How does immigration unearth hidden racism in the UK?

By Punsita Ritthikarn

Punsita Ritthikarn

The word ‘expatriate’ is a problematic term used by white Westerners when they are working overseas to distance themselves from the ‘immigrant/migrant’ terms, which are often loaded with negative connotations, but really, they are migrants too, writes Punsita Ritthikarn.

Immigration in the UK was initially prompted by labour shortages in the post-second World War era. In the late 1950s, many Asian immigrants were welcomed to work in English mill towns. Some of them had high-skilled occupations such as doctors. In the mid-1980s, the strength of the British economy influenced a massive influx of new migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees like many Roma minorities living on the margins of European societies. 

These persecuted Roma people escaped from poverty and discrimination in Eastern European countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia, with high hopes for better living conditions in the UK. In 2013, Koller Gabriel-Adrian, the mayor of two Romanian improvised villages, Berlini and Uliuc, claimed that half of the Roma residents would move to Britain in pursuit of higher salaries and the welfare system. Now, there are around 30,000 Roma communities across the UK. 

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Caption: Indian migrant workers  make their way on home by foot / Credit: AP Photo 

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Yet, Brexit puts Roma migrants at risk of deportation as they will be unable to provide the necessary documentation to be granted residency. Also, they may lack English language skills or IT skills to complete the online application process. Seemingly, this point-based immigration plan reflected the zero-tolerance towards low-skilled migrant workers with limited English proficiency regarded as the burden of the state.

Yet, Brexit puts Roma migrants at risk of deportation as they will be unable to provide the necessary documentation to be granted residency. Also, they may lack English language skills or IT skills to complete the online application process.

Many Roma fear that the post-Brexit immigration system will harm their employment opportunities and legal entitlement, particularly their young children’s future in the UK.  “I am quite uncertain right now and fear whether we will be able to stay here or we will have to leave,” said George, a Roma worker at a bread factory in Luton. He moved to England from Romania in 2017 with his wife and three children for better-paid work and better education.  

Many Roma fear that the post-Brexit immigration system will harm their employment opportunities and legal entitlement, particularly their young children’s future in the UK.

George was concerned about the residency application process as he would be unable to complete it without any assistance to know which documentation to prepare. But, he said that returning to Romania “ is unthinkable”.  In fact, Roma people in the UK, like George, still confronted similar unfair situations like disadvantage and prejudice in Romania.  

“They face significant difficulties in trying to access healthcare, education, employment and housing”, said Rebecca Hilsenrath, the chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. She noted that 50% of Britain people expressed unfavourable views of Roma people. 

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Caption : Denied migrants fear to return home / Credit: AP Photo  

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However, the UK remains a more attractive destination than their country of origin. These migrants “may compare their experience to life in their country of origin and feel that they have benefited from moving – even if they still face some disadvantages.”, said Dr Marina Fernandez-Reino, a researcher at the Migration Observatory. 

Meanwhile, some Asian migrant labourers  never experience racial discrimination or unfair treatment in their offices as there are strong rules or guidelines around equality and diversity in the workplace. Still, they might fall victim to the hostile environment in other public places. 

“I don’t believe that I have experienced discrimination in the workplace”, Chandra, a 24-year-old Indian-born Singaporean Audit Associate said firmly. “However, while at university there were a couple of isolated incidents where people subtly treated us differently because we looked different. That being said, I doubt this makes me feel like I’m at a disadvantage”, he lamented. 

Chandra further explained the “isolated incidents” by giving the two examples of his 3-year college life at the University of Warwick when he studied accounting and finance before moving to work in London. He related, “when choosing groups, people would tend to not choose me and instead choose British classmates simply because they’re the majority in the classroom. This became better once I was closer friends with some British people. Another example is when I’m sitting on the bus with a free seat beside me, someone decides not to sit beside me”. 

Generally, Chandra tended to “ignore and filter out” this situation because he personally believes that “cultural differences make way for unfair treatment at times”. He said, “while the UK has grown accustomed to seeing migrants from European countries as equals; for example, treating them equally, with the huge cultural differences, the UK has not had time to assimilate to this change, and thus there is a much higher incidence of discrimination or unfair treatment against migrants from non-EU countries.” 

Chandra noted that this comes in the form of social behaviour; for example, choosing a Polish corner shop rather than an Indian one, as well as policies for non-EU nationals not having access to jobseekers’ allowance or tax credits. 

