Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 6 June 2020

Tens of millions of us seek a home away from home – but migrants are easy targets for 'the race card'

An estimated 258 million people live far from the country where they were born but the reception they receive can be hostile – and not all of them integrate, writes Gavin Esler

Supporters of the AfD, which harnessed anti-migrant sentiment in a strong showing at Germany's 2017 elections. AP
Supporters of the AfD, which harnessed anti-migrant sentiment in a strong showing at Germany's 2017 elections. AP

Not since the Second World War have so many people been on the move around the world.

In its international migration report in December last year, the United Nations' department of economic and social affairs found an estimated 258 million people were living in a country other than the one where they were born, amounting to 3.4 per cent of the world's population.

Even if by some miracle, the conflicts in Africa, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, Myanmar and elsewhere could magically be solved, our future is likely to see tens of millions of humans seeking safety or a better life away from the country they call home.

Warfare, climate change and the basic human desire to improve economic circumstances will see to that. Governments in rich countries respond by promising their own citizens they will “build a wall” against unwanted migrants – literally, in the case of US President Donald Trump, somewhat more subtly in the case of the European Union and others.

But what responsibilities do migrants themselves have to integrate and fit in? And what responsibilities do host countries have to make legal migrants feel welcome?

I’m heading to the Hay Festival in Wales, one of Europe’s great literary events, to interview a number of the world’s leading authors, including Asne Seierstad.

She’s the Norwegian writer who burst into the limelight a few years ago with her brilliant non-fiction examination of day-to-day life in Afghanistan called The Bookseller of Kabul.

Her latest work Two Sisters is the true story of two Somalia-born teenage migrants living in Norway who ran away to become jihadi brides.

It is a stunning piece of journalism and reads like a thriller but it is ultimately depressing.

Two Sisters raises profound questions about migration. If migrants from one of the world’s poorest countries, Somalia, cannot integrate in one of the world’s richest and happiest nations, Norway, what hope is there?

The two sisters are educated girls who voluntarily go to join ISIS in Syria, a country where, out of a pre-war population of 22 million, more than six million are internally displaced and 5.6 million have fled.

By the time I finished Seierstad’s remarkable book, the girls’ decision seemed even more crazy at the end than it did at the outset.

Meanwhile in the UK, the British journalist Yasmin Alibhai Brown – an Asian migrant who came to Britain in the 1970s from Uganda – has been attacked for suggesting that the pageantry at the recent royal wedding indicated the British people are “infantilised” by such occasions.

I disagree entirely with Alibhai Brown’s views of royalty. The royal wedding for me and for tens of millions of others was a delight.

It showed a tolerant, outward-looking, splendid monarchy and while politicians are generally not trusted, the Queen is hugely popular in Britain.

Alibhai Brown’s comments were attacked by the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries as “hateful, churlish and mean”. But then the MP went further, instructing Ms Alibhai Brown to “appreciate just a little the country and the people you have chosen to live, work and benefit from all your life”, arguing that she had played “the race card”.

The interchange is revealing since it shows how even after living in a country for more than 40 years, being a successful writer and holding British citizenship, Alibhai Brown is still treated as somehow a “bit foreign”.

Any white British person complaining about the monarchy will attract criticism but only a non-white person will ever be accused of playing “the race card”, while race is regularly raised for political purposes by white politicians themselves.


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Mr Trump plays “the race card” constantly in his remarks about Mexicans, African Americans and others.

In Britain, Brexit campaigners told us that 75 million Turkish people were about to join the EU.

This was a lie — and it was also playing “the race card”. In 2013, the then Home Secretary, now Prime Minister, Theresa May was in charge of immigration policy when the race card was played yet again.

Vans drove around London bearing messages for illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest”.

This was more of a propaganda stunt than a sensible way of controlling a serious migration issue.

A total of just 11 migrants were said to have left Britain as a result. More recently came the Windrush scandal, in which Britain tried to deport longstanding – and legally British – descendants of Caribbean migrants to their ancestral countries of origin.

It was just another dim-witted attempt at playing the race card.

Migrants clearly have responsibilities. They must try to fit in to their new host country, learn the language, obey laws and respect customs.

Most do so and some may earn the great privilege of citizenship.

When they do, governments and politicians must also stop playing with race. All citizens must be treated equally, even those who dare to offer criticism.

Confident countries, including Britain, survive and thrive when we argue about our institutions.

The British monarchy is much-loved because it works. It helps hold us together.

Yet the puzzle of Two Sisters remains. If migrants are offered every opportunity to thrive and most accept that offer, how is it that two teenage girls from a loving home deliberately chose the path of terrorism and hatred?

If I ever find a coherent answer to that, I will let you know.

Gavin Esler is an author, journalist and television presenter

Updated: May 28, 2018 04:32 PM



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