a living and contribute to their new home.

It's not just the tabloid press that contributes to the hardening attitudes,  but we don’t underestimate its power because of the sheer size of its readership.  I think we understand that they can be as nasty to a politician or a member of the Royal Family as to us as migrants; they’re after sensation, and they present it as entertainment.  But there’s also something historical – if you go back to how they reported on the Irish, then the Jews; now we’re the latest target.  And it’s up to us to try to do something to stop that..

We know it’s not easy to confront the tabloid press. We know we’ve taken on a huge challenge; we may make it; we may not. But as migrants, we must deal with it. We’re trying to understand where the media is coming from, how the British media work - trying to see if there’s a way to get in. We need to understand where journalists are coming from, and what process the story goes through to get on the page. From the start of  Migrant Voice, we’ve tried to build alliances with journalists; and right now we have meetings with journalists around the country - in Birmingham, Glasgow and London. We invited them; we said, ‘Look, we are a group of migrants, and we’re concerned about this; can you come and meet with us and see how we can work together?  You need spokespeople; we will provide the spokespeople. You need information, facts; come to us; we’ll work with you.’ And they were very pleased to talk to us.  We don’t believe all journalists are necessarily hostile. We’re collecting all of the tips from the journalists we’ve met, to produce a toolkit. We share them already with our members on Facebook, but we will produce a toolkit for our website, so anyone can access it.

At one of our earliest meetings, someone said, ‘Every time I read something in the paper or hear something on the news, I get so angry and so upset I just close the door and don’t do anything about it’. People are terrified of the media; they don’t understand how it works, and they don’t know how to get through to it. But once you tell them how it works, and you help build their skills and confidence, they’re happy to do it. At our conference in April we had a panel of journalists who said ‘Call us, ring us, email us, tell us to do x and y, send us information’.  So people felt ‘phew’ – relieved – ‘oh, they want to talk to us; oh, we can call’. We go up and down the country, developing media training, and in Birmingham at our next training session will be conducting mock interviews, to give people experience.  People feel safe because it’s us who’s bringing the journalists to them, remember.  It’s us who are initiating that dialogue.   What we’re telling journalists is, we don’t want any favours from you.   All we’re asking for is fair coverage; if we tell you something, please report it the way we tell you; don’t manipulate it. 

A journalist came to us who wanted to write a story about asylum seekers, and we invited him to one of the meetings. At that time we had a number of destitute asylum seekers, including a woman.  By the end of the meeting, the journalist was in tears, and said, ‘I’m going on holiday for a few weeks; I’m happy to offer my home’. That journalist built a brilliant relationship with some of those people, and has produced excellent stories. We feel that’s a success. One of our members who had done the training and who was living in a very hostile borough with a lot of racists and was threatened with deportation, had the confidence to contact the local press, they produced a front-page story with the headline ‘Let him stay!’ Now this is a success. We need more of that.

I think a lot of people are not aware how asylum seekers are treated. Most people here in the UK are not aware that asylum seekers are detained indefinitely, including those whom the government cannot send home. Most people don’t know that people are living on a £5 voucher per day. They don’t know the real human stories of these people. They see them as numbers, and numbers don’t have faces. Our strength is based on our authentic voices; you only believe a person when that person is in front of you, speaking about their own life. So I think this is our strength. We run on these authentic voices. We feel this is what really works.  











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