By Zahrah Haider
January 18, 2018
My grandparents immigrated to the UK about 50 years ago. They have raised children and grandchildren, and still continue working harder than anyone I know. But "immigrant" now feels like a dirty word, as if it is associated with all the wickedness in the world; as though they bring nothing else to the table.
This is not to say that racism and xenophobia are new phenomena. But perhaps, with certain public figures being given even bigger platforms for their bigotry and prejudices, their followers have become even bolder with their hateful speech. The fate of “illegal” immigrants in America is precariously perched on an edge right now. The fact that they're still being referred to as “illegal” is damnable enough. There are public figures in both the UK and the United States that make a living off eliciting reactions through controversy and strive to dehumanise immigrants at every chance they get.
President Trump has allegedly decried immigrants moving to the US from "shithole countries". British columnist Katie Hopkins has written about migrants and refugees being "cockroaches" and "vermin", using rhetoric that is all too reminiscent of the propaganda of Nazi Germany. Decades of "othering" groups of people, making them out to be lesser humans, have paved the way for bigots to spread their misinformation to the masses.
When did irregular immigration start meaning that these people should get stripped of everything they stand for and represent? There is a small minority that commits the crimes for which the majority end up being blamed. It implies that native citizens are incapable of criminal activity, or that it is somehow less offensive when they do it. People are too quick to forget the myriad reasons for which someone may want to leave their own country behind and that some of those reasons may result in undocumented immigrants. We never stop to think about the sheer effort it must take to uproot one's entire life and start over, legal or not.
I recently worked somewhere that employed a large number of workers from several African countries. None of them were native English speakers, and my English co-workers expressed their frustration in the form of micro-aggressions—racist remarks so casual that it was easy to pretend they weren't being racist at all. It never occurred to them that while they are frustrated at someone who does not have the best grasp of a language that is entirely foreign to them, they have never had to leave the comfort of their own towns. They have never experienced the kind of economic hardship or conflict that would compel them to pack everything up and move somewhere completely new, and start over. Their privileges blind them, and if there was a bit more empathy in the world, it would be a much more tolerant one.
My feelings on the matter are not a result of my bleeding-heart liberal values. Recent studies show that the link between immigration and crime rates is more tenuous than certain news outlets will have you believe. There is academic literature that disproves the popular perception that immigration is directly linked with terrorism and high crime rates. Despite all of this, we still live in a world where people forgo facts that are available for free, and choose to pay to access divisive media. They are merely scapegoats for the failings of the Western world, and the racism is no longer thinly-veiled. Moving from one high-income country to another is the only acceptable form of immigration in the eyes of too many people. Similarly, immigrants from high-income countries are welcomed with open arms. Foreigners are revered in Bangladesh, yet the feelings aren't always mutual in the inverse scenario.
The Bangladeshi diaspora in the UK forms one of the largest communities in the country, yet people with brown skin are often told to "go back to their own country". "Paki", as a racial slur, is still thrown around at brown people regardless of where they're actually from. People with this ideology have no issue with going to a takeaway and ordering a curry, but balk at the thought of acknowledging the positive impact of immigration. Food, music, art, culture—it is through the beauty of cross-country movement that we have such a diverse society. Immigrants are seen as an economic drain even though there are figures to counter this—these prove that immigrants put just more into the economy through work and taxes than they're accused of taking out. We shouldn't see these people as leeches or parasites, which again only serves to dehumanise them.
Immigrants are easy to demonise because that is just the popular narrative. Tabloids wouldn't sell as well if they had to stop capitalising on the waves of xenophobia that so rudely crash onto us. And when there is criticism of immigrants, there are always people that leap to their defence, but in such a way that they are canonised. It reeks of the notion that for an immigrant to be deserving of our humanity, they must be superhuman. They must be fire-fighters or doctors or break world records and win gold medals. We are subconsciously conditioned to hold them at much higher standards than we do ourselves.
Those who work alongside us doing the same jobs we do, whether it is one minimum wage job or two, whether it is 9 to 5 or late night shifts—they are overlooked because their stories do not involve heroic feats. They are not newsworthy. They do not get the likes, shares and retweets on social media. It is as if there is a spectrum with super villains at one end, and superheroes at the other, with nothing in between. I would run out of space if I were to list the numerous accomplishments of renowned Bangladeshi immigrants, let alone those from around the world, and I could easily wax lyrical about their valuable contributions to society. But what, I ask, is the worth of an immigrant, if they are just average people like you and me?
Zahrah Haider is a journalism graduate and freelance writer currently living in the UK.