Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Immigrants - the bottom of the pile

At the beginning of my ESOL lesson this afternoon, I chatted with my students, all of whom are women, have very little formal education and speak very little English, about their housing situations. One woman - one of the more confident in the class - talked openly about the temporary accommodation she's living in at the moment, as a result of domestic violence she experienced last year. She is living in a bedroom in a grotty hostel with her young son and is desperate for somewhere decent to live. She complained - as best she could with her limited English - that the council ignores her because she can't speak English very well. (I posted something on Twitter about this, asking for advice and was overwhelmed by the response i got - well done Twitter).

Hearing this, the other students piped up. One woman told me that she's living with her husband's parents in their three-bedroom house, along with two of her husband's brothers. She and her husband and her daughter all share a room. Another woman lives with her husband and her four children in a tiny three-bedroom flat, which has a serious damp problem. Another woman is disabled and the council have housed her in a tiny flat on the sixth floor, in a building which has no lift. Another woman is also in temporary accommodation with her husband who suffers frequent health complications from his severe diabetes. All told me, in their various ways, how difficult it is to get out of their situations while they can speak such little English and how unsympathetic the various councils are to their plight. 

They all showed a remarkable sense of humour about all this, I must say. They laughed with each other, as they told me about the health problems they suffer from the poor conditions they live in, or how difficult it is to get a decent night's sleep, or how stinking the toilet in their hostel is. It was an enlightening and depressing conversation.

I've worked with migrant groups for nearly nine years as an ESOL teacher in various contexts and I suppose I should have developed a thicker skin about this sort of thing by now. But after every conversation like this I am struck anew by what shoddy treatment my students receive. Immigrants have long been the bottom of the pile when it comes to accessing services like housing, benefits, childcare, legal aid, education etc. A fantastic article on the Institute of Race Relations website back in March pointed this out and highlighted the fact that the mass privatisation and securitisation of public services currently going on started with immigration and asylum a few years ago. Immigrants are easy targets and are often the first vulnerable group to have access to services removed . And during a recession it becomes even easier to target them, the logic being that if we can't afford to provide these things for native people, why should we shell out for them? 

When politicians want to pick up a few easy Daily Mail points, they pick on immigrants, assuming, usually rightly, that no one will kick up much of a fuss (I'm not always comfortable with the lazy Daily Mail shorthand but here it applies perfectly). Access to legal aid, access to free English classes, benefits - these all get targeted. Last year the Refugee Council had their funding dramatically cut and the Immigration Advisory Service were forced into administration after huge legal aid cuts. And so it is with the latest changes to migration rules announced by the Tories, which change the income threshold for non-EEA national spouses to move to the UK and also place other requirements about English language level and passing the Life in the UK test. These new rules are massively unfair - they are weighted hugely towards those with money and those with access to English in their country.

Immigrants get subjected to all kinds of interrogations and monitoring by the state. They have their passports/immigration papers poked through by councils, job centres, colleges, to see what their status is. Asylum seekers are questioned by the Home Office about how bad really was the torture that they experienced in their country. They have to present themselves at Home Office buildings monthly to prove that they haven't done a runner and get cruel labels like 'no recourse to public funds' slapped on them, which usually mean they can't claim benefits or work. One student of mine from Congo, who was tortured in his country, had his asylum application refused two years ago. He appealed and is still waiting for a decision. He is stuck in limbo and extremely frustrated, unable to work or claim benefits and is dependent on charity and the measly allowance that the Home Office give him every two weeks.

All this is scandalous but is something that the mainstream media never engage with. The drip-drip feed of the 'immigrant = scrounger' narrative from the tabloids over the last 15 or so years has properly taken hold and hardly gets challenged anywhere. Rarely do you actually get to here the stories of the people themselves. 

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