In the UK politicians have held immigrants responsible for the housing crisis, unemployment and the disarray in the NHS system. The British government has held them up to the charge of benefit tourism and says their reluctance to integrate or learn English has made British people feel uncomfortable. If they find work they are stealing our jobs. If they don’t they are sponging off our welfare state.
With the media spotlight currently on men, women and children escaping Syria the Daily Mail has turned to Brits abroad and how they are affected by the crisis, as demonstrated by their headline on 27 May: “How many more can Kos take? Thousands of boat people from Syria and Afghanistan set up migrant camp in popular Greek island – with holidaymakers branding the situation ‘disgusting’.”
Besides buying into the idea that immigrants are responsible for all our problems (no jobs, miserable holidays) another commonly held myth is that immigration into the UK is a recent phenomenon. Yet part of what makes Britain the ethnically diverse melting pot we celebrate today is the people who have settled here throughout our history.
Immigration to Britain has been traced back to the Romans, who stayed for nearly 400 years. When Rome collapsed the Anglo, Saxon and Jute tribes came from the north of Germany. The Vikings, Normans, Huguenots and the Irish have all formed part of our history and aspects of our language, literature and architecture have been shaped by these communities and more.
When it suits us we have actively encouraged or forced immigration to take place. Between 1500 and 1800 a total of 30 million slaves were transported across the Atlantic to help build the British Empire by working in the fields and plantations of its colonies. Many buildings standing in London, Liverpool and Bristol today were built using slave money.
Post Second World War, Britain reached out first to Europe then to its colonies and encouraged thousands of people from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan and the West Indies to come to the country and help reconstruct the economy. Ironically many of these people were poor as a result of British colonial exploitation.
When it doesn’t suit us, however, Britain has curbed immigration. Whilst workers from the West Indies may have been granted entry to the UK in the aftermath of the Second World War, the entry of Holocaust survivors was restricted on the basis they were not “assimilable”. Yet it is widely believed Britain did everything it could in this period for Jewish people.
Over the past 30 or so years the UK has imposed visa restrictions on the following countries to curb applications for asylum from particular groups of people: in 1985 on Sri Lanka to deter Tamil Tigers; in 1989 on Turkey to discourage Kurds; in 1992 on citizens of the former Yugoslavia to stem the influx of victims of war; in 1995 on Sierra Leone to control victims of the civil war seeking refuge; in 2002 on Zimbabwe to restrict those claiming political asylum. There are many more.
With this in mind, the British value pedalled by politicians: ‘tolerance’, appears very empty. Similarly, claims that the benefits system in the UK is creating a “magnetic pull” for refugees aren’t true. Britain harbours only around one per cent of the world’s refugees with the world’s poorest countries absorbing more than 80 per cent.
The language of immigration is essential. By describing Britain as a tolerant society, albeit a society struggling to deal with the influx of people who just want to put their feet up, the government can get away with all sorts. Introducing crippling benefits cuts, for example, or not offering our fair share of Syrian refugees a safe place to live in the UK.
Which leads us back to the island of Kos and the Syrians and Afghanis who are disrupting British holidaymakers. Thousands of British people live in Greece; some use the local healthcare system, some do not speak Greek. They are not accused of stealing benefits from the local communities because they are expats, not immigrants.
Expat is a term reserved for westerners and evokes superiority, affluence and privilege whilst the word immigrant is used to describe Africans, Arabs and Asians and is associated with inferiority and poverty. The former suggests someone who is contributing to the economy whilst the latter someone who wants to scrounge off the system.
The press continually refers to the thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea and arriving in places like Kos as immigrants and in the process we forget they are men, women and children who have families and lives. By not giving them names we have succeeded in dehumanising them so much we are letting them drown. We would never let expats meet the same fate.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.