Why we need a movement to counter xenophobia

A rising level of anti-immigrant rhetoric will make life difficult for many

Misinformation, outright lies, and twisted statistics – these have been the characteristics of Britain’s immigration debate in recent years, distorting understandable fears about overstretched public services.

Since the coalition government adopted its immigration cap, voices of reason on the issue have struggled to be heard, so I was really pleased to be speaking last night in support of a new campaign, The Movement Against Xenophobia, coordinated by the Joint Council on the Welfare of Immigrants.

The opposition, what we might call the “Pro-Xenophobia” camp, falls into two groups. The first is the rightwing media, determined to focus on immigration and foreigners as a cause of Britain’s problems. The second is the government, and far too many other politicians, who seem determined to legitimate the claims of Ukip by adopting policies that they think will appeal to likely Ukip voters.

You might even think these two groups were trying to divert attention from the real causes of our economic problems – the banks that caused the financial crash, the companies that continue to collect high profits while paying low wages to staff in insecure jobs, the failure of rich and multinational companies to pay their taxes.

As we heard last night, the government is trying to rush through parliament a new Immigration Bill, which John McDonnell described as “the most racist piece of legislation we’ve seen in 40 years”.

The measures the government is choosing will have widespread negative effects on legal immigrants and British citizens, as well as those whose status is less clear. There’s already evidence of racism in the letting of housing. Yet now, private landlords will be required to ensure that “illegal immigrants” are not given access to their properties. How many will just exclude anyone they think might be an immigrant?

Then there’s the pressure on doctors’ surgeries to check the immigration status of patients. Where does the patient in need of treatment go who’s legal but doesn’t have the papers?  Where are the NHS resources to deal with the paperwork?

One speaker last night asked what actions the Movement Against Xenophobia should take. One intention was clear last night – there will be an action at parliament next Tuesday when the Bill is scheduled for its second reading.

I suggested two further steps in the continuing campaign. One is to systematically debunk the many misrepresentations of those encouraging the demonization of immigrants. It won’t be hard.

Take this unexceptional example: This week's Sunday Telegraph led with an article: “True scale of European immigration: An EU study has found 600,000 unemployed migrants are living in Britain”.

Investigate and you’ll discover that the “unemployed” are those classified as “non [economically] active”, which includes pensioners, non-employed spouses and partners, university students and children aged over 15.  The actual unemployed figure is 10 per cent of the Telegraph’s claim.

The second long-term step I suggested was to make sure we talked about immigrants as people – individuals with individual human lives and concerns. We need to tell their stories.

There are the refugees trapped with “failed asylum claims”, who live homeless and destitute for years, before an appeal finally finds that Britain is indeed obliged to recognise their right to refuge. There are the at least 18,000 Britons (on the government’s own figures), who can’t live with their spouse or partner in their own country, due to rules that a high court judge described as “onerous” and “unjustified". And there are the grandparents who, due to the introduction of £3,000 visa bonds, will never be able to spend time with their grandchildren.

Yet overall, the biggest impact of this toxic slew of misinformation will be on individuals going about their daily lives – most of them individuals here entirely legally, as immigrants, as citizens. Finding a home, getting medical treatment, or finding a job – all will be harder for anyone who is, or might be, an immigrant.

We need to challenge government policy, challenge anti-immigrant rhetoric and misleading statistics. And that’s what the Movement Against Xenophobia will be doing.