Wishing you an Anti-Racist New Year
Labour’s Deputy leader is hosting the LBC phone-in show. Discussing the English Channel “migrant crisis” (sic) his caller Andy explains that a “large portion of the country is in poverty” and that there should be “no more” before going on to suggest that if there were a boat load of children at peril at sea he would let them drown. In a slightly odd question Watson asks “How many?” “As many as it takes to stop them” comes the reply.
While the medium of the radio phone-in is a particular format, a well-honed version of audio click-bait, a gathering of ignorance, the exchange was still oddly shocking. Survey after survey shows that racism and racist abuse is on the increase after Brexit gave permission to a whole swathe of attitudes.
We have our own Scottish brand of bigotry and racism, and wider Britain has a grand tradition of xenophobia (as well as a proud tradition of freedom and anti-fascism). But in the latest descent into a fearful anti-migrant paranoia over a handful of people landing on the south coast seeking asylum, the British Government, through our Home Secretary Sajid Javid has plumbed new depths, mirroring the Trumpian Migrant Caravan fever and the Mexican Wall Frenzy.
It’s often claimed – though rarely sustained – that social attitudes are very different north and south of the border. What is different is our elected governments seem to be acting from a different set of moral values, around issues of asylum, migration and refugees, though the issue is clouded by lack of devolved powers. Dungavel remains.
Home-grown bigotry and racism isn’t new, but what does seem new is the boldness and the ferocity of the racist outpourings, like the potent irrationalism of Brexit and Trumpism have gone viral in a meme of grievance and blame culture.
In America the 116th Congress was sworn in, including Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, the first ever native American women to be elected. Liberal glee also highlighted that the new intake also included the first muslim women, and the first black congresswomen to represent Massachusetts and Connecticut. In Michigan Rashida Tlaib and in Minnestota Ilhan Omar became the first Palestinian-Americans to serve in Congress.
But if the system glows with token diversity the bigger picture isn’t so bright. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – the 29 year-old Puerto-Rican from the Bronx who became the youngest ever woman elected – was booed as she took her seat. Whilst the election of Halland and Davids is to be welcomed it comes in the context of Fox News announcing the declaration to run for President of the Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who has native American ancestry with the caption “Pocahontas 2020?”
Since the 1789 more than 10,000 people have served in the House and nearly 1,300 in the US Senate. None has been Native American, which is perhaps not surprising given the genocide that has been experienced.
Increased diversity doesn’t cover institutionalised structural racism on either see of the pond.
As the writer Yasmin Alibhai Brown has pointed out: “There aren’t many things more self-humiliating than a son of a migrant trying too hard to show he is a tough ‘patriot’ who will keep out desperate incomers. Michael Howard tried to too. And all to become leader of a fast rotting party.”
She missed out Michael Portillo.
But the point is well made. The Home Secretary’s response to a humanitarian crisis was to treat it as a military threat. His framing and language around the issue of families being at peril was hysterical. But in the context of this governments attitude and policies it was neither surprising or shocking. We become inured to state racism, in this case promulgated and supported by our state broadcaster.
Despite the red-top rage, the hate-filled phone-ins and the Cabinet sanctioned vitriol a few facts stand out. Since January 2014 the UK has resettled just 216 Syrian refugees through this system – a pitifully small proportion of the near 4 million Syrians in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. To put that into perspective, the Calais ‘jungle’ hosts around 3,000 people.
Amid the rhetoric and lies about asylum seekers its worth establishing a few facts. As Amnesty International tell us:
The UK is not disproportionately affected by the global refugee crisis, and neither is Europe. By the end of 2014, the global refugee population stood at 14.4 million people – if you discount the 5.1 million Palestinian refugees, who are generally left out of such figures because they are not within the remit of UNHCR, but rather a separate UN agency (the UN Relief and Works Agency). Countries like Turkey and Pakistan host more refugees than all EU countries combined. Except for Turkey, no European country appeared among the top ten hosts of refugees at the end of 2014. Ethiopia, Kenya, Chad and Uganda were all on that list. Within the EU, Sweden and Germany have consistently led the combined EU effort in receiving asylum claims and providing protection. France lags behind but for years has still received more than twice the number of asylum claims received by the UK. Now Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Hungary are among those far more affected than the UK.
The UK asylum system is no more generous than many others. Asylum-seekers in the UK can qualify for accommodation and financial support while waiting for their claims to be finally decided. This is the same in other EU countries. In the UK, the weekly allowance for a single adult asylum-seeker is £36.95 per week, lower than many other EU countries. The equivalent weekly rate in France, for example, is £58.50 (on an exchange rate of 73p to the euro).
Detention is used much more extensively in the UK’s asylum system than in other EU countries. Those countries also have time limits on how long a person may be detained under immigration powers, whereas the UK has no time limit.
The idea that Britain is a soft-touch is a myth.
British exceptionalism and grievance is rife. We’re not special and we’re not under threat from anyone. The only thing that truly makes us stand out is our levels of self-deception.
If there is failure here it is not just from the right-wing of the Conservative Party promoting long-held racist policies in the pursuit of populist power.
But there is failure from the left also. A failure to articulate the economic and cultural benefits of immigration, failure to articulate and defend the cultural benefits of internationalism and multiculturalism, and a failure to defend the human rights of EU nationals living in this country and of asylum seekers seeking refuge. None of this should have been too difficult to do. It needed – and needs – to be set against a political analysis that the failings and problems people seek in employment and housing are not down to immigration, and the answer isn’t to drown children in the English Channel.
Is that too much to ask?
If we should have one collective New Years Resolution it should be to resist the groundswell of racism that threatens to convulse us and push back against the propaganda that swirls around Brexitland. In 2019 we need to offer celebration of other cultures and solidarity in resistance.