Migrant support organisations have condemned the use of political fear-mongering which they say is creating a negative attitude toward migrants.
“The new government should abandon the culture of disbelief in which every immigrant is somehow a threat, and instead inform the public about the benefits of migration and how we can make it work for all of us,” says Zrinka Bralo, executive director of the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum.
“Government should shift the emphasis in policy-making and migration management from enforcement to integration,” she says.
“This means abandoning deterrents that don’t work in favour of regularising undocumented migrants and introducing more welcoming programmes for new citizens.”
Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, agrees.
“We have seen for too long migrants and refugees being depicted negatively. It must be accepted that migrants have made positive contributions to society and the economy,” he notes.
Most migrant and refugee support organisations agree that indefinite detention of migrants – usually because they cannot return to their home countries for one reason or another – must end.
“Detention is obviously ineffective and has got completely out of control,” says Bralo. “There is no judicial oversight and it costs a huge amount of money.”
Jerome Phelps, director of Detention Action, calls on the new government to put a time limit on detention in line with every other European country: “The UK is unique in Europe in detaining migrants without a time limit for a period of years. The long-term impact on migrants’ mental health is appalling.”
Stuart Crosthwaite, secretary of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, also sees scrapping indefinite detention as a top government priority.
In March, a cross-party group of MPs suggested detention should be limited to 28 days and used only as a last resort.
Conservative MP David Burrowes told The Guardian: “While there is a need to properly control our borders, people who arrive by fair means or foul must also be treated with dignity and respect throughout the immigration process. The current system is failing to do this and our report calls for an urgent rethink.”
Attitudes towards refugees and asylumseekers who risk their lives to find a safe haven must also change, organisations say.
Rahman says a new government must prioritise and protect those seeking asylum: “There needs to be a discussion about Britain taking on a fairer share of refugees, ” he says.
The Refugee Council told Migrant Voice that in the early 2000s there was a constant stream of anti-asylum headlines with asylum-seekers vilified on newspaper front pages on an almost daily basis. But attitudes had shifted: all the main political parties now talked of Britain’s proud tradition of protecting refugees and attention was largely focused on economic migration.
“However, the distinction is often not so easily understood or drawn in the public’s mind,” a spokesman for the organisation said, ”and people consistently overestimate the number of refugees in Britain.”
A 2012 poll by British Future found that 4 out of 10 people believed that more than 10 per cent of the population (6 million people) were refugees, and 1 in 20 believed most people in Britain today had been granted asylum.
In reality, says the Refugee Council, “Britain is home to less than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees and received only about 25,000 asylum applications a year.”
On family reunions, non-European Union migrants and British citizens must meet tough criteria, such as proof of high earnings, in order to bring their families to Britain.
Migrant organisations also want an end to immigration checks by landlords and to restrictions on access to health and education.
Rahman wants “to see migrants and refugees treated right. The leadership from the next government must not scapegoat migrants. They must get rid of discrimination and xenophobia.”
Simin Azimi, director of Refugee Women, says: “Citizenship is so hard to obtain – the test is difficult even for Britons. These are measures to reduce immigrants coming from outside the EU. It’s unfair. There needs to be equal treatment.”
Phelps says: “Migrants should speak to their MPs about their priorities for improving the immigration system and respect for their rights. Migrants are a significant section of the electorate. I hope that many migrants can make clear to their elected representatives that their vote will partly depend on party attitudes to the treatment of migrants.”
Rahman, too, emphasises the importance of the migrant vote: “To ignore them will be peril for any party,” he says.
London constituencies with the highest projected share of migrant voters are East Ham (55.2 per cent), West Ham (48 per cent) and Tottenham (41.6 per cent), according to Migrants’ Rights Network. Crosthwaite encourages migrants to put their demands to candidates and parties, and to ally “with other oppressed groups, supportive political parties and campaigners”.
How realistic are these suggestions?
“We should use our vote to elect people who will listen,” says Azimi. “I am not overly hopeful that the new government will be immediately ready to change, but that is not a reason to give up. We need to vote for the right people and lobby them to make sure we have our say.”
Azimi hopes that one day “the authorities will recognise the contributions of migrants and come out publicly to support us”.
She also longs for migrants to be more active in social and political arenas and to take part in public discussions so that their voices will be heard.