Barnie Choudhury: Immigration ‘a white versus black’ question

Priti Patel  (Photo: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls)
Priti Patel (Photo: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls)

by Barnie Choudhury

IN THE late 1960s, those east African-Asians who saw signs that things were about to change for the worse fled Uganda.

A few years later the dictator, Idi Amin, expelled the remaining 60,000, generously allowing them the clothes on their back and £5 in their pockets.

Among those who escaped ahead of time was one couple of Indian origin who set up a chain of newsagents in London and southeast England. Without a doubt, had they remained in Uganda, they would have suffered the same fate as thousands of others, and without a doubt, the UK took them in because it was a country with a connected history through Empire and the Commonwealth.

But drill down, and this story can easily be spun as that of a couple of economic migrants who had the good fortune to be accepted by a benevolent nation. After all, they could so easily have gone to India, because their parents were born in Gujarat.

So, it is ironic, to say the least, that Priti Patel, the daughter of those migrants, is, as home secretary, leading the department which has just refused an Indian PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, Asiya Islam, indefinite leave to remain.

Islam has been living in the UK for more than 10 years and is researching ‘emerging anxieties and subjectivities around gender and class in urban India through a qualitative study of lower middle-class women in paid work in the neighbourhood of Khirki in New Delhi’. And herein lies her misdemeanour. The Home Office refused her application because it says Islam has been out of the country for too many days. She says she was in India re-

searching her PhD. You cannot make it up, but what do you expect in the febrile atmosphere of a general election? The government must be seen to be tough on this divisive issue.

These elections will be a test of immigration and each party’s commitment to controlling it. At the heart of these polls is Brexit, and most of those who voted to leave did so because they believe it will allow the UK to decide its future rather than unelected bureaucrats in Europe.

Only, the parties have not even got their policies sorted yet. Home Office minister Victoria Atkin’s car crash of an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme last week told us that much. Four times she was asked whether immigration would go up or down under the Tories if they won a majority. Four times she obfuscated – the best we got was meaningless drivel and finally an admission that her party was starting to have “these debates about what we want our immigration policy to look like”.

Not according to her boss. Patel is clear about her stance on immigration. According to the home secretary, Brexit and new plans to augment the current points system for immigration to the UK will allow south Asians more of a chance to come here.

This is, to put it politely, a myth. It is a falsehood for one simple reason: history shows us that if you have a white skin, no matter where you are from in the world, you are more likely to be welcomed with open arms in my country.

Do not take my word for it, but do what I did when researching this topic. I studied the election manifestos of the Conservative and Labour parties for every election since 1966. Repatriation was certainly on the cards for the Tories who said they would help anyone wishing to leave the UK return home. Mercifully Labour won, or yours truly would never have been allowed to make Britain his home.

Mind you, in 1970, Labour said: “With the rate of immigration under firm control and much lower than in past years, we shall be able still more to concentrate our resources in the major task of securing good race relations.” Great idea, only Harold Wilson lost because the country did not think immigration was under control.

It is probably why, after a generation of being out of power, New Labour made clear in 1997 that: “Every country must have firm control over immigration and Britain is no exception. All applications, however, should be dealt with speedily and fairly. There are, rightly, criteria for those who want to enter this country to join husband or wife. We will ensure that these are properly enforced.”

In other words, no party can be trusted when it comes to immigration. It is a hot-button issue where immigrants across the generations want to pull the ladder up behind them once they have garnered safe haven, as demonstrated by the current home secretary.

Sadly, immigration will continue to be an issue long after I am gone, and unfortunately, it will always remain a black versus white issue.