Dear Asylum seekers,
First of all, welcome to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – the cumbersome name of my home country, a name that not many of my fellow Brits actually know. We tend to call ourselves English, Scots, Northern Irish or Welsh.
I don’t know your personal story, ethnicity, religion, or if you had a traumatic journey here but I’m glad you came and I’m sure many Brits would agree with me. Not only are we sympathetic to your plight (escaping terror and poverty at home) but we need you.
An open capitalist economy like Britain needs a constant supply of labour to do all the difficult jobs that need to be done. Every year we need large numbers of engineers, doctors, IT specialists as well as drivers, cleaners and construction workers – especially when the economy is doing well — as there are not enough skilled Brits available. If it wasn’t for immigrants our National Health Service would have collapsed long ago, our IT sector would be a shadow of itself and many businesses wouldn’t be able to find staff.
I am convinced that immigrant workers are more enthusiastic about the jobs they get than locals; they are more likely to be grateful for the salary than a Brit would be and more open to learning. I learned this when I got a job on a Viennese building site in 1986 and have heard stories confirming it ever since. I was so glad to have got that job in Vienna, and so desperate to keep it that I worked harder than anyone else on the site.
The British Government know that immigrants are a Godsend to our economy, a view that is backed up by the trade unions and the IOD (Institute of Directors) – Britain’s “most authoritative free-market business group”. This article by the IOD points out that immigrants contribute up to £14 billion a year to the economy, and “businesses are crying out for a highly-qualified, highly-skilled, international workforce.”
The above article also points out that the biggest group of migrants to the UK are actually students from non-EU countries — all of whom pay top dollar — not Romanian and Bulgarian welfare scroungers or illegal immigrants from the Middle East. It’s worth keeping this fact in mind as we try to sort out fact from fiction in this increasingly fractious debate.
I visited Ewan Roberts at an impressive refugee centre in Liverpool in order to get some perspective, and also feel the vibrant atmosphere around immigrants. He gave me an A3 sheet of paper with a complex flow chart on it, starting with the title “The UK Asylum Process Simplified” and is anything but “simplified”. His centre, which is called Asylum Link Merseyside, have a “caseload” of about 800 people per month is staffed by volunteers and gets no central government support.
Ewan said “the fact that asylum claimants can’t work is the number one cause of mental illness among them. They’re keen to work and can’t understand why they’re not allowed to. It drives them crazy.”
He showed me page after page of official statistics which indicate that the number of asylum applicants haven’t risen sharply this year and pointed out that most migrants are in fact students. He told me the real beneficiaries of our “harsh” system are big companies – like C4S — that get government contracts for security, housing the refugees (some in hotels and some in prison) and transporting them around.
Ewan told me about a study done at Dungavel House Immigrant Removal Centre: it costs more to keep a family of four locked up in this grim Scottish institution than it would to send them on a cruise ship going round the Mediterranean.
Why the Hostility?
It must come as a nasty shock to you that a country which needs immigrants, and has a tradition of integrating them, treats them so harshly. It must be confusing to meet people who are friendly, helpful and genuinely want you to be here – which many of us do — and then have to deal with a legal system (the asylum claim process) that is cruel, unfair and seems to be designed to keep you out.
You might ask why are so many Brits against immigrants? Why are you treated like criminals by the courts? Why are you given free housing and a cash subsidy but not allowed to work? Doesn’t this cost the government a fortune and prevent you from paying taxes?
The answer to this question is…the tabloid media.
This may seem like an outrageous slur on our best-selling papers but their business model is based upon scaring people. Tabloid readers are fed a daily menu of statistics, incidents and half-truths that create the impression that our country is being taken over by Muslim immigrants, some of whom may be terrorists, and that our way of life is under threat. They don’t explain that Islam has a tolerant, creative side to it and the vast majority of Muslims know that the violent actions of ISIS are not condoned by The Quran or Islamic tradition.
The tabloids also use other items to scare their readers — Jeremy Corbyn, the EU, Romanian gypsies — but the migration-across-Europe story and the Syrian war gives them an endless supply of material.
I presume you will be in the process of learning the English language, or improving your knowledge of it. Here is a word that you should know: propaganda. This Wikipedia definition of the word describes Britain’s tabloid media rather well: “Propaganda is information that is not impartial and used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively (perhaps lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or using loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information presented.”
An illustration of this point can be seen by the recent news that immigration to the UK has reached a record high this year — 330,000. In The Guardian this government report was presented in a positive context: many of these people came over from EU countries for specific jobs, half are students and business needs these workers — but this article in The Sun says that Britain should “seal its borders”.
The Tabloid Effect on Government
The real problem is that successive British governments – starting with Tony Blair’s – follow the opinions of the tabloids. These papers sell so many copies that timid governments believe they have to do what these papers say or they will lose power. You can see it happening all the time. David Cameron knows that we need immigrant labour and that it is in our tradition to help immigrants, but he buckles to the tabloid pressure – pushing the whole country in a more populist and intolerant direction.
This propaganda is having a negative effect on the British public — we are becoming radicalised. There is a dangerous new growth in anti-Islam groups and this will surely lead to trouble. Inter-ethnic harmony is under threat. In recent years there has been a sharp growth in support for anti-immigration parties like UKIP (UK Independence Party).
Fortunately a majority of people, in this country at least, are still tolerant towards immigrants — at least those from Eastern Europe and other EU countries — and I suspect that most people realise that the vast majority of Muslims are law abiding, hard working citizens who despise terrorism as much as the rest of us. This was shown recently when over 300,000 Brits signed a petition requesting that Donald Trump be barred from UK for saying that Muslims should be barred from the USA.
If you have come from Syria or Iraq you probably know that ISIS, and the fundamentalist minority who believe in their extremist creed, are delighted by all this. The more prejudice and intolerance in the west the better, as far as they are concerned, as it reinforces their propaganda. The worst thing we could do to ISIS is help Muslim asylum seekers as this would send back the message that contradicts the ISIS line that we hate Muslims and persecute them. This was the message that I picked up from Nicholas Henin a Frenchman who was held prisoner by ISIS for 10 months (his video interview is really interesting and if I was a politician I would take his perspective very seriously. His suggestions for defeating ISIS make a lot of sense).
For very different reasons both ISIS and our tabloid media use propaganda to encourage intolerance, fear and inter-ethnic hatred. It’s hard to see where all this will lead to. All I can hope is that you will be welcomed, nurtured, allowed to work and educate your children and given the option of going home if you so desire.
Photo credit: This is a photo of Steve Jobs and his biological father — Abdul Fattah Jandali — who was a Syrian immigrant to the USA.