Similarly, Rahmah, a 36-year-old mother from Malaysia who stayed in Sheffield with her husband in 2018, felt “intimidated” when first starting her job as a journalist. At that time, she was the only Asian Muslim wearing a hijab in the newsroom, feeling different from her British colleagues. 

Previously, she believed that she would be discriminated against on the grounds of her skin colour and religion. Yet, she said that her colleagues are “nice and helpful” as people in Sheffield “always welcome people from all walks of life”. She noted that this makes this city “a melting pot of different cultures”.

Still, Rahmah contended that “people of colour are often discriminated, especially in predominantly-Caucasian areas”. She said that “the white British refuse to live next door” to the residents from South Asia such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indians so “the city council lumps these migrants.”

Still, Rahmah contended that ” people of colour are often discriminated, especially in predominantly-Caucasian areas”. She said that “the white British refuse to live next door” to the residents from South Asia such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indians so “the city council lumps these migrants.”

“Thankfully I never experienced such a thing ever since I moved”, said Barni, a 24-year-old technology associate who recently settled down in Glasgow with his girlfriend Ella in July 2019. 

“I’m a white male so I’m unquestionably at huge advantage in not being discriminated against” , he added. Also, he noted that this is because “European culture is much closer to the British than some other more different country outside of Europe”. 

Both Barni and Ella tend to stay in this Scottish port city rather than in their country of origin as this young Budapestian couple “wanted to move away from Hungary and this was the perfect opportunity for us to do just that”.

Barni said “There are several reasons why I decided to move to Glasgow. My girlfriend got admitted to Glasgow University and also I got an opportunity to move with Morgan Stanley from the Budapest office. My career options are much better and the NHS does a much better job of treating people than the Hungarian healthcare system”. Moreover, he likes how “extremely friendly” Scottish people in this city are.

“I’m never discriminated”, said Jean-Charles, a 30-year-old French manager who recently moved from Le Midi to start a new life in Scotland where he would like to learn English, believing the “Scottish accent is a good school for it”. The main reason given for the fact that he never faces a hostile environment like other white migrants is that “people here in Glasgow or in the UK have an Occidental mind”. 

Now, Jean-Charles is working as an advisor for two months in Inverness, an ancient city in Highlands where he enjoys stunningly beautiful landscape. He earns more money here than he did previously in France. Conversely, he doesn’t recognise himself as a migrant worker, stating “I’m an expatriate more than a migrant”. 

Now, Jean-Charles is working as an advisor for two months in Inverness, … He earns more money here than he did previously in France. Conversely, he doesn’t recognise himself as a migrant worker, stating “I’m an expatriate more than a migrant”.

In contrast, Mark, a British postgraduate from the University of Glasgow thinks that the word ‘expatriate’ is a problematic term “used by white Westerners to distance themselves from the ‘immigrant/migrant’ terms, which are often loaded with negative connotations, but really, they are migrants too.” 

Similarly, Beth, Mark’s classmate from Edinburgh, and Anna, a Cambridge student from Essex, define migrant workers as a foreigner worker including expatriate and guest workers. Both of them do not believe that these migrants “take my job”.

Anna further explained that these migrants are “a vital presence both economically and socially in the UK” on the grounds that “they often provide crucial labour where there is otherwise not enough and contribute a great deal to the country”. She claimed: “Just one key area is healthcare; according to the Office for National Statistics, as of March 2019, 19% of the NHS’ workforce was of non-British nationality”. 

When Beth and Anna shared the same opinion that all migrant labourers are valuable across all skills and levels so none of them is bad,  Mark conversely believes that there are good and bad migrants as “there are good and bad people everywhere- it’s nothing to do with their race, nationality or culture”. 

Mark conversely believes that there are good and bad migrants as “there are good and bad people everywhere- it’s nothing to do with their race, nationality or culture”.

“I do agree that there are good and bad migrant workers such as those who abuse the benefits system, the NHS system or not so legal operations such as grooming gangs”, said James*, a political undergraduate of Strathclyde originating from Kent. “The best example is the North of England and the grooming gang crisis or those living off the benefit system. They are not from Western countries and have very strong religious views”, he added. 

Meanwhile, James considers those good migrants are “a benefit for the most, the only issue is if the money earned is being sent elsewhere rather than it being in circulation or abuse the system – both legal and economic”. “The society-best examples are the Sikh society, they integrate but also keep a sense of identity and are proud to be British”, he pointed out. 

However, James opined that the problem is that “the majority of migrant workers are actually low skilled. Some people applying and being accepted have little to no English skills or interest in integrating. Also, migrants who do work are abused by the system as cheap labour.”, he added.

