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26 August 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:01pm

Our immigration debates keep ignoring the people behind the numbers

Families' suffering will continue while policy and debate continues to neglect them and their experiences.

By Steve Valdez-Symonds

This week we have had the latest quarterly immigration statistics. Their publication has once again prompted a flurry of headlines and opinion about numbers, much of it sensational and alarmist. Just as the immigration policy notionally being discussed, this commentary pays next to no heed to the experience of the women, men and children subjected to it.

Both pro- and anti-immigration voices perpetuate this. While, for example, ministers describe European citizens as “negotiating capital” in Brexit talks, economists and others emphasise the importance of immigration for specific sectors or the wider economy.

Even more positive statements on the social contribution of migrants, intended to counter deliberately derogatory and dehumanising headlines and soundbites, tend to pass over the individual lives at stake – particularly if those lives are at all messy (or should that be real?)

Isn’t it time we asked ourselves just what impact this all has on people – those directly affected, but also their loved ones and society more widely?

Today – as they did yesterday and will do tomorrow – isolated and frightened people will choose not to approach a police officer, speak to a neighbour or visit a doctor because of immigration policy. Some of them will be ill, pregnant or struggling to feed their children. Others will be exploited and abused by employers, partners or traffickers. Indeed, some will be in need of support and protection from several of these and for other reasons.

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They will choose not to speak out to people who could help them – who in some cases have a duty to help them – because at best they cannot trust those people not to treat them with suspicion. At worst, they cannot trust that information about them will not be passed to the Home Office leading to them being detained and possibly deported.

We should ask what and whom does it serve to maintain the social exclusion from which these people suffer? Certainly not their or their children’s needs and interests.

At last year’s Conservative Party conference, the Home Secretary called on us all to confront difficult questions concerning how people, particularly women and children, were made or left vulnerable to abuse. The Prime Minister has long styled herself, and now her government, as a champion in the fight against scourges such as domestic violence and human trafficking.

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Of course, not every victim of these and other abuses is a migrant. Then again, migrants are far from the only people harmed by immigration policy and practice that Theresa May branded a “hostile environment”.

Under this policy, tens of thousands are detained every year, most of whom will be released after weeks or months of profound distress back into the same community from which the Home Office ripped them. People are rendered destitute and homeless. They are excluded from accommodation, lawful employment and vital healthcare. Many are separated and kept apart from children and parents.

It leaves many more people living under the threat of these and other harms. Just like those driven by conflict, persecution and poverty into the hands of smugglers and slavers in Libya, these people are made vulnerable to those who will prey on their suspicion of authority and need to support themselves and their family.

The lives of those who suffer are blighted by fear and uncertainty. They include many people entitled to be in the UK, such as children and young people born in this country, yet unable to register the British citizenship to which they are entitled because of scandalously high Home Office fees.

There has been much attention on the excruciating uncertainty thrust upon many European citizens in light of the UK decision to leave the EU, and the government’s failure to guarantee their futures. The bitter reality is that many other people have been living under the threat of changes to immigration rules, hikes in fees and arbitrary immigration enforcement for years.

People’s suffering, and that of their families, will continue while policy and debate on immigration continues to neglect them and their experience. Abusers and criminals who exploit that will benefit.  

This shameful reality demands we all look beyond mere numbers and headlines to attend to that which is at the heart of any immigration system – people.

Steve Valdez-Symonds is Amnesty UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights programme director