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Migrant haters? A brief look back at ‘migrant crises’ in the UK

Patrick Ward By Patrick Ward Published on November 4, 2015

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In the last year of the 20th century, there was a different “migrant crisis” on the British news agenda. Back then it was Kosovans, rather than Syrians, who were the main target, as they fled war in their own land and attempted to settle anywhere else, sometimes in the UK.

On the English south coast, the Dover Express local newspaper would describe the refugees in 1999 as “human sewage”, the Daily Mail used the term “Kosovo on Sea” and the Sun thoughtfully contributed with the simple demand: “Kick the gypsies out”. In an attempt to get with the programme, the then Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw used the opportunity to attack travellers. This, predictably, strengthened the morale of the far-right, with regular marches along the Margate sea front by groups such as the neo-Nazi National Front. We would always organise a counter-protest, and attempt to block the route of the police-stewarded demonstrations. But, in all honesty, our pro-immigration campaigning felt like a minority sport. It was easy to become demoralised at the tide of anger against those trying to find a better life abroad.

The Kosovans didn’t change our way of life, our public services survived the wave of
immigration and the nationwide crime spree of criminally minded travellers failed to live up to tabloid expectations.

A section of the British population, driven by the media and politicians, has a long history of fearing a succession of “others” from beyond our shores. Sometimes we look back on those times with rose-tinted glasses, most notably on the period of Jewish immigration during the time of the Holocaust. Since we were the good guys who stopped Hitler, it didn’t really fit the history books to remember our own part preventing Jews finding a safe haven. In fact, the UK only accepted less than 10,000 Jewish children. In 1938, the Daily Mail ran articles like this: “‘The way stateless Jews and Germans are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to the fullest.’ In these words, Mr Herbert Metcalde, the Old Street Magistrate yesterday referred to the number of aliens entering this country through the 'back door' - a problem to which The Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.”

In fact, Britain’s first immigration controls, the Aliens Act 1905, were set up following a campaign of vilification against Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The latter-part of the 20th century saw plenty more hysteria over immigrants, often from former colonies. The late 1960s saw a panic over Kenyans, British citizens no less, who the then Labour government sought to keep out, and the 1970s over desperate refugees from Uganda and then Malawi . In each of these examples, it was pressure from British people themselves that pushed the government into a less hardline position.
But the often, apparently dominant, anti-immigrant mood in the UK might lead to the conclusion that we’re just a bunch of racist islanders, afraid of anyone that’s different. But as the previous examples suggest, it’s usually more complicated that that. In this most recent “migrant crisis”, the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned three year old from Syria, marked a significant change in public attitudes. That’s easily dismissed as a simple-minded fickleness of opinion, swayed by one single emotive picture, but considering the barrage of abuse against migrants from the mass media, migrants who many in the UK will rarely meet, the photo brought home the reality of the situation, and elicited a basic human empathy for a boy whose parents would rather take him across the dangerous sea than the more dangerous solid ground of their homes.

Even the Sun and the Daily Mail, until recently demonising the desperate refugees, were forced into a U-turn on the issue in a bid to keep up with public opinion. The Sun even began a campaign to help them - albeit coupled with opportunistic rhetoric of the need for our air force to “blitz” Syria to address the root of the problem. The very fact that 11 per cent of UK households would be willing to take in a refugee speaks volumes.

It’s understandable that at a time of a housing crisis, longer queues for public services and
rising decent employment opportunities that people are angry and want someone to blame. In the absence, until recently, of any mainstream politician making the case that refugees are not to blame for such things, on the contrary, is it any surprise that the gaps in people’s understanding of society are filled in by the reactionary media?
The British establishment is in two minds about immigration and refugees. On the one hand, they are a good source of cheap labour and, to the more canny politician, proof that our “humanitarian interventions”, or “wars” as they are sometimes known, are matched with compassion on our own shores. On the other, they are useful scapegoats for the other problems in society. The latter opinion is usually the loudest.

The truth is that migration has a positive impact on public finances, and that migrants are far less likely to claim benefits than British citizens. These facts were obscured in Home Secretary Theresa May’s recent speech at the Tory Party conference, as she ran back into her comfort zone of blaming migrants for the ills of society.

But even if this weren’t true, we live in a world where money and resources have the freedom to go pretty much wherever they like. Surely, everything else aside, people should be able to do the same, whether looking for a better quality of life or fleeing war, persecution and poverty.

Patrick Ward is a journalist and writer in London. He likes historical non-fiction and sci-fi, which gives him the opportunity to read about what went wrong in the past and how it might be better ... Show More

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