Throughout history, immigration has been fundamental to our socio-economic and cultural progress. Similarly, fear of what immigrants may take from, rather than bring to, the country remains pervasive – and ongoing debates about immigration continue to be antagonistic and discriminatory.
One hundred years ago, immigration was controlled by the 1905 Aliens Act, which restricted immigration from countries outside the British Empire. The 1948 British Nationality Act changed things – and immigration increased once again – but the negative rhetoric and discriminatory behaviour remained. Now, in a move that feels like it brings us closer to where we were a century ago, albeit with different restrictive categories, the current government has announced plans to impose a points-based system for immigration.
In recent times, the rhetoric has fed the increasing polarisation of political standpoints over what it means to be British and to belong. The use of it to magnify fears and demonise those who are not British born or considered “British enough” was seen acutely in the debates surrounding Brexit. A key underlying issue in these debates is a lack of factual understanding of immigration, damaged by false rhetoric used by elements of the media and in recent years being amplified by the internet and influx of “fake news”. To move forward in a new way, we must acknowledge this rhetoric and its ability to skew people’s perceptions.
The prejudicial views we see have too often filtered down into places where nuance and factual discussion are urgently needed, including schools. Prior to the partial closure of schools as part of the coronavirus lockdown, one of our teachers shared a telling example: “When we were studying immigration, another student told me: ‘I’m not being racist Miss, but you need to go back to where you came from’. My students weren’t racists or hateful. They just lacked basic exposure to ethnic, religious or cultural groups outside of their own.” This points to the lack of understanding that contributes to a climate that is hostile in nature, and more people feeling as though they don’t belong.
Recent figures show that just 14 per cent of the UK population are immigrants. The ONS also records that overall EU net migration has fallen since 2016 – a direct correlation with Brexit. However, we are still inundated in the media with stories of how immigrants are arriving en masse to “take our jobs”, our healthcare benefits and our children’s places in school.
Issues surrounding identity for immigrants are further complicated by the rhetoric that “belonging here” means assimilating. Again, this assumes that there is a common experience of being British and that we are all agreed on what “it” is. For many people this version of “British” as implied by recent government policy does not resonate – and yet this becomes the accepted “norm” of what it means.
The overriding rhetoric, therefore, is one of othering, associated with the fear that somehow immigrants are going to “take away” from the “everyday British person”. While we continue to participate in othering, knowingly or not, we will continue to alienate people and remain a divided society.
As humans, we often have an innate fear of the unknown. Many of us are afraid of change and reluctant to accept it. However, we need education to support our curiosity and encourage a spirit of questioning and openness, developing a collective consciousness that recognises hateful rhetoric. Promoting a positive sense of identity and belonging in this country, irrespective of birthplace, race or ethnicity, is needed to minimise discriminatory rhetoric, behaviour and othering.
The question of belonging is in itself a widely debated topic, and with it, immigration is pushed to the forefront of the news agenda. Politicians and influential leaders increasingly use immigration as a topic to leverage support, with damaging results, fuelling underlying negative perceptions and ultimately intensifying division. But how can we begin to challenge this rhetoric?
The younger generation is already beginning to challenge the tired, self-serving narratives that are portrayed online and in the press. You just have to be reminded of rapper Dave’s recent BRIT Awards performance, where the 21-year-old called out racism, inequality and pledged support for the “Windrush generation”.
At Facing History and Ourselves, we believe the answer is through education and using it to build trust and disrupt the current paradigm. TIDE and Runnymede’s recent Teaching Migration report enforces the importance of teaching migration, belonging and empire.
By educating young people on the history of Britain’s colonial past, immigration and race relations, and by encouraging critical engagement with moves to decolonise the curriculum, they will be able to make a stronger connection between the past and today’s underlying issues.
Inclusive debate is vital for the health of our democracy: we need to actively create more spaces for young people to engage in honest conversations about issues they may find uncomfortable, and to highlight the voices of those with lived experience, rather than policy-makers at a distance from the reality of immigration.
We must educate future generations in a way that will ensure they are equipped to challenge the infrastructure and systems that maintain this status quo in order to create a more connected, fair and empathetic society.
Beki Martin is executive director at Facing History and Ourselves UK, a charity that uses lessons from history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate
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