On refugees, our lead­ers set the tone

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Nes­rine Ma­lik

The hard­est thing to come to terms with, watch­ing the video of a Syr­ian boy be­ing bul­lied in a Hud­der­s­field school that cir­cu­lated last week, was the sense of in­evitabil­ity to it. The degra­da­tion of the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal cul­ture con­tin­ues to play out: it has been poi­soned by Brexit, jaun­diced by Is­lam­o­pho­bia, while anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment has been nor­malised by the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment. We’ve been head­ing here for years, decades even – to a place where a refugee can flee a civil war to Bri­tain’s safe shores, only to face another type of bar­barism, and be­come a refugee again.

Per­haps that’s why the sym­pa­thetic re­sponse to the video was some­how jar­ring. When our pol­i­tics, me­dia and pop­u­lar cul­ture make im­mi­grant-bash­ing rou­tine, what else do you ex­pect?

Hud­der­s­field is not an iso­lated case. A Guardian anal­y­sis last week re­ported that a record num­ber of chil­dren are be­ing ex­cluded for racist bul­ly­ing. The rise in 2018 of al­most 10% was the high­est re­ported in a decade. School play­grounds can­not be in­su­lated against the hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment.

Stalin is re­puted to have said that the death of one per­son is a tragedy, while the death of mil­lions is a statis­tic. Nowhere is this dis­con­nect more ap­par­ent than in Bri­tish at­ti­tudes to im­mi­gra­tion. There are now two speeds; on a po­lit­i­cal level the tone and prac­tice is anti-im­mi­gra­tion, anti-EU free­dom of move­ment, anti-refugee. On an in­di­vid­ual level, more than £150,000 has al­ready been raised on a crowd­fund­ing page for the bul­lied Syr­ian boy’s fam­ily, who in­tend to use the money to move.

There are two ways to ex­plain this dis­con­nect. The first is that there is lit­tle hope of peo­ple mak­ing the con­nec­tion be­tween in­di­vid­ual cases and im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, and spasms of hor­ror at bul­lied boys or tod­dlers who wash up drowned on beaches will al­ways co­ex­ist with sup­port for anti-im­mi­gra­tion par­ties and views. The sec­ond is that the sym­pa­thy and humanity of many peo­ple’s re­ac­tion to the video can be tapped into, but our lead­ers have failed to do so out of cow­ardice or po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency. I be­lieve the lat­ter is true. We have a gov­ern­ment of hyp­ocrites that is happy to draw votes from peo­ple through fear­mon­ger­ing, but which, when shamed by sin­gle cases of cru­elty, pre­tends there is no link. And we have been failed by an op­po­si­tion that his­tor­i­cally has ei­ther fol­lowed the same poli­cies, or has pre­ferred un­til re­cently to main­tain a cyn­i­cal si­lence.

There is another way for­ward, one that pre­vents a sit­u­a­tion whereby peo­ple set­tle and work in the UK legally, only to find such a toxic at­mos­phere that they can­not thrive. Last week the Ir­ish prime min­is­ter, Leo Varad­kar, tweeted a pic­ture of a cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­mony with the words: “Kil­lar­ney to­day: 3,000 new cit­i­zens sworn in. Since 2011, about 120,000 peo­ple have be­come Ir­ish cit­i­zens, strength­en­ing our econ­omy, run­ning our pub­lic ser­vices and en­rich­ing our so­ci­ety. Con­grat­u­la­tions.” It made me re­alise how far be­hind the UK was to see Varad­kar wel­com­ing new Ir­ish cit­i­zens like this, in Kil­lar­ney – a tourist town where I spent some time in the late 00s. Back then I re­mem­ber fac­ing the first in­ci­dent of street racism in my life, when a group of boys made mon­key noises at me as I walked by.

Other lead­ers have also faced up to their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties: a duty of care to their new cit­i­zens and res­i­dents. Canada’s Justin Trudeau said “coun­tries need to do more than wel­come im­mi­grants” and, on so­cial me­dia, shared videos of re­cently ar­rived So­mali chil­dren re­joic­ing at their first sight of snow. The Ger­man chan­cel­lor, Angela Merkel, whom his­tory will judge kindly for her open im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies, even if some of her con­tem­po­raries sneer at her “naivety”, said: “We can do it.” This kind of lan­guage is ab­sent in the

UK. In­stead, im­mi­grants are num­bers that need to be brought down, ben­e­fi­cia­ries of a free­dom of move­ment that must end, work visa re­cip­i­ents sub­ject to quo­tas that are only ever in­creased when the need for them be­comes un­avoid­able. Their por­trayal is never pos­i­tive, never en­rich­ing, never hu­man.

Mes­sag­ing isn’t the only thing that shapes at­ti­tudes, of course. A lack of over­sight may have con­trib­uted to the rise in racist bul­ly­ing. A duty to mon­i­tor the is­sue was re­moved un­der David Cameron, some­thing one char­ity said was “bury­ing the prob­lem rather than ad­dress­ing it”.

None of this is in­evitable. The bul­ly­ing of one per­son is a tragedy, but the bul­ly­ing of mil­lions is not a statis­tic – it is gov­ern­ment pol­icy.

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