By Aaliyah Burns
The Government repeatedly says that the UK has a proud history of supporting refugees & asylum seekers. However, this statement fails to take accountability for the lived experiences faced by millions of people who have arrived in the UK. This includes the history of racism and xenophobia towards immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers who live in the UK, and the Government’s repeated use of dehumanizing rhetoric when discussing this population as a way to displace the blame for their own failings. However, Maya Goodfellow’s book ‘Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became scapegoats’ does a wonderful job of filling in the blanks.
Goodfellow’s exploration of the history of immigration policy is key to understanding how we got to where we are in 2021, with vulnerable refugees kept in inadequate disused army barracks, in detention facilities indefinitely, and in explaining how the hostile environment policy continues to harm and vulnerable people seeking asylum, or wanting to create a better life in the UK.
Goodfellow expresses that this is not new ideology, and that today’s policies are ‘not a deviation from the norm, but well aligned with the UK’s approach to race and immigration over several decades’ (91).
There are many useful takeaways from this book, and one of which is the general population’s lack of understanding of the UK’s migratory past. A key focus within anti-immigration rhetoric - made evident during the Brexit campaign - is the intention to take back control of our borders. However, Goodfellow makes clear that this an impossible task. She references University of Sussex Professor Gurminder Bhambra who highlights how ‘Britain has never been an independent country since it came into being in 1707’ (48) but has in fact has always been ‘stitched together with other entities’ (48), from the Empire, to the Commonwealth and most recently the European Union.
‘If only this history were more widely known, people might think about immigration slightly different. It might be seen as less of a problem and more of an understandable, neutral reality’ (49).
While the country spent the last year clapping for NHS workers every Thursday evening to show appreciation for their work in the pandemic, when it came down to creating the policy that reflected this, the government fell short and gave NHS workers a meager 1% pay increase.
Goodfellow’s analysis of the UK’s treatments of immigrant workers within the NHS shows that it has been equally superficial. Even when they are recognised, it is within a ‘nostalgic celebration which overlooks the individual and structural racism they experienced’ (59), as Caribbean and African women recruited for the NHS were placed in low paid jobs with poor working conditions. These women were offered work in the UK, but on arrival were exploited and faced hostility from British society. In order for the UK population to fully appreciate the sacrifices made by and value of immigrants and their families, this side of the history also needs to be discussed.
(For those interested in understanding more about the history of migration within the NHS, the Migration Museum have a great online exhibition at the moment which seek to put this history at centre stage).
The NHS example brings to the forefront the UK’s ‘collective denial’ of embedded racism in British society, and how interdependent we are as a nation with other parts of the world (65). Goodfellow explores this, stating how for hundreds of years Britain has ruled the countries from where immigrants come from now. The standards of living are low, partly due to British created policies. In contrast the high standard of living we experience are partly because of the low standard abroad, which makes it possible to import raw materials.
The example of Bangladesh expresses this well: ‘The UK is one of the world’s highest emitters of fossil fuels, which destroys the Bangladeshi environment, and buys clothes made by its citizens, in inadequate conditions. Nevertheless, the people from this country aren’t exactly welcome to move here or welcomed when they do’ (41).
Goodfellow poses the question; ‘under these circumstances, is it at all morally justifiable to disclaim all responsibility and close all doors to immigration?’ (60).
‘Migration is connected to global and local inequalities produced by capitalism and imperialism (210)’. So if the UK continues to uphold these inequalities, then shouldn’t we also be ready to deal with the outcome?
Changing the Conversation
Goodfellow expresses how one of the key reasons we continue to see migrants and asylum seekers facing discrimination in newspapers, and at the hands of government policy, is because the strategies of blame used to demonize immigrants have never been challenged sufficiently.
‘For decades, the UK’s immigration ‘debate’ has been anything but’ (193)
Goodfellow points out that it is the perception of migrants and refugees, as ‘undesirable others’ that gives immigration figures significance - something which has been created and sustained across the political spectrum. Even when governments have put forward policies to increase migration numbers or tried to show that certain types of migration are good for the economy, there has been little attempt to challenge the overarching narrative of immigrants as a threat.
Goodfellow recognises how Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to Labour party leader in 2015 was a ‘glimmer of hope’ (194), as he wanted to talk about migrants as human beings rather than numbers, firmly challenged polices such as a cap on immigration and attempted to close detention centres. However, one of the most fundamental points made by Goodfellow in her book, is that even within his efforts, ‘there simply wasn’t enough of a sustained, concerted and active attempt to change the public conversation about immigration’ (198). This is crucial, and needs to take place in order for the government to make meaningful policies which align with the reality of migration within this country. This is something Goodfellow campaigns for, as for example, she has most notably spoken up about the need to add colonial history to the school curriculums.
Organisations like Conversation Over Borders have created platforms to foster better public understanding. However, without opposition in the mainstream, as well in the floor of the House of Commons, the situation will be very difficult to change.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of immigration policy in the UK, I really recommend this book and for up-to-date information on the situation for displacement people in the UK and around the world, and how you can help, then give Conversation Over Borders a follow!
About the Author
Aaliyah has worked with refugees and displaced people since 2016, first as a volunteer at New Routes Integration in Norwich, and more recently as part of the Conversation Over Borders team. She began by volunteering as an English Conversation Tutor, and joined the Social Media team in October 2020, helping to launch and create content for social media channels. She recently graduated with an MA in Gender, Violence and Conflict and currently works in an NGO in events and fundraising. She hopes to work towards changing the rhetoric surrounding immigration and displacement within her career.