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Britain's immigration debate has taken a turn for the toxic

Whether it is the attacks on migrants crossing the Mediterranean or questions about Nick Clegg's heritage, our national debate on immigration has taken a nasty turn.

The immigration debate has been spiraling into a toxic swamp propelled by cross-party consensus to "control immigration". While a coherent argument on immigration is decades overdue, the current anti-immigrant debate has slipped into a new realm, targeting second generation immigrants. The Daily Express has already attempted to classify the British born BME community as "hidden migrants". With this context, Evan Davis's interview with Nick Clegg was difficult to watch.

Nick Clegg proudly spoke of his European heritage, his Dutch mother, and his grasp of five languages. In an attempt to point out Clegg's elitist upbringing, Davis questioned if Clegg's multicultural upbringing has put him out of touch with the British working class. Davis had a number of examples of elitism to choose: his gap year, his time at Oxbridge, or his public school education. The choice to fixate upon Clegg's multicultural upbringing, suggesting it to be out of touch with "British" people, made for uncomfortable viewing. For centuries immigrants have been an integral part of the British working class. Within the context of the current immigration climate, it feels like further demonisation of BME people.

Davis's intention was unlikely to be intentional racial discomfort, but Clegg's furious reaction mirrored that of many children of migrants. Our Britishness is consistently questioned despite having lived in the UK for our entire lives. Casual racism is on the rise, particularly within politics. On the doorstep a BME canvasser is increasingly likely to hear "I don't want your people here", and worse. These experiences lead to racial sensitivity and passing comments questioning multiculturalism vs Britishness can be interpreted as a personal attack when coupled with modern attitudes to race in Britain.

For the British Asian community, the Ugandan exile was only one generation ago. The discussions of identity, culture, and language are still quite raw for many British migrant communities. Fueled by the rising anti immigrant sentiment, communities are continuously feeling unwanted. This is leading to a rise in extremism, as well as record levels of BME voter apathy. A BBC news personality should understand the effects of language within such a climate and should be able to recognise why using such an argument is harmful towards people already at risk of social exclusion.

Davis's unwillingness to comprehend the harm to BME communities demonstrates a lack of compassion, as well as a lack of cultural awareness at the BBC. His intentions may not have been malicious, but seeing such comparisons on prime time BBC One make the children of migrants feel like they must justify their heritage and language to all of the people they meet on a regular basis who question their identity. Davis does not have to regularly prove his 'Britishness' and therefore he is unable to comprehend his statement for people who have to regularly prove their British identity.

The immigration debate has taken a drastic turn if journalists are so desensitised to such cultural comparisons possibly causing harm. Britain has thrived on multiculturalism, yet if the "British working class" see multiculturalism as an elitist concept, we have serious problems with integration. Politicians need to prioritise multicultural integration within these communities if Davis's statement is true. The curriculum must be reformed to ensure young people are taking up languages. Our cultural divisions are being exploited by politicians and communities are falling behind. Integration can only go hand in hand with an acceptance of multiculturalism and diverse communities. For immigrants and their children, political discourse is attempting to create divisions within society. We constantly feel like we must prove our value and it is not helped by journalists inadvertently contributing to these divisions. We need to seriously look into why multiculturalism is regarded as an elitist concept, despite the "British working class" being extremely multicultural. Most of all, we need to acknowledge when the immigration debate creates sensitivity and unease within BME communities.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.