Unveiling the political screen discourse on immigration
In recent weeks, scaremongering immigration debate has again been dominating the public sphere. As Ruth Grove-White wrote this debate is an ‘arms race’ amongst political parties that can increase public fears and misunderstanding about migrants and the welfare system. That is certainly the case and it only demonstrates that mainstream politics has become nothing more than a popularity contest, which can obviously be won by selling the most convincing scaremongering story on immigration. These public relation stunts are not based upon any convincing evidence. Research as well as official statistics show that migrant workers are net contributors to economy; they are in work, pay taxes and are much less likely to use benefits than British citizens. Scaremongering immigration debate thus acts as a screen discourse which is effectively putting attention away from real problems. Unveiling this screen discourse can actually demonstrate what this discourse does and does not do.
Firstly this discourse completely disjoints immigration from global socio-economic processes that actually fuel it. Migration is only an effect of globalised economy which brings Britain great profits. How on earth could British enterprises move and sell their services and goods to foreign markets, if they would not have migrants that are familiar with these markets, culture and languages. And how could this globalised economy sustain itself if it would not have essential services that are nowadays disproportionally provided by migrant labour. There is plenty of research that demonstrates that migrant labour is inevitable in providing services without which UK economy would simply collapse. Only within NHS foreign doctors present one third of the workforce. Furthermore hospitality, catering, cleaning, care, domestic and construction sector predominantly employ migrant workers. The politicians that are so found of using migrants for their political games should reflect who actually builds and cleans their offices, who serves them at lunch breaks and who cleans their houses and looks after their children and their elderly. If this is not contribution enough, then it is hard to see, what is. If Britain is leaning on migrant workers to fill up all these specialised, as well as dirty, demanding and dangerous jobs than it should also make sure that they have access to decent housing and services. The UK politics seems to be fine with reaping the economic benefits of internationalized economy however it is not prepared to take up responsibilities of its consequences, which often carry high human costs. Since its interest lies mainly in economic performance, rather than in economic well being of actual people, this discourse in effect dehumanises migrants.
Scaremongering debate on immigration portrays migrants as ‘assets’, as ‘resources’ that are welcome as long as they bring economic profits, as long as there is a business imperative for them to be within British soil. In other words migrants are treated as useful commodities that can simply be returned once their economic function has expired. It is thus important to point out that like anyone else also so called migrants have lives and if they work in the UK they also need to have access to housing and services here. They cannot simply beam themselves to their countries of origins once they finish work, when they get sick or when they want to send their kids to school. Perceiving migrants as ‘assets’ also produces a very misleading picture that moving countries is easy and that one can simply return to ones place of origin whenever one wishes. Since migrants are not ‘assets’ but human beings the receiving country quite quickly becomes their new home, because they start building up new relationships and new connections. And as time passes these new connections become stronger and the once that they have had within their places of origin become loosened and can as such not simply be replaced once politicians decide that migrants’ economic function has expired. If one has for instance spent the last five years building up a life and career in the UK one cannot simply go back, because one would need to start all over again there. So after a while return migration often ceases to become an option, because people have found a new home and rather than needing to hear and read how they are reaping off the country they want to feel included and live without fear of unpleasant deeds that these words might do to them. If British politicians really want to stand with migrants that contribute to this country they should stop scapegoating them and enable them to live without fear and discrimination.
The dehumanising act of this discourse also completely neglects all the hurdles that one needs to overcome when moving from one country to another. The perception that somebody will simply move in order to exploit the welfare system is completely unfounded and unrealistic. If somebody wants to exploit the system it first needs to know the system. The things that are taken for granted by locals can be completely new for new arrivals that are unfamiliar with ‘the ways things are done around here’. Migrants are coming from different countries that are characterised by different systems, therefore they have yet to learn how to look for accommodation, how to search for work, how to open a bank account, how to see a doctor, etc... Someone who wants to sort one’s life upon arrival is apart from work spending considerable amount of time learning all these basic things. It is thus highly unlikely that new arrivals would be motivated or even remotely equipped with necessary knowledge and skills that would enable them to take advantage of an unfamiliar benefits system. On the contrary they are most likely to work extra hard to prove themselves and increase their chances for the future. So what this discourse does is to create divisions, fear and most importantly is doing nothing to improve the lives of people regardless of which passport they hold. If today all immigration to the UK would stop, the problems of poorly paid jobs, income gap, access to education and housing would still remain. Why? Because immigration is not the cause but rather an effect of systemic inequalities that fuel (trans)national economy.
It is thus completely misleading to view these attacks on migrants in isolation. They should be put in wider context of continuous and increasingly rapid destruction of the welfare state. By putting the blame on migrants this dividing politics will be able to take away everything that is left of the welfare state. If today migrants are scapegoated as ‘exploiters’ of the welfare system, tomorrow this discourse turns towards the poor, the disabled, the old, the young; basically towards all who in one way or another might serve as scapegoats for diminishing of the welfare state. By gradually isolating, focusing and putting the blame on one group at the time the politics is putting attention away from what is doing to us all in the name of profit. The real victims will ultimately be British citizens that are being served screen discourse while their future is increasingly being taken away by continuous privatization of education, healthcare and other social services. If politics would be serious about ending something for nothing culture then it would not allow profits to get privatized and debt to get socialised and would do everything to return privatized public assets and services back to public use and management. If it would really want to build the sense of fairness it would work towards more equal income distribution, it would create jobs and it would work on providing equal access to services and housing. The dangers of increasing destruction of the welfare state which was built by previous generations in order to secure a better future are vividly laid forward by Ken Loach’s latest documentary and appeal for more sustainable politics. We are all in this together and we all need politics that will be able to secure economic wellbeing instead of selling screen discourses that will leave us all with nothing but hate and divisions.
Author: Barbara Samaluk, PhD researcher, Queen Mary, University of London