In the dawn of 2003, the ship which carried the lorry (truck in American English) I hid under finally arrived at Teesside Freeport in northeast England. At the time, I was full of zeal and hope for my future. Looking back to that moment, I recall kneeling and kissing the soil. That was the soil of freedom for me.
Twenty years later, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has declared that stopping migrants from arriving on UK shores in small boats is a “top priority” for his administration. The new “Illegal Migration Bill” vows to immediately detain and deport these immigrants, who primarily journey from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Albania. If the British Parliament determines the nations from which the asylum seekers are fleeing to be “unsafe,” the deportees will be sent to Rwanda instead.
Since my arrival on English soil, I have gone through the British educational system and have earned a BA in history, an MA in International Relations, and an MA in Creative Writing. I am currently a PhD student. Alongside my education, my career as a poet and writer has also thrived over the years.
That said, I am no rare exception to the plight of immigrants. I know many who arrived around the same time as I did who have since become doctors, engineers, businessmen and lecturers. They did not all come to America to earn money and then flee back to their countries. Immigrants contribute to society.
Are there bad apples among the immigrant populations? Of course. Humans are not perfect, and neither is life. When contemplating a law to arrest newcomers by boat, Sunak forgot that these people are humans, despite the baggage they might bring along with them. While these immigrants might not fit Sunak’s definition of “good people”, they will undoubtedly contribute to the beautiful concept of multiculturalism in one way or another. Unfortunately, these cultural contributions seem to be overlooked by the current conservative government in the UK.
Immigrant Contributions to Great Britain
Britain has a long history of receiving refugees and immigrants who are seeking asylum. Historically, immigrants have contributed not only to British society, but to humanity at large. Luminaries like the German philosopher Karl Marx and prolific writer Emile Zola were immigrants. The love poet of the Arab world, Nizar Qabbani, immigrated from Syria to London in 1966.
In addition to their contributions to the literary world, immigrants have made waves in the art community as well. Frank Auerbach, a world-renowned Jewish painter who fled Nazi Germany during World War II, is considered to be one of the world’s greatest living artists. Sir Jacob Epstein, the British artist who pioneered modern-day sculpting techniques, was the son of Polish-Jewish refugees. Lucien Freud , an acclaimed expressionist painter, was a German-Jewish refugee. Mona Hatoum is an illustrious London-based installation artist who was also once a Palestinian-Lebanese refugee.
Immigrants have also helped to define British politics. Margaret Hodge, former member of the British Parliament, was born to German refugees. David Miliband, also a Parliament member, is the son of Belgian and Jewish refugees. His brother, Ed Miliband , was the former leader of the Labour Party. Immanuel Jakobovits fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and became Chief rabbi of Great Britain in 1967. Sir John Houblon , the first Governor of the Bank of England, was the grandson of French Huguenot refugees. All of these distinguished figures once arrived in the UK as asylum seekers, bringing their plethora of histories and experiences with them.
I could fill ten pages with descriptions of influential refugees and still have more to highlight. In light of Sunak’s proposed immigration policies, the fact that Britain was once a trailblazer in crafting human rights laws might now seem ironic. Even more ironic is the fact that Sunak himself is an immigrant, born to African Hindus of Indian Punjabi descent.
Poisoning the Immigrant Narrative
Despite immigrants’ undeniable contributions to society, right-wing politicians continue to illustrate their migration to Britain as an urgent crisis which must be met with harsh legislation. Proponents of the bill often reference the fact that the total number of refugees arriving by sea has increased by 60% from 2021 to 2022.
While this is certainly true, the reality is that these refugees represent only a fraction of the total number of asylum seekers – most of whom are Ukrainians fleeing the war against Russia. In 2022, approximately 45,800 refugees arrived illegally by boat via the English Channel, and in the same time frame, nearly 245,700 Ukrainians were granted asylum using the two new visa routes provided specifically for Ukrainian war refugees.
A large portion of the refugees arriving by boat in 2022 were Albanians (28%) attempting to escape poverty and modern slavery, and Afghans (20%) fleeing harsh Taliban rule. According to the Human Rights Watch, approximately 90% of Afghanistan’s population currently faces food insecurity, in addition to the violence and fear perpetuated by the Taliban.
In 2022, 0% of the Albanian refugees claiming asylum were granted refugee status, while 97% of the Afghans who applied were granted asylum after review of their applications. However, if the Illegal Migration Bill goes into effect, all future refugees arriving by boat will be denied asylum. Many critics of the bill point out that the new legislation unfairly discriminates against refugees of color at the same time that Parliament is making unprecedented accommodations for white Ukrainian refugees. Sunak maintains that the new provisions are “tough, but necessary and fair.”
Just last week, controversy broke out after BBC sportscaster Garry Lineker posted a tweet which openly condemned the Illegal Migration Bill. Lineker called the new policy “immeasurably cruel,” as it targets the most vulnerable and desperate of asylum seekers. Following his remarks, Lineker was suspended from the BBC on March 10, before being reinstated only days later.
Critics, many of them right-wing politicians, were outraged by Lineker’s lack of impartiality as a broadcaster working under a taxpayer-funded salary. Suella Braverman, British Home Secretary and primary sponsor behind the controversial bill, responded to Lineker’s tweet with her own criticisms, calling his remarks “unacceptable” and dismissive of the “legitimate concerns” surrounding illegal migration.
Braverman has received widespread accusations of hypocrisy since the introduction of the Illegal Migration Bill, as her own parents immigrated to England from Kenya and Mauritius in the 1960s. Despite these criticisms, Braverman maintains her stance on immigration, stating that, “It is perfectly respectable for a child of immigrants like me to say that I’m deeply grateful to live here, [and that] immigration has been overwhelmingly good for the United Kingdom, but we’ve had too much of it in recent years.”
Even more concerning is the fact that Braverman openly admits that the Illegal Migration Bill may not be in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. In recent years, Braverman has pushed for the UK to leave the Convention altogether, claiming that the organization is “politicized,” “interventionist,” and often fails to follow due process. However, on Tuesday, Braverman clarified that the deportation of these refugees will not apply to “unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.”
America is another example of hypocrisy when it comes to immigration policy-making. A country built from the ground up by immigrants, the US now has the largest economy in the world, and is often nicknamed “the land of the free.” However, an anti-immigrant narrative has spread across the nation in recent years, as right-wing conservatives (namely, former president Donald Trump) demand for the construction of a border wall to stop Mexican immigrants from crossing over. The UK and its Western counterpart share similar anti-immigration sentiments: that illegal immigrants are burdens to our economies and healthcare systems, that they steal jobs from hard-working citizens, and that they contribute very little to society as a whole.
While it is certainly easier said than done, I believe there should be no borders, and that human movements should be free. Creating a “passport” is an artificial imagination—the same as borders. The first humans did not know they lived in England, Syria, China, or Afghanistan. They did not call these territories by the names we attribute to them now. They were free to move anywhere.
No matter how many laws and locks Parliament enforces, it will not stop people from seeking safety. There is no law, system, or power that will stop people from coming here, because they are escaping something more daunting than a law written on paper. They are escaping what threatens the most precious thing they have: life itself.
Britain’s beauty is derived from its multiculturalism. Prior to my arrival here, I dreamed of the cultural freedom that I now enjoy every day. I hope that one day we can redeem the negative narratives which plague immigrants, and mitigate the anxieties surrounding their arrival in the UK. I hope that one day, empathy will preside over fear.
[Hannah Gage edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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