A member of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group discusses the way that politicians and sections of the media have distorted issues around asylum and immigration.
As we start to analyse the results of the 2010 election, we may be witnessing a reversal in the fortunes of the far-Right BNP in England. Its leader Nick Griffin actually polled nearly 2 per cent less in Barking than the BNP did at the last general election and the BNP did not win council seats in its key areas including Stoke. In Barnsley, South Yorkshire, their main target, they polled half the percentage share of the vote compared with last year’s Euro-elections. The main problem is that this welcome electoral setback for the BNP may have been bought at the expense of its politics on immigration and asylum being adopted by the Conservative and Labour parties within a general ‘common sense’ racist political culture driven by media images and messages.
The election has been a depressing one for asylum and migration rights campaigners. The central feature has been the way in which common sense racism has been relied on and strengthened by the media and most politicians assuming and claiming that ‘everyone’ agrees that Britain is ‘full up’; immigration has to be reduced; asylum seekers should be treated as paupers, and criminalised if they dare to work; ‘illegals’ have to be deported; robust methods have to be taken against ‘illegals’; detention is necessary to deter others.
The ‘red top’ press had prepared the ground with a New Year spate of headlines on ‘illegals’ and, in March, a government ‘pilot’ scheme started around ‘deporting’ homeless migrant workers from Peterborough – which generated a revival of the vicious ‘racist urban myths’ which first surfaced some years ago when ‘Kosovans’ were the particular hate figures for the media. On 24 March the Daily Express had a front page headline on Peterborough: MIGRANTS CONDEMNED FOR EATING SWANS: ‘An investigation has been launched by animal welfare officers after the discovery of swan carcasses … Gangs of hungry immigrants were condemned by anglers yesterday for the “rape and pillage” of a city’s river as they prey on fish and swans for food.’
Immigrants, criminals and illegals
The central political messages in the election campaign were around the ‘threat’ immigration posed to the lawful British way of life. The Labour Party had a major section of its election manifesto simply entitled ‘Crime and Immigration’. As the Migrant Rights Network put it:’The immediate impression is how closely the Labour Party manifesto conflates immigration with enforcement, control and punishment, in the ‘Crime and Immigration’ chapter. Here, economic immigration policy is lumped in with proposals on policing and counter-terrorism measures.’
Even Nick Clegg, who alone argued for a ten-year amnesty and asylum Seekers’ right to work, and an end to detaining children, managed to present the amnesty as a way of saving ‘illegal immigrants’ from the hands of organised crime.
The very language of the media and politicians emphasised the term ‘illegals’. This chilling term seems to have replaced ‘bogus asylum seeker’. With its Hitlerite tone it assumes that people themselves can now be treated as illegal – not our previous assumption that it was the acts people commit that are illegal. This means that they have no rights and can be treated as the state decides. There seems to be little concern that this is now the preferred label for the ‘outsider’, the refugee. We have to remember there is no ‘legal’ way that asylum seekers can come to the UK to register an asylum claim.
When the Sun revealed on 1 May that ‘Blears campaign worker is an illegal’ the former minister sacked the young Nigerian ‘failed asylum seeker’ and ‘single mum’ Rhoda who had volunteered for the campaign work ‘in the hope that it might help her case’. Hazel Blears then said that she had contacted the UK Border Agency about Rhoda to make sure she was deported, and was trying to get her address to pass on to the authorities.
A small minority of journalists contested the myths. Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer of 18 April pointed out to Cameron, an Oxfordshire MP, that the NHS he so valued was staffed in Oxford by seventy different nationalities and ‘8% of NHS workers in the southeast are not just immigrants, they’re illegal immigrants’.
