Thursday, 28 July 2011

Honesty about Immigration

The other day I got involved in a conversation about immigration.  Two of our guests, both Brits, were expressing the view that immigration is out of control in the UK. Several other Brits that we know have expressed similar views, so why is there such a strong feeling about immigration in the UK?  Is there a real problem, or are we seeing the fruits of twenty-first century media campaigns, which are so significant in moulding opinion that even those having no direct contact with immigrants hold strong views on the subject?

I'm an immigrant myself. I live in France but I wasn't born French and I'll always be British. The local residents have never made me feel unwelcome and I've always been treated politely in spite of my less than perfect command of French.

In the UK we've seen waves of immigration over the centuries and generally, immigrants who have made the effort to uproot themselves, and relocate to the UK, have contributed to the economy and to society in a very positive way. Until the sixties they slowly integrated and moved on socially. Then came the doctrine of multi-culturalism under which it was felt that immigrants should be allowed to pursue their own cultures within British society.

In Islington we lived next to a Bangladeshi family who had four very polite daughters. They went to school in jeans and tee-shirts but wore traditional clothes when relatives came to visit at the weekend. The father of the household said to me once that he liked living there because there was no trouble, by which I understood he meant no racist conflict. They were the only Muslim family in the street.

the niquab
In the North of England Muslim immigrants have now established large areas where everyone dresses in their traditional costumes and some women wear the full, head to toe, black niqab of Wahhabi Muslims from the Middle East. In a motorway service station near Manchester, several years ago, I found myself in the shop surrounded by teenage girls all wearing the niqab, but they didn’t come from Saudi Arabia, they had local accents and were clearly second generation British Muslims. One can only assume that people like this, or their parents, don’t want to integrate into British society.

Immigration and National Identity is a difficult subject to discuss. Extreme right wing racists often hide their real views behind the words "controlling immigration". Others may well be expressing fears that their own culture is being overwhelmed or their concerns about the effect on jobs.  Anyone arguing for less immigration needs to be clear and honest about their own reasons.  In my view racism must be fought at all levels of society from the individual to the institutional.  Otherwise the consequences can be very grave as the history of the twentieth century and recent events in Norway have shown.  Even a tacit acceptance of racism is very dangerous because it’s a slippery slope towards the holocaust.  But it must be recognized that, when the proportion of immigrants having a different culture from that of the original inhabitants increases above a certain level, problems can arise.  The original inhabitants feel that their way of life is threatened and those that can afford to do so tend to move away.  They sell to immigrants and a ghetto is created.

To avoid immigration over-whelming local people, and the capacity to provide services, there needs to be a transparent and clearly understood method of fixing the number of immigrants and the criteria for their selection. Canada runs a points-based system, the USA has quotas for different categories of migrants and Australia selects by skills. The UK has recently introduced a blanket numeric cap for non-EU migrants which, at first was irrespective of skills, but now has been slightly modified following complaints by business interests.  This will, of course, have no effect on the many migrant workers from Eastern Europe who come and go freely and, in London at least, are to be found in most of the lower paid jobs as well as the traditional trades. Almost all of our relatives have employed them from time to time, and they do a good job for a lower price.

At present immigration policy is a national issue but, because it’s so easy to move from one EU country to another, there needs to be an EU wide policy on immigration.  No new immigration policy will, however, have any impact on the existing ghettos or the deep seated concerns of many Brits. These communities are already there, and they will continue to grow as a result of their higher birth rate.

David Cameron said in February 2011 that multi-culturalism has failed and he was criticised for it because he wrongly linked it to extremism.  After he made his speech several other European leaders expressed similar views about multi-culturalism  but, in this very sensitive area, there seems to be a lack of policy proposals.

the hijab
The pressure to conform in France is very strong. France has passed laws banning girls wearing headscarves in schools (the hijab), and banning women wearing the full length veil in a public place. In France this year the UMP, the party of Nicolas Sarkozy, in a series of speeches and propositions, has used the code words “Immigration” and “National Identity” as a shorthand way of saying, to part of the electorate, that we understand your racist views. The National Front, whilst not quite being overtly racist, is more direct and has always had policies concerning "Immigration" at the top of its list.  Both are vying for the associated votes.  France doesn’t believe in multi-culturalism and never has done, yet there are still effectively ghetto areas in some of the big cities and it is a serious social issue. 

When talking or writing about this subject my instincts are to deprecate people who are against immigration; because the next step from that position is so close to being xenophobic. On the other hand I can see the problems that the policy of multi-culturalism has lead to in the UK, and I can’t see any simple way forward. I hope, against the odds, that the renowned (and I trust deserved) British reputation for tolerance endures long enough for the passage of time to absorb and deal with these issues.

Meanwhile we need some effective political initiatives to promote integration and a less bigoted and inflammatory tabloid press


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