Long queues at Heathrow – racism or no racism?

…the experience I was referring too and the anger I was expressing was not merely for the wait in the queue. It extends to the rude interrogation at the check points. I was asked how long I had spent in India, what I was doing there, what I do in the UK, and what policies I advise on in my job (“Equality and diversity”, I said with a hint of irony).

I recently travelled back from India to London. I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 4 after a nine hours flight and had to queue for two hours to get past the immigration check. My swollen feet, lack of sleep and a queue that extended from the arrivals hall to where the aeroplane exit was prompted me to some angry Tweeting. I saw lots of white people file past me to join the considerably smaller (almost non-existent) queue for British/EU passport holders while it took me over 45 minutes to inch close enough to the arrivals hall to be able to see the long snakey queue in there. Ironically, big LCD screens in T4 were playing videos of the Kate-William wedding kiss, the Queen and Buckingham Palace, I assume, as a way to welcome foreigners to Britain.

As I tweeted,

I got a couple of responses asserting that white British and white Americans/Australians/Canadians get held up in long queues at airports too, so what I was complaining about wasn’t racism per se. There is no denying that white people also have to sometimes to go through nightmare waiting times at airports too. But the experience I was referring too and the anger I was expressing was not merely for the wait in the queue.

That experience extends to the rude interrogation at check points. I was asked how long I had spent in India, what I was doing there, what I do in the UK, and what policies I advise on in my job (“Equality and diversity”, I said with a hint of irony). I know I will get “…but security is important” responses to this but consider this – I have lived in the UK for four years, I have travelled to India three times and to several other countries during this time. Every time I have come back, my fingerprints have been recorded and details verified and cross-checked through questioning. Of course, UKBA holds this data on their system and yet, every time I come back, I face the same level of scrutiny. Proportionally, this makes no security sense.

The airport experience of ethnic minority people is an extension of their everyday experiences of discrimination and abuse. As this Tweeter said,

On the day that I landed, I came across the news that the Home Office has been offering to reward staff with gift vouchers, bonuses and extra holidays for fighting off asylum cases. Asylum cases are about people’s lives, about countries where they may face persecution, even death, and about vulnerability. It is quite clear from their crass incentivisation of staff that the Home Office’s starting point when investigating these cases is how to make people leave the UK. This attitude extends to immigration checks at airports where ethnic minority people are interrogated in the hope that officers can find a stutter, a confused answer to detain them for further questioning. All the times I have travelled, I have never come across one friendly immigration office, the tone is always accusatory.

If there was anything more appalling than that report, it was news that an 84 year old suffering from dementia died in handcuffs after being detained at Harmondsworth detention centre. Alois Dvorzac was a Canadian national. He was detained at Gatwick and sent to the hospital where the doctor noted: “UNFIT for detention or deportation. Requires social care.” Yet he was taken to Harmondsworth detention centre; when his condition worsened, he was transferred to the hospital again where he was kept handcuffed. He died wearing those handcuffs. 

Is this an issue of racism? Yes, it is. That Alois Dvorzac was a Canadian national does not change the fact that his detention is yet another example of Home Office’s imperialist belief that all immigrants are here to live off benefits and steal jobs. Alois Dvorzac’s case makes my standing in the queue for two hours with swollen feet sound like a triviality. But it also goes to demonstrate that violation of human rights of immigrants is an everyday reality. You know something’s not quite right when Alistair Campbell and Olympic athletes waiting in queue at Heathrow makes news but it doesn’t matter to anyone if people like me have to do the same.

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#Racistvan: “Go home or get arrested”

“Go home” is not a gentle reminder or suggestion to go home, it is simply saying that black and brown people don’t belong here and should “go back to where they came from”

It’s taken me a while to collect my thoughts on the van that has already become a hashtag on Twitter – #racistvan. It’s not taken me a while because I was trying to make up my mind about it but because I was appalled. I was appalled at how openly racist this government is and how little protest (in proportion) there is about it. The van in question is a new pilot by the government to scare illegal immigrants into handing themselves over to the authorities. “Go home or get arrested” is what’s written on the big billboards on these vans which are now being driven/paraded around six boroughs of London.

Defending the vans, Immigration minister Mark Harper said, “We are making it more difficult for people to live and work in the UK illegally…But there is an alternative to being led away in handcuffs. Help and advice can be provided to those who cooperate and return home voluntarily.” Now that it’s been three days since the vans were first introduced, Lib Dems have come out and said the posters on the vans weren’t agreed within the government. They’ve called this particular campaign many things – “disproportionate, distasteful, ineffective”. But they haven’t called it what it really is – racist.

Besides the aggressive tone of “Go home or get arrested”, the fact that the phrase “go home” has a history of racism and lived experiences associated with it can’t be ignored. “Go home” is not a gentle reminder or suggestion to go home (where is home, anyway?), it is simply saying that black and brown people don’t belong here and should “go back to where they came from”. It invokes memories of discrimination, abuse and marginalisation.

When I was once told by a white girl that I’m “not even supposed to be in this country”, I assumed that everybody would think that that’s an outrageous and racist thing to say. Now, with this government being openly racist itself, I’m not so sure. It almost feels like a downright denial of the history (and the continuance) of racism in Britain. And that’s scary because such denial validates what that white girl said to me even though she said it only because of my skin colour.

Some of us will remember the ‘racist tram woman’ and her slur of “get back to your own countries” or the pub landlord who told the TV cook Lorraine Pascale to “go home” (even the Daily Mail called the pub landlord ‘racist) or many other similar incidents. Many of us were, quite rightly, outraged about them. But how do you react when the government funds a campaign to do exactly the same? If Labour’s silence and Lib Dems’ mumbling is anything to go by, you call it ‘unpleasant’ at the most.

Of course, the usual what’s-wrong-with-driving-out-illegal-immigrants argument has been doing the rounds. But this campaign is only yet another in a series of measures to drive out existing immigrants and discourage new immigrants from coming to the country with the target of bringing down the number of migrants from hundreds of thousands to “tens of thousands”.

The discouragement appears to be not only for long-term immigrants, but, and this might sound absurd, for tourists as well, with the government hoping to introduce a requirement for a £3000 bond for tourists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ghana and Nigeria (‘high risk countries’, according to the Home Office).

There have also been proposals to make lives difficult for migrants in the UK. Landlords, health sevices and schools may be required to check immigration status of people before providing them their services. It might sound like something straight out of The Thick of It, but Sarah Teather MP revealed that a group called the ‘hostile environment working group’ was created on the explict direction of the PM to look into ways to deter unwanted migrants. The group was later renamed the inter-ministerial group on migrant’s access to benefits and public services.

As I wrote some time ago, such measures may be targeted to eliminate illegal immigrants, but they affect a lot more people than just illegal immigrants. They create an environment which mistrusts anybody who is non-white/speaks with an accent.

So, the vans campaign is not an isolated act, it’s one of many racist measures that this government has been openly talking about, it’s vile and shameful. We should protest against it and send out a strong message that racism is not acceptable, even if it comes from the government.