Hostility and Dissent: Resisting Anti-immigrant Messaging

by Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Meena Patel

In the midst of increasing anti-immigration rhetoric and policy, people continue to resist, dissent and formulate alternative narratives.

First published: 14 July, 2015 | Category: 

During the summer of 2013, a group of ethnic minority women that had been meeting at Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a women’s centre in west London, began discussing media coverage of migration, cuts in access to welfare, proposals that welfare benefits claimants should undergo English language tests, government statements about restricting student entry into the country and proposals for a new Immigration Act (now passed into law). They exchanged information about stops and checks by immigration officials at their local train stations and bus stops and the frequency of raids on local businesses. There was already a sense that immigration enforcement had intensified and begun encroaching on the lives of local people. The women viewed these developments as deeply worrying and inhumane and they discussed ways in which they could protest these incursions. So, when an immigration enforcement van pulled up a few doors from the centre’s offices, a simmering unease ignited into spontaneous action. One woman after another came into the centre complaining about the UKBA van parked outside and the likely consequences for some unsuspecting migrant somewhere in the vicinity. A quick consensus was reached to go out onto the street to protest. The women scribbled slogans onto pieces of A3 paper, grabbed a mega phone, and started shouting ‘UKBA go away’. They also decided it was important to warn local residents of the likelihood of a raid by sounding the alarm ‘if you are illegal, run, leave the area, there’s a raid going on!’ This was done in Hindi as the group is in the heart of a South Asian community, where English is not the first language of many people.

The immigration enforcement van drove off in the direction of a small shopping centre known as the Himalaya Palace. Enforcement officers had sealed the entrance to the shopping centre and they were questioning the small businesses and predominantly south Asian workers inside. In a quick subversion of the Home Office agenda, they enacted their own hostile environment by demonstrating at the entrance to the building and using a mega phone to amplify their opposition – these officers were being made unwelcome and ashamed of what they were doing. They also made a point of shouting in Hindi so that local people could understand what was going on. Dozens of local shoppers and passers-by encircled the demonstrators, in solidarity or simply out of curiosity. Some of them voiced contrary opinions and some heated discussions ensued. Some of them filmed the event and, once up on YouTube, the film went viral. One of the SBS workers became the poster girl for a network of activists – the Anti Raids Network - that issued similar calls to protest immigration raids across London.

This and other actions around London sparked an urgent push against the totalising impact of anti-immigrant messaging. Moreover, in that moment outside the Himalaya Palace in Southall, state technologies were fractured as minority women, otherwise marginalised by patriarchal settlements between the state and conservative male community leaders, started to set the tone and tenor of counter-hegemonic messaging and spaces of dissent.

In this second part of this two part essay, Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Meena Patel highlight the dissenting voices and the formulation of pro-immigration sentiments coming through from the west London data collated as part of the Mapping Immigration Controversy project.

Modes of resistance

Two public meetings in Southall (September 2013 and April 2015) and interviews with local activists highlighted a range of modes of resistance including the use of social media, on street protest, public meetings, policy level lobbying, individual advocacy and the provision of support services. Many of these activists and organisations relied on a combination of legal and political rights based arguments, economic arguments, social support and appeals to compassion.

As Rita Chadha explained during the 2013 public meeting, the intention to roll out the Go Home van across other parts of England was effectively scuppered by the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL). The organisation legally challenged the Home Office on the basis that it had not met its obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to consider the potential impact on community relations within the relevant boroughs. This legal-juridical approach to the issue was bolstered by over 200 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a number of which claimed that the van caused distress and harm. The Go Home van certainly attracted a great deal of negative media and public attention, particularly among established members of ethnic minority communities who argued that the slogan was reminiscent of 1970s racist abuse. At the time, it seemed the government may have misjudged the public’s appetite for migrant scapegoating. Despite spearheading this legal challenge, Rita Chadha stated that ‘locality is more important than the law’ in April 2015, referring to the importance of developing multi-level local responses and interventions.

