The Independent, 7 February 2005

Stop this continual abuse of immigrants

Leaders from all parties wonder why so many immigrants and their children repudiate calls for integration

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Which leader will emerge as the most ruthless on immigration? As the election draws nearer, the competitors are turning up the heat, trying to appeal to millions of nervous nationalists around the country. This week, Robert Kilroy-Silk, aryan man, little Englander, launched his new party, Veritas, which promises to expurgate all foreign cultures from this idyllic island and to rid the place of migrants. Michael Howard, both afraid of, and transfixed by, this blondish wonder, produced his own malevolent policies against asylum-seekers and migrants.

Today, New Labour, unnerved by both Veritas and the Tories and the rising tide of public paranoia, is announcing a punitive five-year programme that will further reduce the rights of asylum-seekers and economic migrants and punish them for daring to come to our doors.

Then they wonder why so many immigrants and their children repudiate calls (from the same leaders) for integration. Why should they embrace a society that never accepts them as equals, which has for centuries played a duplicitous game, enticing workers from abroad and then treating them as the enemy within, whatever they do? It is these politicians who are responsible for the growing divisions in our society and the racisms they claim they abhor. No citizenship lessons or ceremonies can produce a coalesced Britain if the political leadership malignantly defines the country in terms of insiders and outsiders and always describes immigration as a threat and not a promise.

To make matters worse, these parties can produce multi-coloured puppets who will agree that refugees and migrants from the Third World are a nuisance and must be stopped.

There have never been more ministers and MPs of colour in our parliament. We have an unprecedented number of white migrants and the descendants of refugees in power, including Peter Hain and Patricia Hewitt, Michael Howard, Oliver Letwin. And this is when attitudes towards migrants have turned more poisonous than during the days of Powell.

Much is at stake here — we could lose the best of Britishness in this swamp of xenophobia. Two opposing traditions have long existed in this country on immigration and national identity. One has been open and empathetic, genuinely concerned to welcome the oppressed, delighted to evolve, expand the culture, to fall in love with the "other". The second is exactly the opposite — mean and easily threatened by the outsider, ready to scapegoat anyone obviously different for any number of problems and evils.

With very few exceptions, British politicians through the ages have pretended to applaud the first (bogus postures) while stimulating generic antipathy towards incomers, particularly those whose skins are naturally dark. More heinously, they claim that "good race relations" depend on this institutionalised hypocrisy.

People with Kilroy-Silk tans have, and make, fewer problems, of course. Ask those many, many Australians, white South Africans and Zimbabweans, Italians, Americans, French and now Poles and Russians, if the country welcomes them, and most will effuse unreservedly. Then ask Filipino nurses, Indian IT workers and settled non-white Britons, and you will get more circumspection, less clear enthusiasm. We have never been allowed to put down roots and that's the truth of it. Ever since the 16th century, a noise is kept alive by political leaders, a noise of rejection which echoes constantly in our heads.

How the leaders of this country waxed lyrical on Holocaust Memorial Day. But Jewish survivors, says the writer Anne Karpf, "have been sanctified and idealised after the event on occasion by the same publications and people that at the time demonised and sought to impugn their authenticity." Ugandan Asians, now lauded as frightfully good and productive entrepreneurs faced abominable treatment from local authorities and some politicians even though they had British passports. They were made to suffer and survive. So, too, were the Iraqis, who came here in the last five years, fleeing the very country that was thought so terrible we had to invade.

"Genuine" asylum-seekers are ghosts in the nation's collective imagination. When they materialise into real creatures, we recoil from them. Especially if they are very obviously Third World. Economic migrants from these parts are regarded as even more of a menace.

The Russian mafia is carrying on alarmingly in the streets of Britain, but they never seem to cause much panic. But some Kurdish felons are caught and our entire immigration and integration system comes in for feverish scrutiny. This is true in the rest of the EU too. When Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim fascist, all Muslims, then all migrants of colour, present and future, were blamed for the crime. But Pim Fortuyn was killed by a white animal rights activist. Did Holland then engage in a nervous national conversation about white extremism in Europe?

On Saturday at the British Museum, a little Irish girl, Melissa, and I queued for the toilet, growing desperate by the minute as the line was long and the day cold. Four cleaners — all young African women who obviously took great pride in their hair and looks — were cleaning away, trying their best not to get ruffled as the punters got irate and, at times, offensive in their mutterings. As if they were to blame for the lack of adequate facilities at the museum on this crowded afternoon.

A Welsh woman in front of us turned to me conspiratorially and said: "These people... who lets them in?" I retorted sharply that I was one of these people and that she should perhaps have the guts to ask the cleaners themselves who let them in and why they are here. Her response came back fast and furious, but directed to the people behind me now: "This is what happens when we end up a soft touch. What rudeness, we used to be such a polite country."

Another day, another slight, so common and widespread that most of us immigrants hardly notice the pain of such small, stinging rebuffs. How did this woman get so prejudiced that she can demean blameless people so casually? A Welshwoman, too, with her own history of rule and intimidation by the English.

These cleaners, African and Albanian traffic wardens, Asian and black staff serving the public at benefits offices and post offices, Arab small shopkeepers, they will all tell you how low-grade ethnic abuse is part of their interaction with this so-called "tolerant" country. I have to endure regular abuse now because I am seen as "successful" and, therefore, a thief who filched white aspirations and the jobs they could have had if I hadn't claimed them.

W H Auden, in 1939, agreed to marry Erika Mann, a German refugee, so she could come here. In his poem Refugee Blues, he wrote: "Once we had a country and we thought it fair,/Look in an atlas and you'll find it there:/We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

"In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,/Every spring it blossoms anew:/Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.

"Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said: 'If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread': He was talking of you and me my dear, he was talking of you and me."

[home] [archive] [focus]