Valuing migrants

IssueJuly - August 2009
Feature by Andrea D'Cruz

On the face of it the past month has been headline horror for immigrants and asylum seekers in Britain and all those standing in solidarity with them: the continuing ordeal of Belfast’s Romanian families, forced to seek police protection from racist attacks, two seats in the European Parliament for the BNP, and the anti-migrant economic scaremongering, which appears to be one of the few things thriving in the current recession.

Scratch below surface, though, and you’ll find an abundance of action and information to counter the hate. In fact, the hate itself is often an expression of something else entirely.

Why vote BNP?

A June YouGov poll led Channel 4 to conclude that: “The BNP won its seats in the European parliament not because its supporters are all racist, but because many voters feel insecure and let down by the main parties.”

Only 19%of BNP voters are “confident that my family will have the opportunities to prosper in the years ahead”, a figure far lower than supporters of the other parties.

70% of BNP voters think that: “there is no real difference between Britain’s three main parties”; and 59% think that Labour “used to care about the concerns of people like me but doesn’t nowadays.” Given the results of the survey, Channel 4 would label only around half of BNP voters as “racist”. For instance, just 44% thought that black and Asian citizens are not just as British as white citizens.


Also rebuffing the BNP was the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), who rejected the use the party made of an RCM survey about NHS maternity services.

Another myth widely propagated by the BNP and co is that immigrants are a drain on the economy. Recently “a think tank” claimed that an amnesty on illegal immigrants in the UK would cost the economy £1 trillion “in handouts such as housing benefit, child benefits and pension credit after income tax and national insurance payments are deducted”. The “think tank” was, predictably enough, Migrationwatch.

But if you subtract the vested interests, and let the London School of Economics do the calculation, as they did mid-June, you find that an amnesty could add £3bn a year to the economy. In a similar vein, a report by the Ernst and Young Item Club of economic forecasters warned at the end of May that a drop in migrant workers would create skill shortages and slow down an economic recovery.

The idea of an amnesty is being pushed by London Mayor Boris Johnson and by the Strangers into Citizens campaign group, who held a pro-amnesty march in London in May. It’s misconceptions such as those surrounding the economic impact of migration that feed anti-immigrant and asylum-seeker sentiment.

A Refugee Week Red Cross survey identified massive gaps between Britons’ perceptions of asylum and the reality. Almost a quarter believe there are over 100,000 asylum applications annually, a figure that is four times larger than the reality. A Red Cross spokesperson added that: “when people are asked to describe refugees and base their opinions on people they know or have met then you find many more positive associations.” 92% of those questioned attached positive attributes to refugees.

Acts of kindness

Other rays of hope have shone through during this year’s Refugee Week (15-21 June). A coalition of charities enlisted comedians, politicians, authors and television personalities to initiate the “Simple Acts” campaign to welcome refugees to the UK. Acts include inviting a refugee for tea, cooking a dish from another country and joining a campaign about refugees.

Other migration-positive works have extended to acts of civil disobedience. In May, six Stop Deportation activists blockaded the Colnbrook detention centre for over four hours, after which coaches carrying the 45 deportees left for an airport. All the activists were arrested for highway obstruction.

In June, protesters occupied the director’s office at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies after an immigration raid that placed nine SOAS cleaners in detention centres to be deported.

The end of the 48-hour occupation saw SOAS agreeing to write to the Home Secretary “within 12 hours of the end of the protest, requesting that he grants exceptional leave to remain in the UK to those cleaners who are still being detained.”

Topics: Refugees