The death of George Floyd has outraged the world. People shared their outrage and solidarity through memes, hashtags, quotes, educational resources and the BLM campaign, others shared evidence of mirrored institutional racism in the UK. But I saw little discussion of the UK’s attitude to immigration. Why is this not included in the conversation?
Understanding the overlap between George Floyd’s death and attitudes towards immigration in the UK involves discussing Britain’s colonial past. Britain justified its domination, exploitation and enslavement of people by setting up a self-other distinction between coloniser and colonised – and this applies to all European colonisation.
Britain professed that its “success” in the colonisation of people in India and Asia and the enslavement of African people who they shipped to British colonies within America and the Caribbean was down to innate qualities. The white coloniser was said to be humane, intelligent and civilised. The colonised black was supposedly primitive, barbaric, savage. The British considered skin colour to mark the differences between themselves and the Other. It is this distinction that is at the root of racial inequality, including Floyd’s death and the UK’s attitude to immigration. It is opposition to this distinction that led to the removal of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston from its Bristol plinth.
Immigration as a racialised concept in the UK can be attributed to the decolonisation of the British Empire and formation of the Commonwealth, which included the statutory right of all British subjects to enter and remain in the UK. This led to debates in the 1950s and 1960s about immigration from the old Commonwealth (New Zealand, Australia, Northern Ireland, Canada and South Africa) and the new Commonwealth (India and the West Indies, for example). Eventually the Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1962 and 1968 were enacted to restrict the movement of “coloured” people while enabling those, considered white to have continued access. Migration politics are about controlling the movement of racialised people.
Britain’s approach to migration has continued to be one of control, deportation, detention, deterrence and the dehumanisation of racialised people. Some poignant examples include the 2012 hostile environment policy, which included the Go Home poster vans being driven through some of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in London (pictured), and the Windrush scandal, which led to many of the Windrush generation wrongly being forcibly deported. The Brexit campaign, which was based on anti-immigration rhetoric, and the resulting vote to leave the EU have led to increases in racially targeted hate crimes. Dehumanising words such as “cockroaches” were used in the media to describe migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
Recently, I carried out research exploring attitudes to immigration that revealed the changing face of the racialised Other in migration narratives, for example from the “coloured immigrant” to the “non-western immigrant”. Our attitude to immigration is about migration, yes, but it is ultimately about race.
Fosu was found naked and without bedding in his cell after suffering a major psychotic episode
Now let’s turn our attention to the tragic deaths of people who came to the UK in search of safety and a better life. In 2012 Prince Fosu from Ghana was found dead in his cell at Harmondsworth immigration removal centre. Fosu was found naked and without bedding in his cell after suffering a major psychotic episode. A recent inquest concluded that neglect and gross failures by the Home Office and other agencies contributed to his death from hypothermia, dehydration and malnutrition. Furthermore, a 2016 report by Medical Justice found that between 2000 and 2015 there were 35 deaths of migrants in detention centres. Most recently we have seen that Covid-19 has killed disproportionately more people of the BAME community, relating to racial health and economic inequalities, many of whom have a migrant background.
The treatment of racialised others – whether it is the normalisation of black murder in the US, the fact that black men are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police or the death of a migrant – is cut from the same cloth: a self-other, white-black dichotomy.
Discussions in the UK on what can be done to help fight racial injustice must include the UK’s attitude to immigration in this conversation. This means challenging anti-immigration rhetoric and the UK’s punitive, repressive and exclusionary migration policies. Standing in solidarity means standing with all black people and non-black people of colour, including migrants.
Jo Biglin is a researcher in social sciences at Manchester University