Indian-origin campaigner for migrant rights Satbir Singh says offficials failed to explain the benefits of migration to British people, leading to the rise of nativist forces

Britain’s immigration system has come under scrutiny amid controversy over its treatment of Commonwealth immigrants who came during the post-Second World War period, in what has come to be dubbed the ‘Windrush scandal’. The revelations have renewed a long-standing public debate on the appropriateness of the hostile environment approach that Prime Minister Theresa May pledged while she was the Home Secretary. A parliamentary committee report this year called the approach “callous” and called for “root and branch reform”. Sajid Javid, the current Home Secretary, has pledged reform. However, amid concerns over the government’s recent decision not to extend a relaxation of documentation requirements to Indian students, there are doubts over the extent to which things would change. Satbir Singh, who heads Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), an advocacy group, speaks about what drives Britain’s immigration policies and what campaigners are doing to bring about change.

What is the trajectory of immigration-related politics in the U.K.? Has it got noticeably worse under the Conservatives?

It has got noticeably worse over the last couple of decades. If we go back to the late 1990s or early 2000s, this was the point at which it became acceptable to use immigrants as a scapegoat for pretty much every policy failure. There was, however, a marked change in 2010 — that is when we had a government that was willing to throw evidence completely aside. With the Windrush scandal, we’ve seen some of what happened in the Cabinet and it’s clear that from the minute they came to office, the Conservatives were keen to make life as difficult as possible for immigrants.

It’s an important point because its not just about one individual, Theresa May…

Absolutely. We had Britain chafing under the weight of austerity because cuts were really significant and the effects were starting to bite — living standards were falling dramatically; wages were falling in real terms or stagnating; and services were struggling. The easiest way out of all of these was to blame immigrants. There was this nonsensical target that the government set — of 1,00,000 or fewer immigrants per year. There was no expert who said that this was a sensible target — unions didn’t say it, industry didn’t say it. This number came out of thin air.

This appears particularly short-sighted…

These policies are making it exponentially more difficult for people to enter the country and stay here. These were politically expedient policy measures and their consequences were not thought through and that is why we have this complete misalignment.

The Conservative line is that: we are the sensible pair of hands for the economy and the industry should trust us but we are also the party of the illogical but nonetheless alluring idea of ‘Fortress Britain’. Part of the identity struggle the Conservatives are having now is about these two competing sections and Brexit illuminates these divisions completely.

The Indian diaspora was fed a particular narrative by some campaigning for Brexit suggesting that if it voted to leave the European Union (EU), it would give space to allow more non-EU migration…

It was very upsetting for me as a member of the South Asian diaspora in the U.K. to see this narrative, and [to see] them [the Brexit campaigners] pitting different groups against each other and saying that the reason it had become difficult for Indians was migration from Central and Eastern Europe in the last decade. It worked initially. You had a high turnout in some areas having South Asian communities in favour of Brexit. However, later the opposite happened. There is no inclination on the part of the government to make it easier.

Is there a conversation within the Indian diaspora to be had about its attitudes towards immigration?

We, the diaspora, have in some ways perpetuated the myth about good and bad migrants. We as a community in the past two decades have been surprisingly supportive of restrictive immigration policies and that’s because almost every member of the diaspora who is upper middle class has this story about “How I came here with five pounds in my pocket… we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps.”

It has to be remembered that there was the entrepreneurial spirit but we were also supported by services, social housing, health and education. We have to accept that we are all in this together and people who come to do what we disparagingly refer to as ‘low-skilled work’ are in the same situation that our parents were in about 50 years ago.

To what extent is this debate about race?

Race has always played a significant role in our conversation about immigration. That said, it’s not fair to suggest that anti-immigration sentiment or concerns about immigration here are always intertwined with race because there are other factors such as economic anxieties that enter the picture.

But race is coming to the fore once again with the conversation about people arriving by boats from North Africa; and the conversations we have about who Britain will enter into these free trade agreements with first. As if these are fruits for us to go and pick when we want it.

There are nations like Australia, New Zealand and Canada — the settler colonies — that will have the first priority; it’s hard to deny the racial element that exists particularly when you consider the volume of trade between the U.K. and New Zealand vis-à-vis the volume of trade between the U.K. and India.

What is your assessment of the decision to exclude Indian students, while easing up the criteria for Chinese students? Is this a hangover of colonial times?

It has to do with a lack of vision in their [the authorities’] own concept of what this ‘global Britain’ means. It’s a conflict between sensible economic trade policies and regressive immigration policies and policies towards minorities who don’t necessarily fit into that narrative. It’s like the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

The colonial legacy perhaps also plays some part but from a slightly different perspective. There is this assumption that even if we make it exponentially harder for people to come here, even if we treat people very badly, Indians will always choose to come; the assumption is that the demand is perfectly inelastic. But that’s not the case any more. We just have to look at the precipitous drop in the number of students coming here.

It’s over 50 years since Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. What lessons can be learnt from the past?

The lesson to be learnt is that we need to know the difference between when we’ve moved on and when it seems we’ve moved on. You had this 15/20-year period of relatively robust economic growth with a rise in living standards but the grey spots in the economy [still] existed where opportunities weren’t well dispersed.

The evidence tells us that immigration is not to blame for problems in public services — the queues in hospitals aren’t shorter in places where there are fewer immigrants but we’ve left those areas completely unattended and those are the parts of the country that got scooped up by nativist forces. We didn’t have a proper conversation about immigration. We didn’t properly explain the benefits of migration to the whole country because it was assumed that the whole country was on board. It was also assumed that there would continue to be a role for evidence in our public conversations. Across the Atlantic and here, we are seeing [that] you can just make stuff up and get away with it for a reasonably long time.

Given the lack of a factual basis, how do you turn around the conversation on immigration?

We can’t have a top-down approach: it can’t just be about the digital and national media. We need to be better at face-to-face conversations. We have to be much better at pushing back against the toxic rhetoric from leading voices on the political right.

Is it right to draw a distinction between legal and illegal migration?

Through the distinction, you are vilifying a very vulnerable population. Almost everyone here who is without documentation came here legally. We are an island: people arrived here legally. The biggest driver of undocumented status is an immigration system which is so complicated that even the Home Office makes a mistake a lot of the time.

There has been a lot of focus on the U.S. family separations — which you’ve travelled to the U.S. to document. What is the experience of families here in the U.K.?

Separating families is a policy here, including through the really severe restrictions on family reunions because of which at least 50,000 children have been separated from a parent. They are British children in the U.K. [separated] because one parent doesn’t have a right to come here. And that’s because we have this unreasonable high-income requirement that excludes 41% of the work force in the U.K. This is further complicated by a labyrinthine application process which sees the Home Office make as many mistakes as the applicants do.

There is a complete neglect of the rights of the child and families under the European Convention on Human Rights. We also have the spectre of immigration enforcement officials bursting into people’s homes and detaining parents in front of their children. You are traumatising children for administrative convenience and because the system you’ve created doesn’t allow them to exercise their rights.

Will things change under Sajid Javid?

Some of the noises we are hearing are positive but these are low-hanging fruits. What remains to be seen is whether he’s serious about fixing the system. However, [former Home Secretary] Amber Rudd’s departure signalled for the first time that there is a political consequence of all of this. It was earlier assumed by both major parties that you can turn on people born elsewhere — whatever the logic or evidence, the rule of law or the international obligations say — and there will be no political consequences.

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