Lies, damned lies …
The media campaign on immigration was launched by the BBC in its Panorama programme of Monday 19 April asking the rhetorical question ‘Is Britain Full?’ then setting out the ‘threat’ of a population in Britain of 70 million in the future. The programme took as read, and stated as fact, that the ‘biggest driver’ of this population threat was immigration. England (not Britain, where Scottish population is actually falling) emerged as the most ‘overcrowded’ country in Europe. The fact that this old fashioned ‘Malthusian’ argument against immigration has been raised at various times since the middle of the nineteenth century was ignored. Phil Woolas actually argued that government policy could ensure Canute-like that population would not reach the magic 70 million. These fantasy figures and responses had their origins in the partisan Migration Watch and its ‘spin’ on official ‘projections’ of population growth. During the campaign, Migration Watch became an ‘established think tank’ quoted by politicians. The New York Times described it as ‘an influential immigration-monitoring group, which sees the issue as having moved beyond race, “It’s about numbers and space, not about race”, said Sir Andrew Green, a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who leads the Group.'
The second and most effective of the statistical lies emerged in headlines in the press at the very start of the election campaign. Both the Express (8 April) and the Daily Mail headlined a story invented by Tory spokesman Damien Green and the Spectator magazine that 92 per cent of new jobs in Britain since 1997 had been taken by ‘foreigners’. Crucially, John Humphrys interviewing Gordon Brown on the BBC radio Today programme, decided to introduce the figures into the debate as ‘facts’ about Brown’s failure to deliver ‘British jobs for British workers’. The truth was very different: two figures, growth in jobs and growth in foreign workers, had been falsely run together – a correlation rather than causation as statisticians would put it, using figures over time which vary year by year and are not captured by a figure over thirteen years. Looking at the figures produced by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), in fact 50.3 per cent of new jobs since 1997 have been taken by British nationals (around 1.38 million).The percentage of actual employment for British nationals remained constant throughout at 73 per cent. The statistics could actually be ‘spun’ to produce figures suggesting that of the 1.67 million new jobs created 1.4 million went to ‘British’ workers. But the ‘big lie’ had done its work – and the BBC researchers and editors had simply gone along with it.
The third ‘big lie’ in statistical terms was the central argument about amnesties, the numbers of ‘illegals’ and the number of ‘immigrants’ threatening the British way of life. Nick Clegg and his advisers came up with a poorly researched figure of possibly 600,000 ‘illegals’ benefiting from an amnesty. This allowed the Tory press and Cameron to claim that this meant 1.2 million extra potential citizens (refugees with citizenship can ‘bring in’ relatives). The Express and Migration Watch pitched in with a ‘guesstimate’ of over 1 million. The paper managed on 26 April to add to the ‘threat’ with a story ‘Gypsies: Britain here we come’ about Hungarian Gypsies allegedly fleeing the extreme-Right Jobbik party now in the parliament there.
The facts of course were very different. It is impossible to know how many undocumented migrants there are in the UK. Boris Johnson has called for an amnesty for those here for five years based on research from the LSE which came up with a figure of around 863,000 ‘irregular residents’ in total, not those potentially eligible for ten- or five-year amnesties.
So far as the general statistics on ‘immigration’, debates raged around the fact that David Cameron was pushing for a ‘cap’ on non-EU migration and Gordon Brown was selling the effectiveness of the Australian points system. Again there was a welter of statistics which neither the BBC ‘Reality Check’ nor Channel 4’s ‘FactCheck’ attempted to clarify and interrogate effectively. We had to wait for the BBC to come out with a ‘Reality Check’ on BBC2 Newsnight on the Friday before the poll (30 April) around 11pm which would have been very damaging to David Cameron’s case in particular. It was revealed that the ONS figures for 2008 did confirm that many more EU citizens did arrive than non-EU workers, a net inflow of 46,000 (99,000 arrived, 53,000 left). But crucially the figures also showed a minus 8,000 net flow for non-EU workers (67,000 arrived, 75,000 left). As Newsnight suggested what sort of a ‘cap’ can one put on -8,000? The BBC could have released these figures much earlier in the assessments of the leaders’ debates, but perhaps that would have damaged Cameron!
Amnesties, back-log clearances … what’s in a name?
Only Alan Travis in the Guardian on 23 and 30 April was willing to provide the context for the debate over Nick Clegg’s amnesty proposals looking at Conservative and Labour actual practice on ‘amnesty’.
