The people behind the prejudice

As part of Red Pepper's special issue on migration, Guy Taylor tells some stories of migrants' real lives

December 16, 2012
8 min read

Montage: Louise Thomas

UK mainstream politics presents a gruesome prospect for would-be migrants. The driver of immigration policy is not human rights or economic concerns but the desperate need to please the anti-immigration lobby. The coalition government’s approach to immigration can be summed up thus: be tough, be seen to be tough.

Labour’s approach in the current climate is to have no specific policies but attack the government for not being tough enough. The Liberal Democrats have a policy of saying nothing about the laws and rules they are helping to implement under Cameron and Clegg.

This sorry state of affairs has effects on real lives.

Meet Everton. Everton is eight. He’s having a tough time at school at the moment. He comes from the Caribbean but is trying to get a visa to stay in the UK while his mum works here; she has permission to do so until the end of next year. He is distraught as his dad is in the UK’s armed forces, stationed abroad, and he desperately wants to stay with his mum for as long as she is working here. He doesn’t want to live with his elderly grandparents any more, and they are getting to the stage where they are unable to care for him properly.

The good news is that a judge of the first-tier tribunal has ruled that Everton can stay with his mum – for slightly more than a year. The bad news is that the Home Office is appealing against that decision. The expense of appeal, the work involved and the turmoil caused to this little boy has been deemed justifiable by the Home Office, all in the interests of keeping a schoolchild out of the UK for 13 months. The driver is the coalition’s promise to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands’.

Another person you should meet is Jemma. Jemma works in a well paid job (she pays a higher rate of tax) and has no financial issues. She wants her elderly father to join her in the UK as he has no other family at home in Australia. She is a British citizen. There’s no likelihood of her father being dependent on benefits if he were to come here; Jemma is even happy to sign a document declaring that she will provide for his every need.

But the new rules brought in by home secretary Theresa May in July insist that if Jemma’s father is capable of dressing himself, washing and cooking, he cannot come to the UK. If he has any other family in Australia he cannot come to the UK. If Jemma can pay for his care in Australia, he cannot come to the UK. In fact, Home Office staff have been unable to outline which, if any, circumstances would fulfil the criteria needed to get a visa for her dad.

Good and bad immigrants

Perhaps the most obvious measure to discourage people from coming to the UK is the attack on the ability of universities to recruit outside the EU, as in the case of London Metropolitan University (see page 22). In this dreadful example of the collective punishment of more than 2,500 students for what is essentially a disagreement between the UK Border Agency and the university administration, those students had their studies, their livelihoods and their prospects thrown into uncertainty.

There is now a clamour from the academic world to discount students and boarding school pupils from the immigration figures. This may seem tempting to the government as it struggles to meet its ‘tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands’ target, but it would also set up a divide between ‘good’ migrants (so good, in fact, that they’re no longer migrants) and others.

Least desirable of all are foreign-national prisoners. It is policy to consider any prisoner serving a term of 12 months or more for deportation after the sentence has been served. But a large number of such offenders were brought up and schooled in the UK and may have spent most of their lives here. How can it be right to doubly punish such people?

While ministers and tabloids like to focus on the spectacular and high profile cases, I’d like to introduce you to WM. WM came here at the age of one to join his father, a refugee, in London. He suffered abuse, got taken into care, and is very much a product of the UK care system. He has learning difficulties.

He’s 24 now. He got caught up in a robbery. Although he wasn’t the one holding the knife he got an 18-month spell inside. He’s now being considered for deportation to the Ivory Coast. He only speaks English and has no relatives or friends there, but Theresa May has a need to be seen to be tough. Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, has been saying to anyone who will listen that Labour used to deport more foreign national prisoners and that the current government should raise its game.

These stories, real stories of real lives, are not how the home secretary prefers people to think about immigration. For her it’s a matter of using extreme examples to justify extreme measures in what is primarily a numbers game.

Liberal dressing

Sometimes there is a liberal dressing for some of the measures. The English language requirement for spouses and civil partners, for example, brought in two years ago, is claimed to be in the interests of integration and as a measure against the isolation of, especially, women in family homes.

Ministers are keen to tell you what a low level of English is required to satisfy the requirement. But having had Skype conversations with one of the repeated failures, those with far more than a smattering of English are liable to flunk that test. The UK Border Agency insists that it only wants to test an applicant’s listening and speaking capabilities, but the majority of the tests it recognises to demonstrate these also test reading, writing and computer literacy. Two years after the introduction of the language requirement, it is astounding that the Home Office has not provided one standard test that people can take.

Meanwhile, the UKBA is getting tougher when it comes to raiding workplaces. Its newsfeed provides a constant stream of stories reporting the arrest of irregular migrants. In October six were arrested in Blackpool, nine in Brighton and Hove and two in Sittingbourne. Obviously numbers like these are going to make little difference to an estimated 700,000 irregular migrants currently in the UK, but the consequences for employers are getting more severe with larger fines being handed out to those who employ people without the right documentation. These measures will drive irregular migrants even further underground, into sex work and criminal activity as established employers refuse to employ them.

Human rights

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has long been a proponent of a human rights-based approach to policy making. When people are given the facts about the reality of immigration into the UK, and about the proportion of the population made up by migrants, fear and concern are significantly allayed. Such an awareness would provide the space to implement a rights-based approach whereby those coming to the UK would be recognised as real people with real lives and real rights, not a burden to be tolerated by the host population. The contribution of immigrants to the economic and cultural life of the UK is immense. But there are some that would have you believe the opposite is true.

Which brings me to introduce to you one more character. Mark is a government minister and an MP. He represents the Forest of Dean, not an area known for its large numbers of migrants. He got the job of immigration in the last reshuffle. He spins the truth like a seasoned Tory might be expected to: ‘We want to ensure that taxpayers aren’t footing the bill for immigrants who bring their families into the country.’ Mark, a man who lives a different world to the people we’ve met so far in this piece, might do with checking out what the words ‘no recourse to public funds’ actually mean. He might then discover the current reality of immigrants and their relationship to the welfare benefit system.

Guy Taylor is campaigns and communications officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

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