Romanian and Bulgarian migrants - it’s not immigration but xenophobia we should be discussing

Behind the smokescreen of inaccurate economic figures and scare stories, the political decisions being taken by the Coalition are largely about legitimising xenophobia to cover the ineptitude of the ruling class.

Malcolm James Naaz Rashid
28 November 2013

As the conference season closes and the next general election comes into sight, the major political parties are clamouring to set out their political stalls. One issue continues to be salient, crossing party political boundaries. Yet again, immigration is the clarion call. Today’s scapegoats for Britain’s dismantled welfare state are the A2 migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.

Today David Cameron has announced measures to limit the eligibility of A2 migrants for state benefits to those who have been in the UK for three months, despite the fact that only 6% of new migrants claim such benefits within six months of arrival to the UK. Such posturing then only serves to highlight the unfettered xenophobia that lies behind discourses on immigration, and the changes that have taken place since 2004 when A8 migrants were largely welcomed to the UK. New Labour’s admittedly duplicitous play to race equality during its tenureship has all but disappeared and for all those concerned with the slippery slope towards fascism, it is worth pausing to note what has come, and what will come, in its place.

Cameron’s remarks today knit into wider Conservative discourses that have much in common with the old and nasty far right. The run up to A2 freedom of movement has been accompanied by the Enoch Powell and Thatcher-esque language of swamping and scare stories about Romanian criminal hoards descending on Britain. If David Blunkett is to be believed, the arrival of Roma from A2 countries will bring riots to the streets of Sheffield. It also follows this summer’s  ‘Go home’ campaign which rocked sensibilities; even UKIP’s Nigel Farage, he who must be courted or defeated, balked at the racist van, albeit in an effort to appeal to an equally exclusionary notion of British ‘tolerance’. The ‘go home’ text messages campaign endorsed publicly by David Cameron which mistakenly told many legal immigrants, citizens and residents to go home, has created an atmosphere of racialised fear and hostility in Britain’s daily fabric.

Looking to steal a march on UKIP, and claim the ‘toughest on immigration’ accolade, Theresa May has devised an Immigration Bill to bolster racist intimidation. Here we see a return to policies not seen since the bad old days of the 60s and 70s. While mercifully far from a return to the old slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour", in practice we are almost there. The Immigration Bill aims to place a duty on landlords to check the immigration status of potential tenants or else be held responsible. In practice therefore such an obligation on landlords de facto legitimates discrimination against those undesirable Others whether they be black or otherwise foreign-looking. These proposals accompanied a 2013 Conservative Party Conference in which May caricatured immigrants as criminals, feckless and undeserving and Jeremy Hunt blamed temporary migrants for the economic problems of the NHS.

This posturing is of course nothing new.  In the run up to the 2010 General Election, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown outlined New Labour’s approach to fairer, faster and firmer immigration. In doing so, Brown disassociated himself from the explicit racism of the far right, recognising that how the debate was conducted was as important as the debate itself. He made clear that immigration policy shouldn’t be about being anti-immigrant but rather that it should be about what works for Britain.

However, Brown’s unequivocal acknowledgement of “real fears” about immigration, rapidly changing communities, pressure on health services and housing, tough enforcement and strong British values meant that xenophobia – racism’s more slippery ally – held currency. Brown’s substantive message was about upholding "British values" of liberty, tolerance and fairness and ultimately being tough on immigration. It was about addressing the fears of the hardworking decent majority in the face of rapid changes in community life and pressures on public services. In this way it legitimated, rather than challenged, xenophobic attitudes, suggesting that if only immigration could be controlled all our problems would disappear. Despite his efforts to distance himself from the far right, Brown in fact ceded ground to them, placing immigration at the centre of debates on public services and ultimately paving the way for May’s more vitriolic tendencies. Whilst not perhaps as painful as watching Jack Straw attempt to out-tough the BNP on Question Time whilst playing on his party’s (spurious) race relations credentials, nonetheless Brown’s message was equally clear – it’s ok to be xenophobic; it’s not racist.

