The hostile immigration system in place in the UK has its roots in racism and must be overhauled to make progress on racial equality.
Racism is rampant in the UK. For the most part, it bubbles quietly under the surface, though it sometimes violently erupts to the forefront of British consciousness – as it did when race-related hate crime shot up in the wake of the 2016 EU Referendum, and again when George Floyd was killed in the US. But whether subtle or obvious, it needs to be acknowledged that for centuries, black people and ethnic minority groups have endured discrimination at every turn in the UK. Within immigration law, the academe, the workplace, healthcare settings and the criminal justice system, black people are consistently treated differently compared to their white counterparts.
Campaigners argue that an inclusive education is key to toppling structural racism and that the UK curriculum must be reformed so that it encompasses not only Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and African slavery but also the powerful pre-colonial African kingdoms and the many black people who have contributed to the creation of modern society as we know it. To that end, we need to reverse the Conservative Party’s obsession with celebrating imperial heroes whilst glossing over the horrors inflicted by Britain against its colonies. For example, if we are to glorify Winston Churchill’s brilliance as a military leader, we must also talk about his role in the Bengal famine, which killed at least three million people.
It also does not help that the alternative voices present in Black History and Asian History, which could ameliorate the potential damage of a whitewashed education, are classed as optional instead of mandatory. In fact, only a paltry 11% of GCSE students study modules that reference black people’s contribution to the UK while the vast majority take a US-focus on the transatlantic slave trade. The Black Curriculum Campaign wants to see black British history woven into the curriculum at every level to challenge the status quo in which black history is only discussed through the lens of slavery, if at all.
However, although overhauling the curriculum is certainly a step forward, there is more to be done. The whitewashing of British history has been going on for centuries and will require massive action to be dismantled. British immigration, for example, is not only rooted in racism, it remains entrenched in it. Once upon a time in Imperial Britain, there was only one legal status for everyone under British rule: the British subject. Because of the sheer breadth of the British Empire, this meant that millions of people had the legal right to move to the United Kingdom in the same way that residents of the UK could freely move to the colonised countries. In other words, freedom of movement (FOM) was as contentious then as it is now.
When white Commonwealth and Irish citizens exercised FOM, there wasn’t much resistance, but when a substantial number of black and Asian citizens started to follow suit, the opposition was such that policymakers felt they had to act on it. And act they did. Unfortunately, instead of instituting a blanket law for all British subjects outwith the UK, they decided to instead discriminate against black and Asian British subjects, albeit subtly. The policymakers at the time did abolish the right of all British subjects to live in the UK but at the same introduced a substantial skilled work permit that enabled only white Commonwealth migrants to continue to move to the UK if they wanted to. To this day, British immigration laws continue to discriminate on the basis of race and, therefore, lie at the heart of racial discrimination in the country.
Even the academe is not spared despite universities recognising the value of a diverse community. Less than 1% of professors hired last year were black, and those who are recruited receive, on average, about £7,000 less annual salary than their white colleagues. They are less likely to hold senior positions and also less likely to win research grants. And even if they don’t experience such racism at work in academia, black people are still far more likely to fall foul of immigration laws that then prevent them from obtaining permanent residency and eventually, British citizenship.
As if the problem isn’t monumental enough, the issue is exacerbated by the ongoing Coronavirus crisis and the post-Brexit immigration rules which, combined, could see a dramatic plummet in overseas staff and students. The national lockdowns implemented by many countries worldwide means that many prospective students cannot come to the UK, even if they wished to. The less than stellar British government response to the pandemic, on the other hand, discourages them from wanting to come in the first place. These international students normally pay between £10,000 to £38,000 in tuition fees and prop up universities already suffering from budget cuts. With international students unable or unwilling to come, British universities are facing insolvency.
Add to this the recent announcement by the government that EU students will soon be classed as international students and the problem intensifies. From January 2021, EU students will now be expected to obtain a Tier 4 Student Visa and also be expected to pay astronomical tuition fees upfront if they wish to study in a British university. A survey of more than 2,500 EU students interested in studying in the UK at bachelor’s or master’s level suggests that as many as 84% will ‘definitely not’ study in the UK if their tuition fees double. And without the cross-collaboration and exchange of minds and culture, UK universities and academia as a whole risk perpetuating the lack of diversity and becoming ‘whitewashed’; ignorant to both black and migrant talent.
Evidently, the very fabric of British society is painted in racial divides that cannot be bridged without fully dismantling the institution that allows these differences to exist: the hostile immigration system. Until this happens, racism will remain permanently woven into the fabric of UK life, laws, and attitudes – at great cost to the entire country.
Jade MacRury is a features writer for the Immigration Advice Service.