Advertisement
immigration

Meeting Britain's 'Low Value Immigrants'

Assigning economic value to human life is nothing new in politics, but Iain Duncan Smith did it again recently in one of the worst interviews of the election cycle.

by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff; photos by Jade Jackman
26 May 2017, 8:46am

A couple of weeks ago, Iain Duncan Smith gave an interview revealing exactly how the Tories feel about immigrants. Talking on BBC's Newsnight, IDS said a work permit system would allow Britain to bring in "high-value" immigrants and fewer "low-value, low-skilled people". This is despite the fact studies have shown repeatedly that immigration benefits both the economy and society at large – and not just immigration of the "high-value" kind Duncan Smith describes.

Assigning monetary value to human lives is nothing new when it comes to political rhetoric. It's an insidious way to dehumanise non-Brits; those who sound, look and perhaps behave a little differently from us. From there, it doesn't take a huge leap for politicians to deem refugees as little more than insects – former Prime Minister David Cameron once spoke about a "swarm" of refugees attempting to come to the UK – and for papers like the Daily Mail to go one step further. In 2015, a few months after the last general election, they published a cartoon likening Muslim immigrants to rats.

As the granddaughter of black Caribbean immigrants to the UK, who were asked to emigrate from Jamaica after the UK lost hundreds of thousands of able-bodied people during WWII, it's so frustrating to hear IDS refuse to acknowledge the massive value of immigrants who have historically been willing to do all sorts of jobs, from the most mundane to the most important.

Here are interviews with five immigrants whose stories challenge the idea that any human being is "low value".

ALEK

THE REFUGEE: The Conservative manifesto reveals that Theresa May wants to limit asylum seeker claims by changing the international definition of what counts as a refugee.

"I was four when war broke out in Yugoslavia. My dad was a journalist and had come to the UK temporarily for a job, and my mum, brother and me were later granted asylum when we had to flee and join him. We were lucky that we had quite a good shot at starting afresh here, but we did have to leave everything behind, which was extremely traumatic. My mum thought we'd be back in a few months, but the siege ended up lasting five years, and although my parents wanted to go back they realised it wasn't the same place any more, and they thought it would be wiser to stay here and bring up their kids. I think that's something that people don't recognise enough when they're talking about refugees: it's never because you want to – it's always because you have to; it's a last resort. My mum's said that if she didn't have me and my brother she would have tried to stay, but there was a genocide.

"I want to find IDS and give him a smack. These comments always come from people with no lived experience. I watched my parents rebuild their lives and fight so hard just to provide for me and my brother and have some semblance of home again. I can assure you that if you had to go through what we did, or what other people are going through, you'd never say that. You'd never call someone's life "low-value". It's a basic human thing to want a safe home for your children, and how dare the Tories make it about economics. My work now, as a filmmaker, revolves around giving an insight into other people's lives. IDS probably wouldn't view it as high-value, but I think it's really important to have empathy."

Naatasha

THE CHILD MIGRANT: In February the government shut down a programme that was set to welcome 3,000 unaccompanied children into the UK.

"Viewing immigrants according to how much value they add to the economy means not really viewing them like full, whole human beings. I was born in Zambia and I moved here when I was six. My parents came here to work in part because they had seen what was happening with the HIV / AIDS epidemic and the poverty created as a result of international policies like structural adjustment programmes. people I grew up with, kids who lived on my street – lots of them have died from HIV. It helps to give you an understanding of why people migrate.

"When they moved over my parents did every job they could. They were security guards, waitresses, did cleaning, care work. All of the jobs that, when we look across British society, we see being done by immigrant working class folk. On the one hand they really value the access to education, healthcare and British culture, but on the other hand know they will never be fully seen as people who have equal claim to this country. I still feel like an immigrant, too. I got a British passport when I was 18, and prior to that just had so much hassle crossing borders, applying for university – simple things that my mates had never considered in their lives.