‘Model migrant’ protest

The Home Office interest in cultivating hostility appears to be driven as much by cost reduction and austerity - that encouraging people to go back ‘voluntarily’ is cheaper than pursuing a legal process and forcible removals - as it is by ‘race’ and nationalism. In equal measure, some of the resistance has also been along economic lines that potentially occupy the same neoliberal frame as the government’s policies. Hot on the heels of the decision not to roll out the Go Home vans, there was stiff opposition to the Coalition government’s 2013 proposal to introduce £3,000 ‘visa bonds’ for applicants from six specific countries - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Ghana – identified as at ‘high risk’ of over staying their visa. Reports suggest the proposals were eventually dropped because a number of the government departments, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Communities and Local Government, expressed their opposition and the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg threatened to veto the plans. Politicians that had otherwise been silent on the development of a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants raised concerns about the contradictions of a government passing this policy and simultaneously courting trade relations with India and Nigeria. In fact The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, described this as  ‘one of the most unpopular immigration proposals of the Conservative-led coalition government in the United Kingdom’. Even Harrods raised concerns about the impact of such proposals on luxury tourists from Nigeria and an Asian news channel was reported as saying that Britain wants India’s money “but it doesn’t want the Indians”.

The Indian Workers’ Association – Great Britain (IWA-GB) were involved in mobilising a civil society lobby against the proposals that led to a 20,000 strong petition being submitted to Downing Street in October 2013, various fringe meetings at party conferences and a meeting at the House of Commons. In their arguments, the contribution to the economy appears to act as an important lever for arguments about rights and discrimination. This is best illustrated in the following quote from one of their press releases:

The move to withdraw the introduction (of the visa bonds plan) recognises the enormous benefit to Britain from Foreign Investment. From official OECD figures, India entrepreneurs invested £35 billion in UK, while the UK based companies invested £20 billion in India. A net gain of £15 billion in Britain’s favour. This investment is most noticeable in the motor, engineering, food and steel industry is creating jobs for people in Britain… entrepreneur Shishir Bajoria highlighted the jobs creation by Indian Industrial houses in Britain. A fact acknowledged by Prime Minister David Cameron during his visits to India. He also exposed the double standards being applied; that when the need was there then India as part of BRICS was invited as an additional member to the G8 before making it a permanent member of G20. This was done with the specific intention of reviving the western economies following the financial meltdown of 2008. Yet when it comes to movement of people and an equitable treatment of dignity and respect its people are confronted with visa bonds.

Moreover, an interview with a west London activist involved in this campaign highlighted his sense that we also need to respond to insistence from the state and popular press that migrants are highly dependent on the state:

Because we were painted and tainted as though all we are here for is seeking welfare, and that’s all our people were doing, coming here. The images were shown, (of) beds in sheds, rather than actually recognising the contribution that was being made. And saying ok, let’s bring them up to a safe standard, let’s make sure that you actually regularise them. And similarly we’ve always maintained that the people who have lived here for 3-4 years, and have come here, or came as students and overstayed and are now working, are making a contribution, regularise their papers.

There are similarities between this and some of the arguments made by activists involved in the Chinatown shutdown in October 2013 in their ability to identify and prize open the contradictions of a neo liberal state.

The Chinatown shutdown was the culmination of an intensification of raids on Chinese restaurants and businesses at the heart of London. We interviewed a west London activist who had been at the centre of counter-mobilisations. He noted the coming together of two issues that prompted them: the material and financial implications on local businesses and the recognition that these actions involved racial profiling of the Chinese community. This state performance of toughness on immigration took place in the form of 13 ‘fishing raids’ (raids that are not intelligence led) within a space of six weeks during peak trading hours on Friday and Saturday evenings, in turn driving customers away and costing Chinese businesses tens of thousands of pounds whenever undocumented (itself a precarious term) workers were found on their site. Businesses could be fined up to £10,000 per employee that did not have permission to work in the UK. The west London activist pointed out that these Home Office tactics had led to the closure of some Chinese businesses for the first time in several years. The cultural and business organisation, London Chinatown Chinese Association, joined forces with a rights based anti-discrimination group, Minquan, to bring about a half day strike where workers and business people withdrew their labour and their business and walked out on to the streets leaving Chinatown engulfed in an eerie silence. The action coincided with George Osborne’s visit to China. Our west London activist articulated the way the state’s own contradictions had given rise to this act of resistance:

I think it really sent a message to the government in this country and in China itself, that the British were trying to do business, this is the same time Osborne had gone to China and tried to do business, their policies were adversely affecting Chinese businesses in this country. And secondly, that something which they didn’t understand had triggered the Chinese community to pursue that course of action.

