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5 July 2017

The freedom of movement debate splits migrants into those who matter and those who don’t

The most brutal excesses of our border regime are saved for those classed as “bad” immigrants.

By Abi Wilkinson

There’s a genre of article that’s begun to appear in British media with increasing regularity. It focuses on the experience of migrants at the hands of the UK government, and highlights some specific example or another with the expectation that readers will consider the subject’s treatment a grave unfairness. The person featured in the article is always caucasian.

Generally, they’re a professional of some sort – a software engineer, perhaps, or a neuroscientist. Without fail, they hail from a wealthy, white-majority country. Normally somewhere in Western Europe, but occasionally AustraliaNew Zealand or the USA.

The tone of these pieces tends towards incredulity. “Even people like this!” seems to be the subtext. “Even people who look and sound like this are being told they have to leave.” Little attempt is made to question the wider mechanisms of our immigration regime. The injustice is simply that the wrong people have been caught up in the net. Because they’re white and from a similar sort of country to the UK, exotic enough to make you curious about what they eat for breakfast, but basically “one of us” in all of the important ways. Because they have a nice, middle-class career and nice middle-class children, and aren’t like those other immigrants – the ones who come over here to claim benefits and take all the jobs.

Because they’re not like those other immigrants, the subjects’ experience of border enforcement is usually remarkably lacking in belligerence. They’re sent a letter telling them they must make preparations to leave. Sometimes, it seems the letter was sent mistakenly. In other cases, they’ve forgotten to renew their visa or have otherwise messed up some administrative task. Occasionally, our government’s stringent immigration rules (Theresa May has pledged to reduce net immigration to “tens of thousands”) genuinely seem to require them to exit the country.

Regardless of the details, certain things are unlikely to happen to these people. They’re unlikely to be woken by a knock on the door in the small hours in the morning, before being dragged into a van without the opportunity to gather even a few of their personal possessions. They’re unlikely to arrive at their minimum wage workplace for what they believe is a staff meeting, only to find that their employer has conspired with immigration authorities to trap them so they can be arrested.

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They’re unlikely to be locked for weeks, months or even years in a prison-like detention centre with their children. Or forcibly separated from their children. Or be driven to hunger strikesself-harm and other desperate measures in an attempt to escape an immigration removal centre where detainees regularly complain of mistreatment and sexual abuse.

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The most brutal excesses of our country’s border enforcement regime are saved for a specific subset of the people who migrate to the UK and attempt to begin a life here. Certain newspapers dutifully report on the facts and figures, and more horrific examples of the cruelties suffered, but it’s far rarer to find humanising stories about specific people targeted.

When a spotlight is shone on a particular individual, it’s because the iniquity is so extreme it’s impossible to ignore. Like the case of Bashir Naderi, who arrived in Britain aged ten, as an unaccompanied asylum seeker, after witnessing his father’s murder at the hands of the Taliban. Almost a decade later, Naderi is locked in an ongoing battle with our government. Last October, his deportation was temporarily halted by a judge hours before he was due to be forced onto a plane. His case has attracted the support of local MP Jo Stevens, and was featured in the BBC documentary Don’t Deport Me, I’m British.

For every Bashir Naderi, though, there are thousands of other stories we never get to hear. Immigration is discussed by politicians and in mainstream media in cold, clinical terms as a problem we need to solve. Right-wing newspapers run front page stories blaming immigrants for everything from housing shortages to the spread of infectious diseases.

Professional rent-a-gobs like Katie Hopkins are provided with a platform and an income to spread bile. “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants” screamed the headline on one of her columns, published in the Sun. “Show me bodies floating in the water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care” the text continued underneath.

It seems perverse that we’re expected to be most outraged by the treatment of migrants who suffer least at the hands of immigration authorities – those who’re white, middle-class and from wealthy countries similar to our own. It makes sense, though, when you consider the routine demonisation and dehumanisation of those classed as “bad” immigrants. True empathy requires us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the other person. It necessitates an understanding that they’re a thinking, feeling, complex human just like we are.

This is the only way to understand what seems to be fairly widespread hypocrisy on this issue, particularly in the context of the EU freedom of movement debate. It’s perfectly possible to make a strong, moral case about the absolute necessity of open borders. Putting aside the political feasibility of such a move, I find the arguments in its favour fairly difficult to dismiss. Free movement for EU citizens is something different. It’s a right extended only to a privileged group many in the UK find it easier to relate to. There are various other, practical arguments in its favour, of course, and treating EU migrants more harshly wouldn’t do anything to help groups already treated in a similar way.

Still, there seems to be little justification for maintaining this division in the immigration debate – between the immigrants who matter and the ones who don’t.