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A low bar: Why is Councillor Debbie Young's continued perpetuation of xenophobic attitudes so unexceptional?

A low bar: Why is Councillor Debbie Young's continued perpetuation of xenophobic attitudes so unexceptional?

By Jamie O’Dell

Immigrants – specifically asylum seekers and refugees making the dangerous channel crossing by boat – are some of the most persecuted groups in Britain. Due to anti-immigrant rhetoric underpinned by racialized understandings of value and entitlement, it isn’t uncommon to find people harbouring the misconception that all those entering the country are automatically and permanently given access to safe housing, nutritious food, and a means of communication and accessing information.

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This was on full display this week courtesy of Debbie Young, Conservative District Councillor for Chalford, who retweeted an anonymous account asking, ‘How did we get to a 10 year prison sentence for entering by pane but free accommodation, food, tv and an iPhone for entering by dinghy?’. Young has previously been investigated for her comments on Black Lives Matter and promotion of the white nationalist Great Replacement Theory.

The anti-immigrant tweet retweeted by Cllr Young

When contacted for comment by Amplify Stroud, Councillor Stephen Davies, leader of the Conservative group in Stroud District Council, stated that:

“I believe this tweet to be factually correct and not racist, and consequently legal and part of Cllr Young’s right to Free Speech.”

In response to this tweet, Chelly Chatham of Stroud Against Racism said:

“This is not the first time Debbie Young has posted racist commentary on her Twitter account. She has now started spreading racist lies about asylum seekers and refugees – promoting hate and distrust amongst her followers, which, as she is a public servant, are many. This behaviour and these lies are unacceptable.”

Ironically, this tweet also frames anti-immigrant rhetoric via the government’s threat of a 10 year jail term to those breaking quarantine from ‘red-list’ countries. This is despite most of the countries on the list being African or South American, such as Mauritius (with zero new cases yesterday), while leaving America, with 105,600 new cases yesterday, off the list.

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Regarding the tweet itself, it is based upon the racialized idea that people of colour are coming to the UK and essentially receiving a free ride from the labour of white British citizens, where the ‘deserving’ are pitted against the ‘undeserving’, the ‘illegitimate’ and the ‘illegal’. Furthermore, it peddles the idea that the British immigration system is too soft and generous, and that the arrival of new people poses a threat to their share of resources.

This feeds the misconception that immigrants and asylum seekers are coming here to access resources to which they are not entitled, and that Britain is simply too attractive for them. Politicians and right-wing media outlets have used this idea as an argument for introducing measures that make it harder for people to access vital support systems, such as welfare benefits or access to NHS treatment.

As a mark of how popular this anti-immigrant sentiment is, it is also important to note that this is not solely the territory of the Conservative Party. Indeed, the foundations of the hostile environment policies and rhetoric of the Government are not dissimilar to those of New Labour. Tony Blair and Tom Watson have both used toxic anti-immigrant language for their political benefit.

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The UK immigration system is brutal by design. The hostile environment policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Conservatives have been a vehicle for state violence and the scapegoating of the most vulnerable for decades. These policies have led to the deportation of people of colour who have no memory of life outside the UK, and imprisonment of people at sites such as Yarl’s Wood Immigration Centre, and more recently in dangerously cramped and inhumane conditions in facilities such as Napier Barracks in Folkestone. The sentiment Young retweeted – that migrants come to the UK and are given all this nice, free stuff is shockingly inaccurate.

When volunteering at a night shelter for destitute asylum seekers myself, I met people who had been held in a state of limbo, unable to legally work and living off just £20 a week, for well over a decade. I would like to see Young or Davies point to the ‘free accommodation, food, tv and an iPhone’ that they were given.

When we engage in discussions about how much British immigration policy seeks to deprive people of access to basic necessities, it is easy to overlook the simple immorality of claiming that one human being is more worthy of accessing resources than another.

We also overlook the fact that the wealth and welfare state of both Britain and the Global North are partly the result of colonial dispossession, as are the issues which force people to take such great personal risks to travel here. This is the purpose our modern borders serve (and were created for), to keep the profits of colonialism (and our modern colonial global economy) in, while keeping the people formerly subjected to colonialism out.

“Understanding the British welfare state as a product of colonialism and being cognisant of the continuum between colonialism and contemporary migratory movements to Britain enables us to see how measures that restrict access to welfare for asylum seekers feed the assertion, given legal force through the 1981 British Nationality Act, that white Britons are exclusively entitled to the wealth and resources accumulated via colonial dispossession”

— Nadine El-Enany, (B)ordering Britain

Manchester University Press - Bordering Britain
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After the controversy surrounding her previous tweets, Young stated that she ‘abhorred racism in any form:

“I have worked tirelessly throughout my life to promote equality and to oppose racism. I have always served my community to the best of my ability, treating everyone equally and without prejudice. I will continue to fight against racism and to promote equality in all our communities.”  Davies, in his capacity as leader of the Conservatives on Stroud District Council, also signed a statement that reaffirmed their ‘commitment to promoting equality and tackling discrimination’.
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So, let’s be clear here. Young routinely peddles racist and anti-immigrant tropes and conspiracies, and her only previous thought when confronted with this is to make false apologies and change her social media account settings to private. She has no place in elected office in Stroud.

However, this is not the full story and it would be remiss to pretend Young is an exceptional case. Davies’ assertion that the claims in this tweet are ‘factual’ and the fairly normal and commonplace nature of this rhetoric demonstrates a more widespread ignorance of the historical forces that shape migration patterns, and the reasons why we might think ourselves more ‘attractive’ and/or entitled to accessing welfare and public services.

Healthcare, housing, schooling, food, all of these things are examples of basic and fundamental human rights that every person is entitled to, no matter who they are or where they come from.

We reached out to Councillor Young for comment, but at the time of publication we haven’t received a response.