"Immigrants have been consistently failed by successive governments, and the Tory policies under Theresa May have played out a form of imperialism that sees our bodies only in monetary terms, and disposable enough to imprison in detention centres, and deport to places we can barely call home any more. Ultimately if we can only be valued in terms of what we bring to the economy it gives no room for us immigrants to live to our lives beyond struggling for basic human rights."

Aleh

THE STUDENT: International students are the cash cows of the UK's university system, but the government recently decided against excluding international students from immigration targets.

"I didn't really think I would stay in the UK, but I've met a lot of people I love here and I've found a community. I moved here from Bulgaria when I was 18 to study at Essex University, and I've been here for almost ten years now. My parents wanted to send me abroad because they thought there was just no future for me in the country. Now, I feel like I'm from here, and I think it's disgusting how IDS is trying to pit us migrants against each other. They're trying to entice me to use my white, Western, EU privilege to separate myself from those migrants that need our support against the oppressions of the state the most: black migrants, sex workers and people of colour in general from the global south. Even though I'm university educated I don't see myself as more valuable than others. I work in admin at a research centre, so I'm not an academic or a scientist or a city worker, which is what IDS wants.

"We could reclaim this idea of being low value by turning it around and subverting it. You know, fuck it: you consider us low value, but at the same time we are the ones fighting for labour rights – for your labour rights. At the university I'm at, LSE, there's an ongoing strike primarily led by migrant people of colour, who are cleaners who don't have the same benefits as in-house staff. The Latin-American community are fighting gentrification in Elephant and Castle and Seven Sisters. The 'low value' people are the ones that care about communities, that care about local issues. They are the ones actually encouraging those types of higher values. Basically, migrants are the ones that are doing all the hard work."

HAKEEM

THE ECONOMIC MIGRANT: Before the EU referendum, UKIP made claims that Brexit would mean more immigrants could come to the UK from former colonies like India, but in reality there are already more economic migrants coming into the UK from outside the EU.

"I moved over from Kerala in south India about four years ago because my dad was doing a chef's job in the UK – working in a restaurant. I came here to do the same thing and study; I'm doing computing. I think it was a good thing to move over because there's more opportunities in the UK. The culture means that people can come here and work and get to high positions. It's been tough – of course I miss my family. My mum is still in India, and my sisters, and I don't think they'll ever move over here. That's the only thing that's hard. They like to stay over there, for some reason, but we can send them money.

"I've heard some people talking about racism in the UK, but I've never experienced it. Everyone here, in my eyes, is good. I have no idea about politics or anything like that, but I work hard and I make food that people want to eat, so I don't think I am not valuable to the country. I don't think anyone comes here just to get benefits. Everyone wants to get a good job, but if you don't have the skills to do it, how can you? You need both unskilled and skilled people to work."

SANAZ

THE PHD CANDIDATE: There are risks of a brain drain from UK universities because the rights of EU university staff to work and live in the UK hasn't been guaranteed.

"I came to the UK as a PHD candidate. I'm Iranian and I was really interested in researching the diaspora from a different lens. But I got fucked over by my university and then began to campaign against institutional racism. At the moment, my visa status is in limbo.

"While Smith indicates in the interview that the UK is accepting of high skilled workers – engineers, PhD students, etc – it doesn't ring true to the many migrant PhD students who are put into enormous precarity. I feel used and exploited both within higher education and by the Home Office. My job might have been considered high-value, but universities themselves can treat you like you're their property if you're a migrant academic.

"It's worth noting that immigrants who would categorise themselves as being high-value are really falling in line with this very neoliberal classification, which, quite frankly, doesn't really exist any more. Any migrant who is using this type of 'high' or 'low value' discourse is playing a very dangerous game, because it's exactly what far-right fascists and racists want us to use. They want to put those of us who are going to make money against everyone else."

@CharlieBCuff / @JadeShamraeff