The political and economic shifts between 2004 and now are worth noting. New Labour’s xenophobia existed in the context of a historical commitment to race equality in the party, in theory if not in practice, and the accession of eight former Eastern Bloc counties to the European Union was largely seen as a good thing – plugging holes in public service provision and the building trade (despite Straw’s recent self-flagellation over the issue).  However, it cannot be forgotten that New Labour oversaw the most virulent vilification of asylum seekers and refugees in its early period in office and post the London Bombings of 2005 continued to make easy political capital out of the fear of ‘strangers’ for electoral gain; in 2006 Gordon Brown explicitly attributed the terrorist attacks to the presence of diversity in the UK and issues of integration.

Nonetheless, the Conservative xenophobia has been ratcheted up several notches. Gone is the housing boom bubble of 2004, any form of token lip service to race equality or commitment to the Human Rights Act. Instead, these have been replaced by the politics of austerity and the familiar Tory scapegoating of the stranger to exculpate the mistakes of the ruling classes. This of course runs alongside an equally pernicious campaign against equally marginalised ‘natives’ in the squeeze on benefits. The A2 migrants are, therefore, the most recent target, and the Conservatives (aided and abetted by Straw, Blunkett and the duplicitous Clegg) have focused their ire against the Roma, one of Europe’s most historically persecuted groups, thus again deflecting the public’s gaze from the stealthy dismantling of the welfare state.

By this merry band we are told that A2 immigration is something we all need to be concerned about. We are reminded of threats to our public services and the erosion of our national character and warned of unscrupulous foreigners out to take advantage of us and unwilling to play by our rules. We are reminded that the solutions lie in immigration caps, deportation, police harassment, biometric controls, dobbing in one’s neighbours and denial of access to public funding.

These seemingly common sense views are laced with pernicious xenophobia. The scare stories, the urban myths, the automatic presumption of cultural incompatibility, the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality are all predicated on xenophobia. The xenophobic ways in which immigration is discussed, however, prevents reasoned debate about the real underlying problems in society. Instead, some of the most marginalised sections of the UK population are pitted against each other– contributing to a self -perpetuating cycle of blame the victim and exonerating the real culprits. While it’s not necessarily xenophobic to discuss immigration, ideas of us and them, of focusing on the threats from immigration, means that discussion of immigration are often just that.

In some places there is disproportionate competition for houses, jobs and hospital beds and of course this needs to be addressed. But rather than see it as a health issue, an employment issue, a problem of privatisation issue, a housing issue, the Tories would have us believe that these are primarily immigration issues. Does anyone really believe that if there was no immigration, social harmony would be guaranteed; that crime would disappear; that hospital beds would reappear, that UKIP and the EDL would shut up shop?

Examining the crisis in public services through the prism of xenophobia lets politicians off the hook and deflects attention from the real questions that we should be directing them to: questions about the economic crisis, inhumane wars, regional disparities, an increasingly unequal society, and ever increasing social and economic inequality. It is no surprise then that politicians are so keen to accept the version of reality that tells us ‘immigration is to blame’. Such political ‘honesty’ is in fact the height of cynicism and political opportunism.

In this climate, and in the run up to the New Year and A2 freedom of movement, how we talk about immigration matters more than ever. An alternative discussion about immigration isn't merely about valuing or glorifying cultural diversity. Nor is it just about a crude economic cost-benefit analysis – as we have seen recently from Jonathan Portes – which misguidedly perpetuates the argument that economic benefit rather than xenophobia lies behind the decisions being taken. We need to recognise what is at stake. Xenophobia underlies the ‘us and them’ mentalities of the immigration debate, it excuses the government from properly addressing employment, housing, healthcare and education concerns and its commitments to social equality and justice. Furthermore it now legitimises unfettered discrimination and harassment of people deemed to be Other.

There is nothing that we are more frequently asked to have an ‘honest debate’ about. The problem is, if we really want an honest debate on immigration we need to move beyond the xenophobic consensus and recognise what is at stake. Let’s start by asking the right questions.

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