Cut out the foul language about migrants

We of all people should understand the dehumanising impact of how migrants are labelled


Detainees are seen wrapped in blankets inside the Manston short-term holding centre for migrants, near Ramsgate, south east England on November 3, 2022. - British immigration minister Robert Jenrick on Tuesday vowed "more radical" policies to counter illegal migration as record numbers make the treacherous crossing of the Channel in small boats. Jenrick accepted that conditions at the Manston migrant processing centre in Kent, southeast England, were "poor", and that people had been sleeping on the floor on mats. "The problem is that thousands of people are crossing the Channel illegally every day," he added. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

November 17, 2022 12:55

My family, like so many of ours, arrived in the UK in the 1890s from Eastern Europe. My worldview is shaped by the experiences of my forebears. The views I hold on immigration, integration and anti-racism have been forged not just by the strong value set with which I was raised, but also by the family tales and mythology about their experiences, when they arrived in the UK as refugees and immigrants. Some of the stories were funny, some were dark, some heartbreaking, but all of them had one theme — a new country, a new language and a new beginning.

My family story is far from unique. My family strived to succeed in their adopted country. They worked in multiple jobs. They joined the armed forces, they served and were wounded in both World Wars. They built businesses and employed others, volunteered, joined political parties, won — and lost — elections, and now one of us is joining the House of Lords as a life peer. This is an immigrant story. It’s a British story and reflects the values that so many of us hold dear. One of aspiration, graft, integration and giving back.

Which is why I am so disgusted by the language used to discuss the plight of migrants seeking a better life, the dehumanising rhetoric designed to sow the seeds of division and hate in our country — the impact of which we saw when a Dover immigration centre was firebombed last month.

Speaking in Parliament this month, the Home Secretary said: “The British people deserve to know which party is serious about stopping the invasion on our southern coast, and which party is not. Some 40,000 people have arrived on the south coast this year alone. For many of them, that was facilitated by criminal gangs; some of them are actual members of criminal gangs, so let us stop pretending that they are all refugees in distress.”

More than a century earlier, in 1904, then-Home Secretary Aretas Akers-Douglas shared his views on the same topic. “There is a certain class of undesirable aliens who are not so welcome, and whose repatriation is very desirable,” he said. “The number of aliens in this country, as shown by the census returns, has enormously increased in the last 20 years.
“Another point which I would ask the House very seriously to consider is that the class of aliens which we get here is not the class of aliens which at all makes the best citizens. It is the class excluded by the United States, and therefore it is fair to say that we only get the refuse.”

Other than the dated language and alternative scapegoats, you could be forgiven for thinking that these comments were in the same debate.

From Jews to Albanians, little has seemingly changed in the rhetoric used by Conservative governments when discussing immigration and asylum over the last 118 years. As a country and as a community we deserve so much better than this dog-whistle politics.

People are getting hurt and tensions are building; the rhetoric is having its desired effect. But what’s so damaging is the way in which the so-called “small boats crisis” is being used for political means that has nothing to do with the people concerned or the reality on the ground. The government is using this to create a scapegoat as a cynical effort to distract from their political and practical failures. It’s that simple.

What’s been shown through the government’s handling of the issue is that they’re not interested in a reasoned debate on immigration or asylum, or in practical steps to address an immigration system that’s fallen apart.

They’re interested only in sowing division for political ends, with solutions an irrelevance.
This “crisis” is about 12 years of a broken system that’s not fit for purpose. It’s about a failure to negotiate a border agreement with our closest geographical ally.

And it’s about the complete collapse of our Borders and Immigration Agency, resulting in people waiting years to have their status confirmed, all the while being housed in inhumane and unsafe circumstances. And that’s why we should all be offended. Many of our families are part of an immigrant story. We were those people that arrived on boats. We were those attacked by politicians in the House of Commons.

We were those aliens everyone was told to be worried about. We were the target of extremist far-right thugs. So we have a responsibility to stand up for those that follow in our footsteps to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

And as British citizens we also have the right to hold our government to account when they are attempting to scapegoat some of the most vulnerable people in society in an effort to distract from their own political failures.

Ruth Smeeth is a Labour peer and CEO of Index on Censorship

November 17, 2022 12:55

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