There are also important similarities with the way that the peculiar combination of economics and a sense of discrimination helped bring together people with diverse political interests including foreign governments, large retailers, business and industry, cultural associations, employers, employees, workers’ rights groups, anti-racist groups, and potential tourists. Indeed our west London activist described the way that the state’s actions and counter-mobilisations had led to the politicisation of a relatively benign cultural organisation that has subsequently been involved in other issues such as the impact of austerity on local Chinese doctors’ surgeries and the National Health Service.

Along the same lines, during the Southall public meeting of April 2015, Charlotte Peel of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants spoke about the Movement for Xenophobia’s poster campaign, known by its hashtag #IAmAnImmigrant, intended to counter negative messaging about migrants peddled by the popular press and also by political parties. This campaign comprised photographs of 15 people from different occupational backgrounds introducing themselves and declaring themselves to be immigrants. The immense popularity of the campaign is evidenced by the fact that over £50,000 was raised within a matter of weeks through crowd funding, leading to the posting of 440 images on billboards across the London underground and another 550 at rail stations across the country. Thousands of people have now used the hashtag to tweet photographs of these posters. There is no doubt about the importance of all these campaigns. The I Am An Immigrant campaign pulls people away from the numbers game, introduces familiarity and personalises immigration. The posters carry individual testimonies of people whose families at some point migrated to the UK and have likely been involved in improving the quality of your life, with a nurse, a fireman, a teacher and a lawyer among those depicted.

As with the other two campaigns, this emphasised the (economic and social) value added to British life by migrants. They bring together economic arguments with concerns about the incidence of racism and racial profiling. The state (and political parties) was not going to be allowed to utilise its highly productive ‘model migrants’ as a basis for negotiating international trade relations and as labour supply while simultaneously targeting and harassing ethnic minority workers and employers living in the UK.

However, there are question marks about how far they are able to embrace sections of local populations who are being further marginalised (and increasingly cleansed) from local areas. These campaigns further open up questions about the relationship between ‘race’ and class. Arguments used potentially operate within the same framework as those used to reframe the political party claims that raising immigration is not about race, racism and nationalism, it’s about making clear distinctions between good and bad citizens. It’s that sort of reframing that has enabled UKIP and the Conservatives to gain electoral support from ethnic minorities to support the tougher approaches to immigration. While pragmatic and politically viable, this neoliberal framework and the resurgence of aspiration do not tackle the divisions that are emerging and being strengthened in local areas. It does not give voice to those migrants that are deemed to be undeserving of our sympathies, the people that are damned for being destitute, for getting involved in prostitution, for smoking, drinking and for becoming dependent on drugs. They may not carry the propensity to forge the kinds of social relations and norms that are required to challenge the sort of disgust that people have started to express towards people that they see as not being economically productive or social valuable.

Changing the conversation?

These divisions within local areas certainly do need to be addressed. As pro-immigrant and counter-hegemonic as the two local public meetings in Southall in 2013 and 2015 were, there were ethnic minority residents in the audience that felt compelled to distinguish the work ethic of post war migrants and the welfare dependency of more recent ones.  One man who self-identified as British Sikh complained his parent’s generation had arrived in the 1960s, worked hard to build themselves up and had never been dependent on the state. He contrasted this history of Southall with the destitute Punjabi men who were eventually removed from under the bridge that marks the borders between the London borough of Ealing and the London borough of Hounslow. He complained that ‘these people’ arrived through illegal means and were taking out much more than they had put in, if anything.

