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Migrant-bashing as a PR stunt

August 14 2013





The UKBA “racist vans” have caused a great deal of unrest through their racially profiled spot checks. What were the real causes and aims of this grubby campaign?

I would agree with anyone who argued that we cannot discuss migration without taking into consideration the historical reasons behind migratory movements. I would also agree with anybody who argued that it is not possible to fully gauge the present state of migration, in this or that other place, without taking into consideration the impact of colonialism and decolonisation in these processes. These are valid points, and any attempt at addressing the issue of migration would be incomplete if these perspectives – and others – were absent from the discussion. Yet, I would argue, you do not need to be a “no borders” campaigner to realise there is something utterly unethical about the way the Conservative Party, through its instruments of power, has used the issue of immigration for political purposes in recent times. The deeper debate about immigration can be set aside at this moment, there are more urgent things to address right now; and highlighting those may well move the argument beyond the familiar political rhetoric of “illegal immigration” and allow – in time – for a better, fuller debate about migration as a whole.

Few political issues are more complicated, more ideological, and yet so open to empty speculation than immigration in the UK, speculation that seems to enrich or imperil the electoral fortunes of many a political party. The problem is the lack of serious, hard evidence, about the numbers used to quantify this phenomenon; the very nature of immigration makes it a hard thing to pin down: human beings have a penchant for moving, in and out, for returning, for leaving again, for refusing to participate in statistical exercises. In relation to this, the Home Office has come under fire in recent weeks when it transpired that the only official immigration statistics that we posses are based on random interviews of a limited amount of travellers. In other words, there is no official record of how many people leave and how many enter the UK – aside from these random interviews of a very reduced number of individuals – creating a poor statistical sample about such a complex matter as migratory movements. This absence of clarity perhaps allows for a cooking of the statistical books, defrauding us all of any rational debate, even within the government’s own parameters.

The Home Office’s defence regarding this accusation has been claiming that “net migration is at its lowest level for a decade and the numbers have been steadily falling quarter by quarter”. This statement, once more taken from a limited data set, seems to contradict the need for the extra impetus with which the Home Office has pursued a war on “illegal” immigration. In other words, if net migration is at its lowest for over a decade, we could assume “illegal” immigration to also be in decline. So-called think tanks like Migration Watch UK would disagree with this perspective, of course. They may quote studies carried out by LSE, but by their own admission they too work with estimates. Moreover, the section on Migration Watch’s website dedicated to “illegal” immigration has not been updated since April 2010, an inattention to the issue on their part that hardly suggests ever increasing numbers flocking to the UK. The game of speculation then is open, well, to speculation. The argument can be pushed in any direction one wants to push the argument.  “Immigration”, “illegal immigration”, and its variations are thus empty signifiers waiting to be invested with meaning.

I will argue that we need to step out of the realm of assumptions. We cannot base our conjectures on the limited data provided by the Home Office (which they manipulate at will), or the pseudo-scientific and musty data provided by Migration Watch. The reasons behind the Conservative Party’s war on immigration has no basis in reality because it is not an attempt at dealing with the reality of migration to and from the UK. What we have witnessed in the past months, and with more intensity during the past weeks is one of the most unashamedly sophistic PR operations carried out in recent times. A PR operation that has no other purpose but regaining voters lost to UKIP (many of these previously angered by Labour’s perceived lax stance vis-à-vis immigration). Sophistry, of course, does not require a basis in reality: it is a rhetorical tactic and one which politicians excel at.

The tendency to use immigrants as political pawns is hardly new. Recently it has taken the shape of a so-called “getting tough on immigration” policy. This toughening can be seen in new rules for family visasthe increase in deportations of failed asylum seekers, and the proposals for immigrants to pay for non-emergency health care (forcing doctors and nurses to become migration officers in the process). The past week’s stunt of rolling out the so-called “racist van” and the potentially illegal UKBA street checks are just two more publicity-grabbing initiatives as part of this policy.

