United Kingdom

Targeting immigrants

Print edition : September 06, 2013

The Home Office’s latest campaign took off on trucks such as these in six London boroughs that have high populations of people of South Asian origin. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Godfrey Bloom, opposition UKIP leader. Photo: UKIP

The government’s latest campaign against illegal immigrants leads to charges of racism and exposes the country’s hidden racial fault lines.

GODFREY BLOOM IS A MEMBER OF THE EUropean Parliament for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), famously described by Prime Minister David Cameron as a party of “loonies and fruitcakes”, and over the years he has acquired notoriety for making sexist, homophobic and racist remarks. He is in the news again, this time for using the derogatory term “Bongo, Bongo land” to describe Asian and African countries that receive British aid.

In a recording leaked to The Guardian, he told UKIP activists in Birmingham: “How can we possibly be giving a billion pounds a month… to Bongo Bongo land is completely beyond me. To buy Ray-Ban sunglasses, apartments in Paris, Ferraris and all the rest of it that goes with most of the foreign aid. F18s for Pakistan. We need a new squadron of F18s. Who’s got the squadrons? Pakistan, where we send the money.”

Bloom offered a half-hearted apology under pressure from the party leadership but insisted that his views represented the views of “ordinary” Britons and that only people in “the Westminster bubble” would think his remarks were racist. Out there in “Hull and Yorkshire, where we tell it like it is, they don’t feel it is racist at all”.

And that is the point. For all the apparent outrage caused by his comment, a surprisingly large “silent majority” secretly shares the broader thrust of Bloom’s argument, namely, the idea of a non-white Third World being a “burden” on the developed nations of the West. Bloom made the speech in July and nobody objected to it until The Guardian reported it on August 7. Even then, the “outrage” was restricted to UKIP’s critics and the media starved of news in the silly season.

Forget the “ordinary” people of Hull, the British government’s entire immigration policy rests on Bloom’s crude “Bongo Bongo” land theme, with all non-white immigrants being portrayed as “scroungers” who come to Britain to “steal” local jobs and “sponge off” honest taxpayers’ money. This despite the fact that the government’s own figures show that immigrants contribute massively to the British economy. Only recently, the highly respected Office of Budget Responsibility, which provides independent economic forecast to the government, reported that immigrants “pay more taxes, need less support from the state and are better qualified to work”. It warned that a clampdown on immigration would “harm growth and reverse the savings made by years of austerity”.

Controversial campaign

Just before Bloom burst onto the scene, the Home Office was struggling to fend off accusations of racism over its latest campaign against illegal immigrants from South Asia. It has rolled out trucks in six London boroughs with billboards featuring handcuffs and bearing the message: “In the U.K. illegally? Go home or face arrest.” Critics say the language is offensive, with echoes of the 1970s racist slogan “Pakis, go home”.

Many, however, believe that there has been an overreaction. They acknowledge that the Home Office has got the language terribly wrong and that there are more subtle ways of cracking down on illegal immigration than rolling out trucks with menacing messages. But they also argue that asking illegal migrants to own up is hardly racism, especially when it comes with an offer of a free one-way ticket home!

In Hounslow and Southall—two of the predominantly Asian London boroughs where the trucks have been deployed—most of the residents this correspondent spoke to appeared indifferent. Many said they had not seen the trucks but only heard about them. Were they upset? The standard response was a shrug of the shoulders. Only some from the older generation of immigrants said it reminded them of the bad old days when “foreigners” were routinely told to “go home”.

“I never thought I would live to see such language again and that too coming from the government,” said one Sikh businessman.

‘Racial profiling’

More problematic than the billboards, however, is the police campaign to stop and search suspected “illegals” at tube stations and bus stops. A majority of those stopped and searched in recent weeks have been non-whites and particularly of South Asian origin, prompting allegations of racial profiling. People have taken to Twitter and other social media sites to vent their anger. Politicians across party lines have joined to condemn the campaign, with even UKIP leader Nigel Farage calling it “disgraceful”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has announced that it will investigate the “justification” for such searches “in order to assess whether unlawful discrimination took place”. But the campaign—the trucks with the offensive message and the stop-and-search raids—continues and in fact the government plans to extend it nationwide.

