The hostile atmosphere toward immigrants, whipped up by the Conservative government in the run up to, and since, the Brexit vote, seems to worsen on a daily basis. Stories about the mistreatment, detention and abuse of migrant communities are constantly emerging.
When the Windrush scandal first broke last year, the callous disregard by the British government towards black British citizens was laid bare for all to see.
British citizens from the Caribbean, who first migrated to the UK in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, known as the Windrush generation, were being deported by the UK government despite their citizenship status, or were not permitted to re-enter the UK to return to their homes, having travelled to the Caribbean.
A toxic mix of an inept and incompetent government, combined with racist Home Office policies, pioneered and allowed to fester under prime minister Theresa May, led to the heartbreaking and infuriating situation with Windrush.
Families were being torn apart, and lives were being ruined forever. Some of those deported, often with no family or support network, died following the trauma they experienced.
As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, this week the government poured salt into the still open wound. Before the inquiry into the Windrush scandal had been completed, and with victims still waiting to be compensated, the government began a fresh round of forced deportations to Jamaica, the first since last year when the story first emerged.
The government temporarily halted the deportations following the initial outcry, but has seemingly decided that enough time has passed since the scandal to carry on abusing Britain’s Caribbean communities. The brazen disregard for their livelihood, even by this government, is breathtaking. It’s hard not to interpret the move as a deliberate and calculated snub to anyone not deemed British enough to stay here.
What is critical at this stage of the national discussion, is that we do not fall into the “good migrant, bad migrant” trap. We see this kind of thinking during Brexit debates: the idea that somehow only migrants with skills or who are viewed as a “resource” should be allowed to live in the UK is pushed routinely.
“British jobs for British workers” is another dangerous mantra, which we have also sadly seen repeated among sections of the left, as well as the traditional revisionist right, in order to gain votes. Judging by this week’s events, it appears Britain has capitulated to right-wing populism, rather than opposed it.
Some have argued that the 50 or so Jamaican nationals who were due to be deported on Wednesday deserved their fate due to having committed crimes. “Bad migrants”. Such critics point to some of the more serious crimes to justify the government’s action.
But the majority of those facing deportation to Jamaica were being punished for committing lesser offences. All had already completed and served custodial sentences in the UK. Many had British children and British families.
There has been no serious review of the cases, no adequate chance of appeal. Black people being chained up by agents of the UK government, forcibly imprisoned and deported without any chance of justice and without being heard, is a disturbing reality. And it is an all too familiar hallmark of racist colonialism.
The backdrop to all of this, is a pernicious nostalgia for empire which has been building in Britain, and this isn’t happening in a vacuum. Immigrant communities up and down the country are suffering from a vile wave of racism that has been unleashed. The Windrush scandal is just one of many examples of racist government policies implemented from the top-down – but mirroring and taking their cue from the surge in right-wing populism. We call it right-wing extremism in the streets, but what do we call it when it comes from the state?
It’s already open season on immigrant communities or anyone perceived to be one. Muslims, Eastern European migrants, those with foreign accents, and British born Caribbean citizens are all fair game. And of course, Britain itself is not vacuum either, the problem is spreading throughout Europe and around the world.
But if Britain takes the giant lurch toward political isolationism and nativism at the end of March, and takes the inevitable economic freefall that follows, the problems we currently face will be magnified tenfold.
Immigrant communities desperately need representation and a voice. Brexit, a campaign driven by anti-immigrant sentiment, has been opportunistically embraced by factions of both the left and the right. David Cameron called the referendum. But Labour voted to trigger Article 50 the day after the referendum, with some in the leadership clinging to a “Bennite” commitment to leaving the EU, despite the immediate impact it’s having on immigrant communities and the fact that the majority of the Labour membership voted Remain.
Many people feel betrayed as a result.
There has been no “Lexit”. Only left wing politicians echoing the right. Immigrant communities have been left hung out to dry while the political classes wrangle and battle over Britain’s political soul.
Whether Brexit happens or not, the current atmopshere shows that the lid is now off pandora’s box. If Brexit doesn’t happen, God only knows what kind of right-wing nationalism powder-keg will explode in the streets, and who and what kind of project will enter 10 Downing Street.
If we thought the racism of past decades was bad, it will be nothing compared to the situation we are heading towards.
I wrote last year that my grandfather, who was part of the Windrush generation, would be shocked at the treatment of migrants. I think today, he would be utterly horrified to see an even worse situation having developed, and to see where we are heading as a country.
Vulnerable communities, targeted and failed by a great swathe of the political classes, have been forced to rely on each other, work together urgently to develop political and economic mechanisms in order to defend themselves.
Strength in numbers, unity and organisation might be the only pushback against social and political forces that could take an even further swing to the right very quickly.
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