I was at the BBC studios in MediaCity, Salford, this morning to take part in a radio discussion about immigration. Well, not about immigration itself, but the campaign currently being run by the Tory part of the government (their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are distinctly queasy about it) to show how hard they are regarding illegal immigrants.
Maybe it is a coincidence – and I know Godwin's Law might be invoked here – but yesterday was the anniversary of Zigeunernacht – the night of 2/3 August 1944 when the Gypsy Family Camp (The Zigeunerlager) at Auschwitz-Birkenau was ‘liquidated’. 2,897 men, women and children of Roma or Sinti origin were murdered in the gas chambers by the Nazis, their corpses being burned in pits. Of the 23,000 Gypsies imprisoned within the camp, it is estimated that around 20,000 were ultimately murdered.
Well, it all began with the corruption of language. That's how propaganda works. You change the associations and re-align semantics in order (often subliminally) to change perceptions and manipulate affections. So, yes, I have banged on about language many times before now – and, no, I am not suggesting that the government's current immigration campaign will inevitably lead to another holocaust. But, what I failed to get across coherently on the radio this morning is this:
- We need a full, informed and intelligent public debate about immigration, and not the current polarised, nasty slanging match in which parties compete to be the 'hardest'.
- We must distinguish between the 'issue' of immigration and the current campaign by the government. Immigration is a good thing and without it Britain would be stuffed. Our wealth has been created (for good and ill) by immigrants to this country in recent centuries.
- It is a nasty little distraction to compensate for complete failure by governments to establish, monitor and run an effective immigration policy by targeting a few illegal immigrants with a crude campaign.
- If effectiveness is important in evaluating any policy, then this one must surely be doomed. How many 'offenders' have turned themselves in so far? We are getting daily updates on numbers of 'immigration offenders' on the Home Office's twitter feed, so why not a daily update on the numbers of those handing themselves over?
- Isn't it the great British addition to maintain that people are innocent until proven guilty? Then why are these people called 'immigration offenders' when they can only be 'suspected immigration offenders'? And how many of them are turning out to be people whose applications for asylum or right to remain are held up in the massive and endless backlog queues at the Home Office?
- Net migration is not a problem. Yet, from time to time we hear that we are not getting enough immigrants to met the needs of our economy. Why are immigrants being targeted (and impugned as a financial and social burden) – and why is this being coupled with welfare costs or burdens on the NHS?
These are just some of the questions hanging around. The real issue, however, has to do with the motivation for this unpleasant political campaign. And it is political. It is a macho PR stunt that will achieve little, but cause real damage to language, culture and community. It relies on the sort of categorisation of 'sorts of people' that dehumanises them by association – thus rendering them subject to 'different' values of behaviour or treatment.
The point is that the campaign with the vans, the twitter feed and the selective picking on people at London stations (based on crude racial profiling – if you are not white, you are fair game for stopping and checking) contributes to a coarsening of perceptions about immigrants, regardless of whether they are legal or illegal. It increases fear on the part of immigrants, creates a culture of suspicion and 'anti-otherness', and achieves nothing of any positive purpose.
It all begins with the corruption of language and the confusion of issues. 'Illegal immigrants' morphs into 'immigrants' and the categorisation has begun.
Has any Home Office minister ever visited airport deportation centres and sat down with frightened people to listen to their human story? Aha! But, there's the rub: that would humanise the 'illegal immigrant' and make it harder to get rid of him/her.
If the government wants to address immigration, it should do so by sorting out a workable policy and ensure that those who do apply for asylum or a right to remain are treated humanely, efficiently and effectively – and, if appropriate, prevented from entering the country in the first place. To distract attention with displays of hardness has everything to do with political PR and little to do with reality – except for those whose reality is to be a victim of the campaign.
(And I haven't even started on a Christian theological anthropology of immigration…)