Still, he maintained that he has neither major issues with nor personal feelings towards migrant labourers as long as “they are actively contributing to society” and “they are actively putting money back in the system, follow the law and respect the British culture and the people here.” 

By contrast, Donna, one of the Scottish residents in the East End of Glasgow said, “there are migrants who have every intention of coming in, working and making a better life for themselves and their families. And then there are migrants who come because of the benefits that they can receive here. That annoys me.”

”If you’re coming to make the country better, come. If not, I feel we’re already on our knees”, she added. 

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British concern about immigration peaked in September 2015

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This evidence from research associate Anna Gawlewize’s 2019 interview with 20 Scottish-British residents about “what people say about migration and Brexit: stories from Glasgow’s East End” points out that migrants are made to be “scapegoats in public and political debates”.

While many Scottish residents, like Donna, admitted that they had tied into ”racist anti-immigration”, others conversely expressed sympathy for the migrants in the UK on the basis of cultural unity rather than their contribution to the Scottish economy, society and communities.

Des is one of those Scottish residents who are supportive of immigration, believing that Scotland needed “new blood” to “fill in major gaps in the employment market”. Yet, he opined that Arab nations “don’t want to integrate. And we shouldn’t be bending over backwards to help them.”, whereas the East European people are “ more like us: they like their football, they like their drink”.

Meanwhile, Oxford Migration Observatory research on attitudes to immigrants shows that one-third of the British people would not welcome Nigerians and Pakistanis to the UK, while only 1 in 10 would like to stop migration from culturally closed countries such as Australia. 

Not surprisingly, most of the EU migrants have reportedly experienced less racial discrimination in the UK than those from culturally distinctive regions like Arab and Asia. Apparently, the preference for cultural unity is a strong predictor of the “ethnic hierarchies” or the hostility towards immigration in British society. 

James totally agreed that “there is a stereotype or a stigma to people’s perceptions, mainly those from Western countries,  tending to be seen as hard workers and share a similar culture and values”, whereas Anna admitted, “existing levels of racism in all societies may have led to more incidents of discrimination targeted at those from minority ethnic groups in the UK”. 

Anna admitted, ”existing levels of racism in all societies may have led to more incidents of discrimination targeted at those from minority ethnic groups in the UK”. 

Meanwhile, Mark noted that ”the Western nations are predominantly white, and racism is embedded in the fabric of our society, therefore some people are more tolerant of white migrant workers because they appear to be just like them” 

”Walking down the street, they might not even know that they are not from this country. Migrants from non-Western countries may either be a different ethnicity or wear religious or cultural attire that instantly triggers the racists”, he said. ”They don’t like to see brown/black/Asian people because they are racist, they only want to be around white people.” Mark personally thinks ”society is better the more culturally diverse it is, so I don’t discriminate between Western or non-Western workers – we’re all human” 

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Caption: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issues a statement on Brexit and independence / Credit : AP Photo 

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Nonetheless, the migration in Scotland is drastically different to the rest of the UK – particularly England and Wales since the Scottish government expressed a positive stance towards migration in opposition to any changes in the immigration rules that create economic barriers.

“Scotland has a long tradition of being more tolerant and welcoming of foreigners, whereas many English people, particularly in the small towns are more inclined to believe that England should close its borders”, Mark related. “They have been fed a narrative by the media and political circles that immigrants are to blame for unemployment and the stagnant economy, which is untrue. This is not to say that Scotland doesn’t have any people who share these views, but our people and our government are generally much more open and accepting of diversity”.

He said, “Right now, Scotland’s problem is that we have an ageing population, soon there will be too many elderly people and not enough young adult workers. It is in the government’s best interests to have migrant workers come here in order to protect businesses and industries”. 

Also, Beth hoped that Scotland’s left-leaning, progressive social policy would support migrant labourers. In contrast, James recognised himself as a firm believer that the Scottish government should act in British interests to protect the system rather than in terms of social justice and morality called “white guilt” or precisely “Western guilt”.

Nevertheless, Scotland’s autonomy on this matter is still uncertain because they are subject to legislation passed by Westminster. Eventually, the challenge for the Scottish government will be to break away from “the rotting corpse of the United Kingdom. Without independence, Scotland doesn’t have the ability to keep its borders open if Westminster do otherwise”, Mark said.

*James is a pseudonym used for student’s anonymity

Punsita Ritthikarn is an MA Journalism student at the University of Glasgow.

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