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Tales of help contrast with hostility to aliens

19 September 2014


New directions: road signs in English and Polish mark the beginning of road works in the village of Ridley, Cheshire, in 2007 

New directions: road signs in English and Polish mark the beginning of road works in the village of Ridley, Cheshire, in 2007 

THE tone was largely one of consensus. At an event last week on immigration, hosted by the St Paul's Institute in St Paul's Cathedral, participants agreed that the debate in the UK had become toxic, and that immigrants were scapegoats. At the evening debate, organised by the human-rights organisation Liberty, the closest that panellists got to disagreement was over a question from the floor about how to engage with the white working classes who felt alienated from policy-makers. Stephanie Harrison QC, a specialist in immigration law, suggested that the answer lay in rebuilding solidarity between workers. She called for the return of the Communist slogan: "Workers of the world, unite!"

"You with nothing are in the same boat and have more in common with others, irrespective of your race or nationality," she said. "Those who have and those who have power continue to run society for their interests and the very small number of people who already have the power and wealth."

Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, an independent research body, disagreed: the slogan was not going to convince working class voters not to vote UKIP. Better to challenge the untruths that they had been told.

"We have to say very clearly that anyone who tells you that reducing immigration will solve youth unemployment . . . or make the fiscal crisis better - those are lies," he said. "Secondly, we have to offer real solutions to youth unemployment and exploitation." Workers were suffering, he suggested, "because they are not positioned to be successful, given Britain's plan in the global economy".

The Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd David Walker, said that, after receiving feedback, he had developed sympathy for one particular group: "People who had been living in a place for a long time, and had seen that place change around them, in ways in which they no longer felt it was theirs. . . They felt that when they moved into that area 50 or 60 years earlier, they had bought into it as it was then, and found it was hollowed out under their own feet. They felt alien in their own community."

The director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabati, appeared to be uncomfortable with these comments, warning against a "licence for prejudice"; and the Bishop had to clarify that he did not necessarily agree with such sentiments.

Speaking after the event, on Tuesday, Bishop Walker said: "I was going to go on to say that I have heard exactly the same from longstanding villagers whose new neighbours are successful urban émigrés. And I regularly hear the same from some long-time churchgoers in congregations now led by more recent members and newer clergy. It's not primarily about race, or asylum: it's about how long-term change gradually marginalises the original population. We need to understand and help people live with such change."

Ms Harrison told the story of a family who had arrived in a Welsh town from East Africa in the 1970s. They were greeted and helped with their bags by the villagers, despite its being the middle of the night. "We have to have those messages about working-class communities as well," she said.

A powerful testimony was given by Meltem Avcil, who was held with her mother for three months at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre. She described being taken from her home at 6 a.m. by eight officers, transported in a caged van, and searched on arrival. She had witnessed sexual assault by guards, and her mother had been traumatised. "She has not been the same again."

She is now working on the campaign to end the detention of women who seek asylum.

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