The wording chosen for the vans, “go home”, can surely be recognised by anyone who has ever heard a racist slur. “Go home”, is a frequent utterance, one of the favourite xenophobic or racist insults. I’ve heard it; many more reading this will have been subject to it; and this taunt will continue to be heard if anti-immigration sentiment continues to grow. Last week we had the pleasure of seeing it emblazoned on the side of vans the Home Office kindly put on the streets. I have elsewhere provided a list of reasons why this excuse is so hard to believe, and why the vans were a gift not so much to “illegal” immigrants, but also lost voters. Without going into the same arguments here, the timing of these stunts will surely not escape the reader: we are entering into that time of the year when parties need to be seen to be doing. What better for this than an outdoor advertisement campaign?

If the “Racist van” caused uproar amongst Guardian readers and other well wishers, what came next would be much worse; and it would surprise few of us living on the “suspicious” side of the population. In contravention of their own “Enforcement Instructions and Guidelines” the UKBA went out on fishing expeditions, looking for what would be later called “immigrant offenders”. These guidelines clearly state that the UKBA cannot stop people without a reasonable suspicion that the person stopped might be an “illegal” alien; and that the work of the UKBA must be based on intelligence, not premonition. How being at a certain tube station during London’s rush hour can be construed as providing a reasonable suspicion is hard to comprehend; it sounds more like the work of immigration specialist mediums. The concept that the UKBA might have incurred in the unlawful racial profiling of individuals during these checks would be hard to guess for anyone that has not been racially profiled before, by the UKBA, the Metropolitan Police, or any other power that be. How can it be credible to think these spot checks are anything but discriminatory? In the mind of a Border Authority officer what does an “immigrant offender” look like? How is an “immigrant offender” different from a “law abiding citizen”? What “intelligence” did the Home Office have to run checks at certain spots and not others? How many people did they stop in order to get hold of the X suspected “immigrant offenders” they claim to have caught? How much did the operations cost? Have they stopped? Are we going to see any more “Racist vans” on our roads? Will they come kicking through my front door, just to check? We do not know the answer to these questions now and for some of them I doubt we will ever hear a decent answer.

Yet what could have proved to be a fantastic political coup has backfired. Condemned by the Right and the Left, the Home Office “getting tough” on “illegal” immigration has become the latest evidence of the Conservative Party’s lack of contact with the reality of life in the UK, as well as the privileged vantage point from where their own crooked conception of reality is constructed.

What remains after last week’s migrant-bashing is the anger of those who feel that they could have been singled out from a crowd by the UKBA agents, those who understand the problems that arise from discrimination, and the employment of these heavy-handed policing tactics on such an elusive phenomenon, in what amounts to tax-payer funded electioneering. This anger has already turned into political action, not only on the twittosphere, but in what Twitter users refer to as “real life”: such as the Southall Black Sisters’ action against a UKBA raid and Liberty’s own campaign, also with vans, telling the Home Office to think again before stirring up racial tensions in the way they have done so successfully. One should also hope the Conservative Party has lost a large amount of voters by these stunts.

Before we jump into discussions about the problem of “illegal” immigration and the need to take action on this problem, we need to acknowledge the ways in which this topic has been appropriated for political purposes. We also need to acknowledge the baseless and spurious arguments peddled by alarmists and xenophobes. We have seen before the impact institutional racism can have in our communities. Unless what is desired is the same type of social unrest, it is hard to understand the lack of insight on the part whoever came up with these high profile operations.

It is, of course, still early to see how these latest stunts will affect our communities. We can only hope sense will triumph over rhetoric and the hard evidence of everyday life in our multicultural cities over a PR exploit. Maybe in the future we can even have a much-needed complete debate about the nature of immigrationthat extends beyond numbers (both real and assumed). This should be a debate that takes into consideration the reasons behind the phenomenon; its history.

Originally published by Open Democracy 

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