On April 28, 2021, Zrinka Bralo, Migrants Organise CEO, took part in the Symposium on Language and Migration: Experience and Memory, organised by Princeton University. This is her presentation for the Migrants and the State session which can also be seen online here together with contributions from other panelists.
The size of the foreign-born population in the UK increased from about 5.3 million in 2004 to almost 9.5 million in 2019 or 14% of the total population. The number of undocumented immigrants in the UK is estimated to be between 800,000 and 1.2 million.
Up until 24th March this year, the official name of the immigration policies and measures was the Hostile Environment policy. It was launched just after the infamous Go Home vans drove around London in the summer of 2013 telling people to self-deport.
The use of xenophobic language in the UK media and political discourse is nothing new, but it has steadily increased over the past 20 years, resulting in a systematic dehumanisation and demonisation of immigrants.
The metaphors have moved from natural disaster (floods and waves) to parasitic invasion (cockroaches, scroungers, leeches), and seem to have settled on the figure of “the illegal” – a dangerous criminal lurking in the shadows.
This anti-immigration rhetoric contributed to the Leave Vote in the national Brexit referendum. It is also behind an alarming increase in racially motivated attacks and has culminated in the systematic, structural campaign of violence towards immigrants by the British government, better known as the Hostile Environment Immigration Policy.
An example of such violence is the requirement for all public service providers to conduct immigration checks, including the National Health Service (NHS).
Healthcare is no longer free for many immigrants and health workers are obliged to share the data they collect with immigration enforcement.
Although the government claims this policy is aimed at undocumented (or, as they call them, “illegal”) immigrants, the implementation of the policy seems to consist of picking on people who look and sound “a bit foreign”. This racial profiling is now part of migrants’ everyday experience in hospitals, schools, social welfare services, banks, and workplaces. For example, you can’t rent a property without first producing your passport.
There was a brief moment early in the pandemic when it transpired that the majority of frontline staff in the health and care sectors were migrant workers.
Before the pandemic, they were known as low-skilled migrants, and as a result of the crisis, they became the “key” or “essential” workers, celebrated for their service and sacrifice.
However, this brief rapture was soon erased by attacks on newly arrived people seeking asylum, who started making perilous boat journeys across the English Channel.
Accompanying media coverage fused all negative frames into a complete disregard for journalistic standards as they did a live piece to camera on boats with refugees behind them.
Evidence of extremely biased, xenophobic, and racist media coverage in the UK is available from reputable institutions such as the Oxford Migration Observatory, Cardiff University School of Journalism, and European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)
Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at City University and a Guardian columnist, argues that even a bit of good news, such as the recent downplaying of immigration in newspapers, is not really good news, because the damage is done.
What happens online and on social media is extremely worrying. Far-right groups thrive on all platforms. The silencing effect this has on progressive voices is chilling, as these groups are known for their intimidation and physical violence.
Of course, it would be too simplistic to pin the blame for the xenophobia, racist attacks, and institutional violence solely on the British media. The UK press is privately owned and driven by profit and just one ingredient of a toxic mix that contributes to the system of values and attitudes, deeply rooted in an exploitative, brutal, and unresolved colonial past.
Xenophobia and racism are activated easily in the public discourse, normalised and channelled into policies, because they are always there, waiting to be resuscitated – and the oxygen in this metaphor is the fear.
The fear is continuously stoked through the scarcity discourse of a small island with limited resources, that ‘naturally’ needs to control population numbers and control its borders, invoking protectionism and nationalism.
The demonisation of immigrants has now been extended to those helping them access their rights. In addition to the traffickers and the do-gooders, we now have the “activist layers frustrating the system”.
From this, a system failure narrative emerged, which again ‘legitimately’ needs to be fixed for the benefit of ‘legitimate’ citizens. Everyone who is opposing these ‘legitimate’ and ‘natural’ desires, becomes the enemy – labelled as the lefty, woke radicals, politically correct brigade, and ultimately traitors.
The prime example of this is the New Plan for Immigration launched on 24th Mach, although it is essentially Hostile Environment 2.0 words ‘hostile’ and ‘environment’ are not once mentioned in the New Plan.
Another interesting thing to note in this speech is how easily the Government ministers get away with claims about the broken system, which they are promising to fix, and how that goes unchallenged even though this government has been in charge of that system for 11 years. Concepts such as freedom and fairness have also been misappropriated into the right-wing discourse by often characterising their approach as fair, but firm
The hostile environment policy combined with anti-terrorism legislation has led to the law which allows the government to deprive people of citizenship even in cases where they have no dual citizenship. From a narrative perspective, it is interesting to note the use of “the public good” justification for such a drastic undermining of the rule of law. Even though a high percentage of anti-terrorism convictions relate to far-right white supremacists, islamophobia is so widespread that, in the public imagination, terrorism is only ever linked to Muslims, who are by definition “a bit foreign”. There is no known case of a white supremacists being stripped of their citizenship on the grounds of the public good.
The question is what can be done to change the hostile narrative, attitudes, policies, and systems?
We have now reached the stage where anti-immigrant sentiment is presented as a legitimate “feeling that needs to be addressed”.
Despite it being a feeling, based on lies, dismantled by credible research, politicians of all political persuasions respond by reinforcing or rewarding this feeling of fear with tougher immigration controls.
Embattled immigrant advocates and campaigners respond with facts and stories of contribution by ‘good immigrants’ or victims in need of protection and thus perpetuate dominant narratives.
All these approaches fail to deal with the complex interplay of powers that shape our lives for which immigration debate provides a useful smokescreen, and distracts from real structural and systemic causes of inequality, poverty, global climate crisis, and now pandemic – namely disaster capitalism.
We will never be good enough or victim enough. That is why we need to be thinking, speaking, and acting differently, not only about immigration but our society and our future.
Instead of responding to government and media narratives about immigration and its place in our society, as George Lakoff suggested in Don’t Think of an Elephant, we need to reframe the entire public discourse. We need to change what counts as common sense and that is a rather tall order.
At Migrants Organise, we opted for a deep community organising strategy of building power with people who are subject to immigration controls. The key tool of organising is relational storytelling and radical listening.
The first thing that we needed to do is to start thinking differently about ourselves and our power, articulate and share analysis of the problem and come up with solutions, based on different ideas and values. This is not an easy task. People who have endured decades of exclusion and discrimination, cannot easily reclaim their power, and articulate new values, new language and bring about social change. We have no money, no media outlets, no think tanks, no political representation. The only thing we have going for us is that we have no choice but to fight back.
We started by reclaiming fairness and recentring it on dignity and justice, away from the fair and firm/ . We are also redefining how we work together in solidarity – how we overcome fragmentation and build trust. We use the language of lifting each other up and sharing platforms.
We know that deeply held negative attitudes will not be changed overnight. And certainly not by another petition, manifesto, or Twitter storm, which has become a default position of advocacy and activism, despite producing hardly any results.
Hashtags and social media reach are important, but we need to do some thinking, planning, and articulating first.
The pandemic exposed the depth of inequalities and corruption unlike any other catastrophe in modern time. We have a rare opportunity to build on community solidarity that has emerged through mutual aid groups locally and brought into sharp focus the importance of place, community and action.
“The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
We need to start remaking our world by telling a different story. Our story. If we can regain our confidence and articulate our values, we can reclaim our power to influence how our future turns out.