Fault lines

Irrespective of the merits of the claims and counterclaims around this latest race row, the stark truth is that behind the carefully cultivated image of a happy-clappy multiracial and multicultural society, modern Britain is a deeply divided country with racial tensions bubbling just under the surface. What the row has done is to expose the hidden fault lines to reveal a face of Britain that well-heeled tourists from Mumbai and Karachi—more at home in Kensington and Chelsea than Southall—do not see.

It is the secret dream of most Britons to wake up one morning and find that all the immigrants have finally gone “home”, taking with them their regressive cultural practices and values. No more smelly foods; no more burqas; no more forced marriages; no more domestic violence; no more pressure on Britain’s over-stretched public services; and British values once again safe in a land cleansed of foreigners.

Paradoxically, even as Britain overtly has become a more tolerant society, in many ways this vision of an immigrant-free land once associated with much-derided Little Englanders has also become more widespread. Even long-settled immigrants have caught the infection and tend to look down upon newer immigrants, such as the Somalis and the Sudanese, with disdain.

In the eyes of native white Britons, no matter how liberal, all immigrants are foreigners. Invariably, the first question anyone with a brown/black/pale skin is asked is:

“So, where do you come from?”

“Birmingham,” says the third-generation immigrant.

“No, no; I mean where do you belong?”

“Britain.”

“Sorry, but I mean where did you originally come from…?”

“I was born and brought up here…. I’m British.”

So it goes on, until the immigrant is finally forced to own up to his Indian or Pakistani origin.

Anyone listening to such a conversation without being aware of the context would find it hilarious—an exchange straight out of a comedy sketch. But when put in context it becomes a tragic tale of cultural prejudices whereby anyone who does not look “like us” is automatically deemed an outsider. Ultimately, it is all down to the colour of your skin. If your skin is not of the “right” colour, you must be a foreigner who can be told at will to “go home” no matter how much you protest that “this is my home”.

Immigrants’ role

But, what if one day the big British dream of being rid of immigrants does indeed come true? What will be the consequences for native Britons if everyone who is not the “right” colour does go home? After all, this is a society which relies on “minicab drivers from Lahore, lattes served by Latvians, Nepalese nurses, Nigerian doctors and Polish builders”, as one Times columnist pointed out. She could have added Indian chefs, Bangladeshi till clerks and Romanian cleaners to the list of immigrants who keep Britain running. Without them, the country would grind to a halt as it happened in many American cities in 2006 when more than a million Latinos observed “A Day Without Immigrants” to protest against a crackdown on undocumented workers.

Mehdi Hasan, a British journalist of Indian origin, tried to imagine “24 hours without immigrants” and he came up with a vision of a land without waiters, chauffeurs, nannies, doctors, social care workers, cleaners, footballers, train and bus drivers, postmen, fruit-pickers….” And “what would be the point of going out to eat in the evening if there were no longer any Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian, Japanese, Turkish, Lebanese, Italian, Spanish and, yes, French restaurants open?”

Ah, well.

But, coming back to the present, to the “bongo bongo” land narrative and “go home” trucks, there is nothing wrong with pursuing illegal immigrants (indeed they should be) or questioning the wisdom of giving aid to other countries when Britain itself is in deep economic crisis, but the debate (such as it is) should not be framed in terms that reek of the old colonial mindset. It is not only insulting to hundreds of thousands of legitimate immigrants who work hard and pay their taxes and to millions of poor people in developing countries who benefit from foreign aid, but it is also deeply damaging to Britain’s image as a modern, liberal and caring society. Too many Britons appear not to get it that the Raj is long dead.

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