Brexit, Bins and Blaming the Victim: UK Debates on Immigration and Integration

By Naaz Rashid

Last week a rather irate Polish friend told me how he’d set his alarm for 6.00 am on his day off to put his rubbish out. His local authority doesn’t provide wheelie bins and he was fed up of the local foxes ripping his bin bags to shreds and scattering rubbish everywhere, which invariably happened if the bags were put out the night before. Considerably later that morning he saw that the rubbish had not been collected and understandably was rather annoyed he’d got up unnecessarily early to do his civic duty when the council had clearly failed to do theirs.

Enter Louise Casey, the integration Tsar, who this week suggested that Eastern European migrants should be told when to put the rubbish out. Moreover, she added that they should also be told when they needed to queue and when to be nice. Her comments emerged during questioning by the APPG on the integration of immigrants that launched its interim report last week. Casey is herself the author of a recent review into integration. Hers, however, was initiated by David Cameron and examined the relationship between integration and Islamic radicalisation, thereby focusing on Muslim communities, predominantly those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds. By contrast, the APPG interim report is focused predominantly on EU migrants highlighting the need for integration to be a two-way process and clearly stating the importance of decoupling integration from counter terrorism.

Despite these clear differences in remit and approach and whilst ostensibly focused on different communities, both reports highlight the prominence given to integration in social policy circles. Both share a definition of integration that represents a marked move away from earlier definitions which distinguished it from a ‘flattening process of assimilation’; instead integration has been reframed as part of a nationalist assimilationist discourse. As such, in both reports, very real and material problems and concerns are erroneously and counter-productively subsumed within narratives of integration, national identity, which act as smokescreen for complex socio economic and historical problems.

It is worth remembering that Louise Casey oversaw the Troubled Families programme that was criticised by the Public Accounts Committee for ‘overselling and underdelivering’ on its objectives. The programme followed the 2011 ‘riots’ and was premised on decontextualizing the disturbances from broader socio-economic problems, locating the problems in ‘troubled families’ and stigmatising the poor along the way. That too looked for the next folk devil to demonise. Through both these interventions Louise Casey emerges as a shock jock of the policy world, playing to the baying readership of the Daily Mail practically writing their headlines for them.

As with the Troubled Families initiative, in Casey’s review on integration and the APPG’s interim report, some of the most marginalised communities in Britain are being put on trial.  Following the Brexit vote and the marked rise in racist attacks against both more recent EU migrants and third and fourth generation BME communities, already marginalised communities are being further targeted. Both reports on integration share the self-belief that somehow, they are addressing something new. Yet these ‘difficult, honest conversations’, of which there can seemingly never be enough, have continued with depressing regularity throughout the latter half of the last century and most of this one. Ever since, that is, black and brown citizens of the British empire first started to arrive in noticeable numbers, with passports rather inconveniently bestowed on them by the mother country. Despite the many changes since then, the continuities between postcolonial migration and contemporary EU migration need to be recognised.

Throughout this period, the relationship between immigration and integration has always been presented as a symbiotic one, a double-edged sword, where having too much of the former will adversely impact the likelihood of the other. This trade-off has historically allowed for the citizenship rights of former colonial subjects to be successfully eroded through successive governments’ immigration policies and justified through recourse to safeguarding integration. This same equation now jeopardises the rights of current EU migrants, many of whom have been living, working, paying taxes and contributing in a myriad of ways to British society and its economy for many years, as postcolonial migrants before them.

Less prioritised within these debates, however, are the effects on integration of telling EU migrants and other Others that ‘you’re ok as long as there aren’t too many of you’. And if, as the APPG at least recognises, integration is a two-way street, we also need to examine the effects of telling (predominantly white) British people, whose sense of belonging and entitlement as part of the national polity are never questioned, that ‘we’ as a country can decide who can come here, what they can wear, who they can marry, whether they can work or whether they cannot. Tabloid driven fears about immigration are very often unfounded but are responsible for legitimating overtly racist and xenophobic language. Yet, the very real fears of those ‘othered’ in these anti-immigration narratives are underplayed, given mere lip service or ignored entirely. Indeed, discussions about racism are more about disavowing racism when it exists or arguing that fear of racism prevents open debate. Instead the reality of racism fostered through the normalisation of far-right narratives remains unchecked.

Furthermore, integration narratives imply that social unrest and inequality didn’t exist prior to British citizens from former colonies availing themselves of their right to migrate here. Similarly, the deep divisions and inequality allegedly highlighted by the Brexit debate are presented as a recent phenomenon, the result of globalisation and migration rather than endemic within capitalism per se. Inequality is part and parcel of Britain, rooted in feudalism, class antagonism, deindustrialisation and regional inequality exacerbated by poor social mobility and, most recently, ideologically driven policies of austerity. Top down integration narratives are, therefore, a tool to divide and rule and encourage dangerous scapegoating thereby serving as a smokescreen for more fundamental issues. It seems that the Labour Party too is now succumbing to this narrative, dressing up its care for workers’ rights in UKIP wolf’s clothing rather than harnessing the possibilities of solidarity. (See for example the British lorry driver who raised almost £200k for the family of the Polish lorry driver killed in the Berlin attack.)

My Polish friend, whose efforts to get his rubbish collected on time, had also coincidentally recently been involved in an employment tribunal. He was asked to act as a witness for a co-worker, originally from Romania, who had missed half a day’s work but had then not been paid for the whole of his ten-day shift by his construction company. The co-worker lost his case, losing a few thousand pounds in the process.  Perhaps Casey might want to add knowledge of workers’ rights to her list of recommendations for facilitating ‘integration’.

Dr Naaz Rashid is a Research Fellow in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is the author of Veiled Threats: Representing the Muslim Woman in Public Policy Discourse published by Policy Press. She can be followed on Twitter @naazrashid.

Originally posted 15th January 2017

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