Don’t let Reform’s success poison the immigration debate

Farage used one of his first interviews after being elected to send a message on immigration (Picture: Stephen Butler / BACKGRID)

The general election result saw Nigel Farage’s Reform UK Party win four seats.

That’s right, on his eighth attempt, Farage is now an MP – while his party gained 14.3% of the popular vote in its first general election.

That means that around one in six people who took to the polls across the country supported a party who’s leader declared that the election ‘should be the immigration election’ and ran a campaign primarily focused on immigration policies that amounts to a shopping list of cruelty.

Farage used one of his first interviews after being elected to send a message on immigration – essentially that controlling immigration will be his main focus.

While those in the migrants rights sector like myself are celebrating that the previous government’s cruel and hare-brained Rwanda scheme has been called to an abrupt halt, these election results are far from a victory for those of us who care about what happens to people who choose to make this country their home.

The success of anti-migrant politicians is an acceleration of a worrying trend that has crossed party-political barriers. Over the last five years alone, we’ve seen the language and policies towards migrants become increasingly more hostile and divisive – with politicians from many parties mimicking the language of the far-right.

Now is not the time for jubilation, but trepidation.

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Anti-immigrant sentiment is a many-headed hydra. Labour may have promised to scrap the Rwanda scheme, but we still have the same hostile environment, the same scapegoating, more militarisation at the border and the same denial of basic rights – dressed up in the language of political pragmatism – that serve the agenda of the far-right.

As a migrants rights organisation, our primary focus is the wellbeing of our clients and the people we serve. And we can’t help but be worried about the communities we campaign for.

Our clients come here seeking a better life for themselves and their families, so they should be welcomed and given opportunities to become part of our communities. Instead, they have been met with increasing hostility from the very top.

Whether it’s being barred from working, being housed on floating barges or politicians like Suella Braverman having ‘dreams’ of deporting them, there has been a mainstreaming of ideas that were once considered to be on the fringes.

We have seen what the impact of the far-right can be on the lives of people. In Greece, we have heard witnesses claim that coastguards – whose job it is to save lives – are throwing people into the sea to their deaths.

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In this country, people whose asylum has been granted have then been forced into homelessness and others are languishing in limbo for years, their mental health deteriorating as they repeatedly recount their traumatic stories only to be disbelieved. We are already in a deeply sinister place when it comes to our treatment of migrants – we really can’t afford for our immigration policies to become even more divisive.

And I’m worried that could be the case with four Reform UK Party MPs in parliament – who will likely use this platform to influence the debate on immigration even further.

Instead of allowing hateful policies to dictate the narrative around migrants for the next five years, this is the time to draw a line and make it clear that the far-right will no longer dictate the arena of debate when it comes to migration.

There will be many new voices in Parliament and we hope that they will all have an equal platform to share their plans for fixing a broken immigration system. Because the system is undoubtedly broken – for those who it victimises and retraumatises – but also for the rest of us.

By painting migration as a bad thing, we are missing out on all the riches that it brings.

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The truth is, immigration is a big issue in two places, in the minds of politicians and in certain particularly loud sections of the media.

But the most recent data shows that immigration is not a negative in the eyes of the majority of people. Tellingly, it was not even in the top three issues for all voters in this election.

The new government needs to take control of immigration – not by controlling numbers, but by being bold enough to fight the far-right’s narrative. Instead, they should propose a progressive new immigration and asylum system, which centres compassion and care.

They need to listen to organisations like ours that work with migrants, to ordinary people who have friends, family and communities who value and love the migrants within their communities, and most importantly, migrants themselves.

This is how we will build a fairer and happier nation we can all be proud of.

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