15/02/2017 07:09 GMT | Updated 11/02/2018 05:12 GMT

Minority Rights Must Not Be Sacrificed For Populism

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Since the 1960s British politicians and policymakers have claimed that good race relations in Britain requires tough immigration policy. It's time to put this myth to bed.


The US decision to ban entry to people from seven Muslim majority countries is obviously an extreme policy appealing to 'legitimate public concerns' but one that also shows why tough immigration policy can worsen attitudes about race.

The UK government has clearly, if belatedly, indicated it won't consider any such ban. However its own policies are clearly and deliberately harming migrants, as people explained to Runnymede in our 'This is Still About Us' report.

And as the post-Brexit hate crime rise showed, it's unsurprising if anti-migrant rhetoric unbuckles people's hostility towards ethnic minorities as a result.


The UK has explicitly adopted a 'hostile environment policy' on migration. Its defence of this policy is that it only applies to 'irregular migrants' and that the 'Go Home' vans had no wider effects on other migrants, British born ethnic minorities, or attitudes among white British people.

That defence is looking even more disingenuous with the deliberate fostering of anxiety among EU citizens and the consequent hostility felt by those migrants.


'Encouraging' people to leave by making their lives difficult is perhaps one way to respond to people's  'legitimate concerns' about immigration, though presumably the government will reject this increases public hostility against migrants.


Immigration policy isn't only about visas or who the UK allows in or to work or study here. It's also about integration, notably including reducing barriers and discrimination in the labour market and supporting equal participation in British society. Recent government thinking on integration focuses more on the attitudes and behaviours of migrants, and on 'fundamental British values'.


On this question it's hard to square the British government's hostile environment policies, or its weak response to the Trump administration Muslim ban, with a commitment to tolerance, liberty or equal rights.

Those values are looking a bit less fundamental than securing a trade deal with the United States.

Indeed, the very group government policy demands it show greater commitment to these values - British Muslims - were those whose rights the British government was slow to affirm. One wonders whether the Prime Minister or immigration officials could honestly swear the 'oath' to British values proposed in the Casey review on integration.


Tough talking on integration and restrictive, hostile policy on immigration may make policymakers feel they are responding to 'genuine concerns'. But the effects on migrants, ethnic minorities and race relations are obviously negative.


It's worth remembering why and how British policymakers of the past interpreted the claim 'good race relations requires tough immigration policy'. First, they believe that many white British people would in fact be hostile to people arriving from the Caribbean and South Asia.

Second, that this hostility would mean it would be impossible to pass non-discrimination legislation - which is why such legislation was passed alongside restrictive immigration acts.


This sort of thinking may seem antiquated, and few Britons appear to support explicitly discriminatory immigration policy. But, as the Brexit slogan went, don't we need to show we understand the need to 'control' migration?


Policymakers and politicians of all stripes are more than a little dishonest about the 'control' narrative, especially on non-EU migration numbers and policy. But taking them at their word, how must a post-Brexit immigration policy afford control, while not increasing harms against migrants, or indeed British-born black and minority ethnic people?


First, whatever policy is adopted, it must be clear-eyed and up front about the effects on race relations. This isn't just about overt or covert fear mongering or 'othering', but about affirming the equal place of ethnic minorities, and protecting them from violence and discrimination.

Second, the policy must go further and avoid discrimination, especially on grounds of race or religion. Third, in terms of framing immigration policy, politicians must consciously resist an elision between 'control' and 'tough' or still less 'hostile' language.


Post-Brexit our immigration policy may or may not be characterised as 'controlled', but it must not increase racial discrimination or ignore the rights of minorities, however popular that might be.

British values of nondiscrimination, tolerance and equal liberty must underpin immigration, integration - and indeed all - policies.

Dr Omar Khan is Director of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank. He tweets at @omaromalleykhan