‘Both parties have overseen at least four back-door amnesties over the last 20 years and presided over an immigration system that operates a 14 year rule allowing long-term illegal residents to be granted indefinite leave to remain … the existence of the 14-year rule has seen 2,000 to 3,000 individuals being given the right to stay. The court of appeal recently upheld the legality of this “statute of limitations” calling it “in effect an amnesty clause. The rule was only formalised in 2003, but its existence as an informal concession dates from the 1980s.’ (23 April)
- Michael Howard began a rapid increase in the number of asylum seekers granted exceptional leave to remain, from 2,000 in 1991 to 14,000 in 1993. In 1996, in a separate backlog-clearance exercise, he allowed thousands more overseas students and marriage applicants to stay ‘unless there was substantial cause for doubt’.
- In 1998, Jack Straw insisted that there was no question of amnesty but he allowed 30,000 failed asylum seekers to stay in Britain simply on the basis that they had faced lengthy delays.
- In 2003, when David Blunkett was home secretary, 15,000 families of asylum seekers who had waited more than three years for a decision were allowed to stay as a ‘one-off’ exercise. (23 April)
As Travis points out ‘… the problem of such a large population living illegally in Britain will not go away. But unfortunately one by-product of the 2010 general election campaign appears to be that the means to do something about it has been lost.’ (30 April)
This survey has concentrated on monitoring the BBC output but it almost invited scrutiny because it boasted on the website that its election output was about ‘Making Things Clear’. In fact editorial decisions and research and briefings for interviewers like John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman seemed to follow a rather unpleasant pattern of feeding the racist climate on ‘immigration’ issues. Paxman, in one of his last interviews (with Caroline Lucas of the Greens on 1 May), actually cut across her points where she was backing a more humane and principled asylum policy by simply saying ‘That’s asylum, I asked you about immigration, and asylum has nothing to do with that.’ Thus the BBC was clear what the ‘immigration’ debate was about – it was fuelling it. On the very last morning of the campaign the Today programme featured Kevin Connolly who has been visiting various constituencies over the campaign. On this very last day editors sent him to Peterborough where he reported from a Second World War themed pub with Dad’s Army playing on the telly. He reported local people talking of homeless migrant workers ‘killing swans and building shanty towns in local woods’. He interviewed a woman who resented having only a small English section in her local Polish-owned shop, and a Polish migrant who had opened a restaurant. He finished with an amazing throw away line watching Dad’s Army in the pub. He said that, with all their faults, the Home Guard, faced with the challenges from Europe, knew then, unlike now, how to deal with ‘them’. They ‘were all agreed on how to handle them’. The BNP has Churchill on its election material – perhaps Kevin Connolly and his researchers had been inspired by this for his report.
As a finale the same Today programme had Alan Johnson attacking Nick Clegg’s proposal to allow asylum seekers to work as ‘utter, utter madness’ – perhaps forgetting that the national TUC and all major unions back the slogan ‘Let them work’ in the national ‘Right to Work’ for asylum seekers campaign which has been running for the past year. The ‘common sense racism’ theme which the media, the BBC and most politicians have sustained is a climate in which some of the BNP slogans begin to look mainstream. Bringing the campaign full circle Nick Griffin, in a late interview in Romford, stated bluntly, ‘What we’re saying is, “Britain is full up. The door is closed”.’ Yes, just like that first Panorama programme on the BBC said at the beginning of the campaign.
Campaigning against ‘common sense’
The election reminds us of the reality of serious campaigning and what we are up against. All the evidence suggests that mobilising at the local level the broadest coalitions with asylum seekers, refugee organisations, trade unions, political organisations, religious and voluntary and community organisations can begin to challenge racist ‘common sense’ attitudes to asylum rights and migration.
Strategies have to counter myths and racist assumptions and attitudes. There is a new urgency after the election to establish amongst the negotiations and coalition-building the rights of asylum seekers and migrants and perhaps some real principles of human rights and justice.
Read an IRR News story: ‘Revival of the numbers game?’