Immigrants and refugees have always been made scapegoats when they have arrived in this country. But, maintains Kate Taylor, the arguments against their presence have become increasingly sinister. Now allusions to the destruction of our nation are becoming more prolific. Promoting such attitudes of fear in the minds of the public neglects the underlying problems that have created the increasing inequality with which we are faced today. Continuing failure to address these sources of division is cultivating a national identity that is exclusionary and insular, and fails to foster a true sense of belonging in modern-day Britain. What links together the progression of terrorism, Aids and TB and the corrosion of national identity in Britain? The answer: asylum seekers. If we are to believe the proliferation of articles in the media of late, these disparate and threatening trends are coming to the fore not because of growing global instability and poverty and changing demographic trends. Apparently it is the presence of refugees that is undermining our sense of cohesion and safety as a nation.
This feeling has escalated since the tragic murder of PC Stephen Oakes in Manchester a few years ago. The revelation that those responsible were seeking asylum in this country has fostered a linkage between refugees and international terrorism. Yet among asylum seekers are some of the most dispossessed and vulnerable people in the world. So why have they become the scourge of the nation? The scoring of political points by stimulating fear is a crucial factor. Asylum is a debate that needs to happen. But it is not debate but demonisation that is taking place, and because of it other vital social problems are being ignored. If we take asylum seekers out the equation, Britain will not suddenly become a nation defined by equality. Our national identity will still be as ambiguous as it always was. The poor of this country will still be poor. And the sense of disenfranchisement and neglect from those in former Labour heartlands will remain. The blame culture towards newcomers has a long history in Britain. New floods of immigrants always have been the target of doubt and hostility. Jews fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe were labelled "So-called Refugees" by the Daily Mail in 1900, just as the same paper judges many who arrive to be "bogus" today.
In 1972 the influx of Ugandan Asians following their expulsion by Idi Amin was to prove pivotal in advancing racialist politics. The National Front was soon marching under the banner "Stop the Asian Invasion". The arrival of Malawi Asians in 1976 prompted the Daily Express headline: "The passport to plenty - More Asians on the way to join 4-star immigrants". If this provokes a sense of déjà vu it is not surprising. Just over a year ago the National Union of Journalists filed a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission over the provocative way in which the Daily Express was handling the whole question of asylum. But times are also very different compared to periods of previous influxes of immigration. Impending war and continued destabilisation across many parts of the world have meant that there is not one discernible wave of refugees with a beginning and an end. Numbers of migrants moving around the globe are now less clear than they once were. With the expansion of the EU in the next few years, this uncertainty will only increase. More than ever before, a climate of fear threatens to deluge us. Due to new technology, terrorism is more prolific yet also more invisible than it once was. We do not know who or what is lurking around the corner. With that fear comes the emergence of new arguments against refugees that have taken on a nastier tone.
The language of disease is now commonplace. Trevor Kavanagh, political editor of The Sun, wrote at the end of January that immigrants had brought "alarming levels of infectious TB, Hepatitis B [and] incurable Aids to Britain". Anthony Browne also wrote that disease is the "new asylum peril that we cannot ignore". He stressed that "we live in fear of foreigners bringing death to our land ... It is not by allowing in terrorists that the Government's policy of mass immigration ... claim[s] most lives. It is through letting in too many germs." With such rhetoric we must ask, are the asylum seekers bringing in the germs or are they to be viewed as the germs themselves. More preposterously asylum seekers are also being blamed for failures in a long ailing National Health Service. In January Dr Liam Fox, the Shadow Health Secretary, wrote to all Primary Care Trusts and Hospital Trusts suggesting that UK citizens were being denied access to treatment in the NHS because of "preferential access" given to asylum seekers. He claimed that the NHS was becoming a health tourism destination. This assertion comes at a time when many have to travel abroad from Britain because treatment here is so inadequate.
But more dangerous is the implication that asylum seekers and immigrants are destroying the moral fabric of the nation. The sense of "otherness" attributed to those who are not "natives" has become far more threatening in its stereotyping. We cannot pretend that the asylum system is not in a mess. Bureaucratic inefficiency has resulted in chaos. But the pure venom directed by the media towards the victims of this ineptitude has reached an unparalleled scale. An immigration hierarchy defined by wealth and skin colour threatens to ensue. Asylum seekers are poor and importing poverty scares people. But it is not just these factors that are at issue. At the heart is the very argument against multiculturalism itself. A recent article by the social commentator Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail contends that "there comes a point when, if there are too many cultures to be integrated, it becomes simply impossible to transmit a national story". The argument of both Phillips and the economist Bob Rowthorn in Prospect magazine last month is that the presence of too many immigrants dilutes our sense of history and cohesion as a nation. But as Benedict Anderson showed in his classic study Imagined Communities, many of the symbols and historical traditions that are used to emphasise national identities are indeed mythical.
