Reconnecting race equality and migration policy

In a reply to Tim Finch, Kjartan Sveinsson says that we should not lose sight of the lessons of our recent history in which, contrary to what some politicians maintain, racism and anti- immigrant sentiments have been closely linked.
Kjartan Sveinsson
5 May 2010

A lot has been said and written recently about the stifled state of the immigration debate in Britain. Hyper-sensitivity and political correctness, so the argument goes, have cast anyone talking about migration as racists, thereby smothering any discussion. However, few could have failed to notice that immigration policy has been the defining feature of this election campaign. It doesn’t take many flicks through a newspaper – whether left, right or tabloid – or clicks through the blogosphere to reach the conclusion that there is little inhibition in the way immigration is talked about. Interestingly, the public seemed a lot less bothered about ‘bigotgate’ than the press, which seems to suggest that the press has its own agenda. What is even more interesting, however, is that the only progressive migration policy proposal to have surfaced in this election campaign – that of an amnesty for irregular migrants – has been fiercely attacked by most sections of the media as a ‘folly’.


Immigration as a top election issue, of course, is old news. One of the most memorable slogans of the 2005 election was ‘it’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’. The steady drip of anti-immigrant sentiment in the media demonstrates that this is not just an election issue, and contradicts the common assertion that society is dominated by a “daft, so-called politically correct notion that anybody who talks about immigration is somehow a racist”. It is indeed a banal truism that immigration issues are not racist by default. But this conclusion is too often suggested to imply an opposite position – that immigration issues and policies are by definition never racist – that is both fallacious and dishonest. Unfortunately, however, influential figures of all hues of the political spectrum seem to have accepted this contention, which has consequently been allowed to win the argument. As a result, the immigration debate has become so polarised that a middle ground has almost become inconceivable. Tim Finch’s call for both sides to reconsider their position is therefore both welcome and overdue.


Tim is right to point out that progressives have failed to consider how our current immigration system works to the advantage of companies hiring cheaper labour, and the impact this has on poor white communities. In many ways, we have fallen for the right-wing divide and rule tactics which set the UK’s most disadvantaged groups against one another, while sweeping larger structures of social and economic inequality under the carpet.


In our haste to unpack our case, however, we shouldn’t lose sight of the lessons of our recent history. Looking back on the latter half of the 20th century, it is clear that past immigration policies have played a pivotal role in shaping the ethnic inequalities of the early 21st century. Contrary to what some politicians and commentators maintain, racism and anti-immigrant sentiments have historically been closely linked. Although talking about immigration is not racist in itself, immigration policies can – and often do – have a clear racial bias, and therefore have a knock on effect on race equality years down the line. It is therefore reasonable to expect that immigration policies drafted today may be a significant factor in shaping the future of multi-ethnic Britain. Recent changes in immigration policy – which have been lauded as the “biggest shake-up of the UK’s border security and immigration system for 45 years” – have gone hand-in-hand with what anthropologist Ralph Grillo aptly describes as a ‘backlash against diversity’ and a return to assimilationist language in political rhetoric. Thus, there’s good reason to examine these policies closely and critically, and assess their potential impact on race equality.


The centrepiece of the recent immigration policy shake-up is the Points Based System, which has been hailed by its pundits as a tool allowing Britain to “control migration more effectively, tackle abuse and identify the most talented workers”. Not everyone has shared the government’s enthusiasm for the system, which has drawn criticism from various migrants’ rights groups, especially because it is too hierarchical and discriminatory. The PBS distinguishes between the rights available to migrant workers on the basis of obscure and arbitrary principles about which ‘skills’ and ‘attributes’ they would add to the British economy; migrants deemed to have a larger and more valuable set of skills have access to a more generous set of rights. The PBS conforms to Stephen Castles’ formulation of “differential policies towards migrants with different levels of human capital, which seem to be generating a new transnational labour force, stratified not only by skill and ethnicity but also by immigration status.” As such, the hierarchical and discriminatory design of the PBS replicates within Britain the key elements the North/South divide of the global economic stratification that drives migration in the first place. The poor and marginalized in the world order become poor and marginalized within the British hierarchy.


The systematic corralling of migrants from poorer countries into low skilled and low waged employment is likely to have a devastating impact on the future of race equality. If we take the London labour market as a case in point, there are clear connections between nationality, immigration status, race and inequality.  Ninety per cent of people working in London’s low paid ‘elementary jobs’ – that is to say contract cleaning, hospitality work, home care and food processing – are migrant workers, predominantly from Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. These migrants do not end up in this sector because they lack skills; around fifty per cent have tertiary level education, and severe deskilling and downward social mobility is common.


Many of Britain’s migrants are likely to stay in the UK long enough to raise a family, but will be perpetually working in low paid jobs with little prospect for promotion or advancement. The children of these migrants, as well as those who are legal but unable to find work suitable to their skills and qualification, will be born into a disadvantaged position in life, as were many of the children and grandchildren of the Commonwealth migrants. The negative consequences of the PBS are therefore not confined to migrants’ rights today, but are likely to have an impact on the future of multi-ethnic Britain as well.


The immigration debate doesn’t have to be for/against and either/or. It is possible to talk about both the effect of migration policies on white British workers and how it has shaped ethnic inequalities in Britain. Making the case that the current migration system disadvantages poor white communities does not mean you’re a racist. But we also have to acknowledge that the current system blatantly discriminates and distinguishes between different types of workers. This does not only – or even primarily – relate to who is allowed to enter Britain, but also to the hierarchy of rights pertaining to different kinds of migrants. There is a real danger that the PBS will reproduce within Britain the global inequalities that drive migration in the first place. The PBS siphons migrants from the global South into dirty, dangerous and demeaning work and leaves them open to exploitation, while the Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Act further restricts their rights and means to defend themselves from discrimination. This places some groups at a disadvantage in the labour market, belittles their contribution to society, and prevents them from engaging with major British social institutions and taking full part in society.


The full report by the Runnymede Trust New Migrants and Belonging in Multi-Ethnic Britain is published here

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