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International Migrants Day Should Have Been Something to Celebrate Not Shy From

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Last Wednesday was International Migrants Day - a day when we could have been celebrating the contribution of migrants to communities around the world, their struggles and triumph over adversity, their ability to rebuild lives sometimes uprooted by choice, inspired by a spirit of adventure and a search for opportunities.

I'll admit to a special interest in this - like 11.4% of the British population, I am foreign born, indeed a twice-migrant since I lived for five years in Bangkok after I left my native Australia before choosing to become British.

Listening to the Today programme this morning, I was hearing about some immigrants who'll be staying in Britain for longer than before: at the government's request, Indian doctors asked to stay to plug gaps in the NHS surface. Although this wasn't structured as a story about immigration - this was a health story.

On the same programme, however, we were hearing about other immigrants who the Tory Lib Dem government are treating as clearly unwelcome - Romanians and Bulgarians, for whom there is to be special regulations rushed through in time for 1 January, to reduce the availability of benefits to them.

That's despite the fact that the government has utterly failed to produce evidence of the existence of the phenomenon they call "welfare tourism", and the fact that restrictions on benefits for people from other European states are already tight. And that the picture that Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail have joined to create of the country is grossly distorted: consider the Economist view that "the average Bucharest resident is comfortably better off than the average resident of Manchester".

You might expect Her Majesty's Opposition to be acting like an opposition in response to these clearly ill-thought-out, unevidenced, plans, but no, the Labour Party has only one criticism, that the government should have acted sooner.

Labour has also been noticeably silent in failing to tackle the virulent, astonishingly misleading attacks on Romanians. This article does an excellent job of demolishing ridiculous claims about their involvement in crime in Britain.

But the last rush job of regulation is just insult added to the potentially huge injury of the Immigration Bill now being considered by Parliament. It seeks to turn landlords, NHS staff and bank tellers into immigration agents - expecting them to be able to judge whether a person is an irregular migrant or not, a position that will inevitably embed discrimination against legal migrants and many British citizens who might be thought to be migrants, as well as forcing many of the workers into impossible positions.

The Bill also removes entirely right and proper rights of appeal against often dreadful quality Home Office decision-making, the same kind of decision-making that sees at least 25% of asylum claim refusals overturned on appeal.

That's why I was in Sheffield yesterday, joining many others under the umbrella of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, including representatives of church groups, immigrant groups and political groups, in protesting against the Bill.

After the protest, I had the instructive pleasure of visiting the City of Sanctuary centre in Sheffield - the centre where a movement now operating in more than 30 towns and cities around Britain began. It was great to see the community coming together to help some of its most vulnerable members, including those left destitute by the asylum system that so often gets it wrong, and one of the individuals saved only from a dreadful decision by united community action, Lemlem Hussein Abdu.

It's a reminder that the kind of rhetoric that we see far too often splashed across our rightwing newspapers, and in the mouths of politicians from both sides of the house, doesn't reflect the views of the British people as a whole, or their preparedness to recognise the needs and rights of vulnerable individuals in their midst - particularly when they have the chance to consider the evidence about the problems too often blamed on immigration and their real causes.

Let's look at that briefly: low wages - including pay below the minimum wage. It's not that immigrant workers are volunteering for this, but employers who are breaking the law or treating workers shamefully.

Then housing costs and shortages - put together unbalanced regional development (at least 400,000 empty homes, many of them in parts of Britain where there are precious few jobs), decades of failure to build social housing, and an out-of-control, government-fuelled price bubble.

And crowded schools and hospitals - a failure of government investment, government provision, and dreadfully wasteful, inefficient schemes like Michael Gove's free schools programme and the previous Labour government's disastrous PFI rebuilding schemes.

Immigrants are victims of those government failures, just as we all are.

Yesterday was a great day to consider the dreadful nature of the race to the bottom on immigration rhetoric, the "Ukipisation" of the language and policies of the three largest British political parties. Today's a great day to go on fighting it. So's tomorrow.

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