Nations are concrete entities in so much as we believe in them, but they are also social constructs. So what we actually mean by nationhood is by no means the same for each person, but crucially, what we believe very much shapes whom we include within its parameters and how that contributes to our feelings of psychological and physical safety. Rowthorn believes that continued large-scale immigration will disturb existing national cultures and identities. "I believe it is a recipe for conflict ... nations are historical communities that have the right ... to resist developments that undermine their identity." He places the blame for the current apocalyptic scenario that has been painted, and which he appears to accept, on the shoulders of a shadowy cosmopolitan elite. "Many cosmopolitans accept the right of 'oppressed peoples' ... to a homeland and identity, but they regard such aspirations as illegitimate when expressed by the historic majorities of Western Europe," he writes. But this assertion lacks validity. Rowthorn fails to recognise the difference between the right of a nation to self-determination, and nationalism itself. The two are in no way the same. Discourses of nationalism in the context of already powerful countries are far more likely to be discourses of exclusion than those constructed by people seeking self-governance.
There is no such thing as an innocent statistic. But Rowthorn accepts the scare figures released by the anti-immigration lobbying group Migration Watch rather uncritically given recent revelations about the selectiveness of the numbers this group uses and the fact that they are extrapolations rather than fact. More worrying is the confusion he promotes between immigrants and ethnic minorities. "The presence of ethnic minorities has made it more difficult to teach a coherent national history." He neglects to note that most ethnic minorities in this country are citizens. Blurring the boundaries to question the belonging of ethnic minorities is a dangerous step.
Furthermore his points are not all borne out by reality. Britain, he asserts, "will soon contain a very large number of people who have no personal connection with the fairly recent past ... What was previously the history of the nation may come to be seen as merely the history of a shrinking ethnic majority, of little relevance to the rest." It is by no means inevitable that immigration is incompatible with maintaining pride in a country and maintaining a sense of cohesive identity. The US example in particular shows us the falsity of this argument. In the States, patriotism and a sense of national identity is perhaps stronger than anywhere despite a myriad of cultures competing for space. The belief is that anyone can be an American regardless of their origin. The emphasis is not on where you are from, or what colour you are. It is about values. This is the crucial point. Strong national identities are not a bad thing. It is how we define them that is the problem. If our identity is about more than past glories of dominance, and if it stretches to encompass the fairness, diversity and other positive traits we believe shape who we are, then migrants in no way pose a threat to our sense of self.
It is when we define Britishness narrowly and negatively that it begins to corrode under its own impossible weight. Immigration is not incompatible with a sense of nationhood. It only undermines nationhood when that nationhood is built upon exclusion. Railing against diversity and mulitculturalism itself is divisive and detracts from the real issues affecting the wellbeing of the country. A dangerous scenario is being drawn out in front of us. It is a world of surveillance, of fingerprinting all newcomers, and of fear of those who are not the same as the majority. In this world we threaten to become locked away in a fortress like never before, defining ourselves by whom we keep out. In terms of asylum, there already exists a clamour to exclude. Last month David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, added seven more countries to the list of those deemed to be "safe", thus automatically refusing refugee status to anyone from these countries. This is a way to appease the public and cut the statistics. The countries he named are Albania, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania and Serbia/Montenegro. Some of the Eastern European countries have appalling records of human rights abuses against Roma. But the labelling of countries as safe is political in nature.
Genuine refugees are turned away or deported simply because they are from the wrong country. The case of Roma from the Czech Republic provides a good illustration of the arbitrariness of this policy. The Czech Republic is already designated safe and thus not one Romani person fleeing well documented persecution has ever been granted refugee status in Britain. Yet most who end up in Canada, for example, are granted asylum because the government there does recognise the situation in their country. It is not the case, then, that all whose asylum applications fail are not genuine refugees. But people want to keep them out, because they believe asylum seekers get everything, while they continue to have nothing. This is an illusion. Immigrants do not ruin a country's sense of itself. That has been done from within. Britain is in crisis. The removal of all asylum seekers and new immigrants will do nothing to diminish that. The failing NHS, the growth of poverty-related diseases, the lack of industry and the risk of terrorism are problems that will not just disappear. That the presence of refugees is being used as an excuse to attack the foundations of a diverse multicultural society is a disgrace that diverts attention from the real issues of long-term decline and growing division between different parts of the country that urgently needs to be tackled.