In advance of each of the public meetings, we were out on the streets leafleting and encouraging local people to attend. In the conversations we had with local residents it was clear that people were astounded. It is quite possible that when women poured out of SBS offices in August 2013 to publicly shame the UKBA officers raiding Himalaya Palace that the crowd was as astounded by the pro-immigrant messages as they were of this group of women shouting at state officials. Perhaps the message that anyone should have the right to be here, irrespective of ‘race’ and class, has become the real spectacle? And that is itself a shocking realisation in an area long associated with welcoming migrants as a ‘home from home’, with a long history of fighting for the right of migrants and the birth place of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the Indian Workers Association and many an immigration campaign. When we visited local shopkeepers to ask them to put up posters about the public meetings, their initial reaction was to complain about that illustrious bogeyman, the idle benefits scrounging illegal migrant and all the problems this person was bringing to bear on local areas. This sense that raids are acceptable, and the resounding echoes of voices across Southall streets that hold the view ‘they should return back to their countries, they shouldn’t be here’ was extraordinary. They were blaming immigration for recession and for the loss of local jobs.

So in response, we also frequently reached for an argument based on economic non-dependence. We reminded people that many migrants lived in their own homes, paid their own rent, earned their own money and often survived on very low incomes. And we argued that people should focus on employers not the people who are working to ensure that they can survive at whatever wage they can get. We reminded people of the risks thousands of people are taking in return for a better life. On the realisation that we were positively in favour of entry for all, irrespective of ‘race’, class and capital, there was often an about turn; people expressed curiosity about this view and several echoed our concerns. A number of local women overheard our attempts to convince a local shopkeeper to carry a poster and were positively relieved to hear opinions that were welcoming of immigrants.

The problem is that these people were not at the public meetings. Most attendees were representatives of community and political organisations, people mobilised through existing political networks. The days where immigration could cause the local population to go on strike appear to have disappeared. And there is an assumption that those ‘hard working families’ the state often pitches its claims against are necessarily right wing and exclusionary. What we learnt through the two public meetings is that, where the hostile environment is able to proliferate its messages unimpeded, multiple forms of bigotry are amplified. But when people step forward and express their shock and disdain for anti-immigrant sentiments, this can generate a change of feeling about the government’s hostility agenda. However in order to do this, we need to be out, on the streets and across social media, regularly engaging people in conversation and reminding them of the larger (historical) story – the ‘we are here because you were there’.

Bring racism back into conversations about immigration

We believe that pushing against arguments that claim tougher immigration measures are not racist, should become a significant tactic for all forms of resistance. At the April 2015 public meeting, a member of a local community organisation could not understand why MIC project findings suggested ethnic minorities in general might be impacted by campaigns that profess to target ‘illegal immigrants’. Several other audience members were quick to respond to his scepticism. A member of the Indian Workers Association talked about the links between the Home Office hardline on immigration and the fact that their proposals to introduce £3000 visa bonds had specifically targeted African and Asian countries. Another member of the audience, this time a local trade union activist at the forefront of a campaign to save the local hospital against closure, stated that she regularly had to counter racist views alleging that problems with the health service are a consequence of ethnic minorities coming in to the country. Indeed, the MIC project findings suggest that when we bring back discussions about racism and remind people of the racist nature of immigration campaigns, they are more likely to unite and mobilise against these measures. Moreover, by foregrounding the ‘race’ dimension, we can remind people of the historical links between ‘race’ and arguments based on hygiene or ‘race’ as a key ingredient of numerous moral panics about numbers being out of control (whether that is the sense that we are being ‘swamped’ or overburdened by benefits claimants). These are the same arguments that underpin sentiments that frame social cleansing of local areas. So foregrounding ‘race’ carries the potential to tackle the divisions between good/bad citizens or between deserving/undeserving migrants. It also acts as a timely reminder of the long histories of migration to the UK and the recurring racism at the heart of immigration controls. Perhaps bringing ‘race’ back in could help us change the current conversation.

Find out more about the Mapping Immigration Controversy project here and follow it on Twitter.

Sukhwant Dhaliwal is a Research Fellow at the International Centre: Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Trafficking and Violence at the University of Bedfordshire. She is a member of the research team for the Mapping Immigration Controversy project.

Meena Patel is the Operations Manager at Southall Black Sisters, a women’s centre in greater west London that provides advice and support to ethnic minority women and children fleeing violence and abuse. Southall Black Sisters is one of the community partners on the Mapping Immigration Controversy project.

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