Author: Afua Hirsch
Our attitudes towards immigration involve some stunning doublespeak. My own family tells the story quite well. My grandparents’ generation, of Africans on one side and Jews on the other, were “immigrants” who created “diasporas”. My parents’ generation are British, and when they lived in Brunei, shortly before I was born, enjoyed the label reserved for British immigrants – “expatriates”. Although, since expats are considered glamorous and successful, there is a question as to whether black British people are allowed to fall into that category. I know this because trolls, who don’t seem to have a problem with British expats per se, point to my having been born as one as evidence that in my case, it disqualifies me from Britishness, something I’ve never heard levelled at my white contemporaries.
The difference between expats and immigrants is that, while the latter are a problem, the former are – its celebrants tell us – British people “embracing a limitless life”. This tends, not surprisingly, to take part in the former empire. Most British expats are concentrated in Australia, Spain, the US and Canada. The best place of all, according to research by HSBC bank – itself an expatriate colonial invention – is Singapore (good for health, education and improving your earnings).
The limitless life has, however, been experiencing a few unfortunate limits of late. It was a deeply unfortunate juxtaposition that the very day on which the culture secretary, Jeremy Wright was boasting Britain’s “toughest internet laws in the world”, a former British expat in Dubai was reported to have been arrested for comments she made on Facebook. Laleh Shahravesh was detained for calling her ex-husband’s new wife a horse. We should never condone trolling, but I would personally find that pretty complimentary compared to the the social media abuse I get on an average day.
Brunei, meanwhile, where my parents lived on the British expat circuit, is also putting a real dampener on the limitless life of the British expat, or at least one who is gay or planning to commit adultery or have an abortion, all of which are now punishable by sadistic acts of state-sponsored violence. Protestors have been making a scene outside hotels in which almost nobody can afford to stay, but our stance on British companies and their thousands of staff living and working in Brunei seems to have been quietly left out of the picture.
Maybe that’s because the lack of adherence to human rights standards in our favourite expat destinations poses some difficult questions. The British diaspora – though we never call it that – is seen as a useful tool for making Britain a great trading nation in the world again.
Unsurprisingly, there is zero evidence that the British government is planning to jeopardise all this by taking a more principled position in relation to human rights abuses. It places growing emphasis on the Commonwealth, despite the fact that this club’s failure to hold Brunei’s backward steps in human rights standards is just one of many examples. The United Arab Emirates, which was already in the spotlight after accusing the British academic Matthew Hedges of being a spy last year, has the unique privilege of being the only country in the world in which we have two embassies – one in Abu Dhabi and one in Dubai. Britain is currently defending in the court of appeal its refusal to halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia in the face of credible international evidence that our arms are helping the Saudis regularly attack civilians in Yemen.
We can have a debate about whether it is right for Britain to enforce human rights standards in other countries as part of an ethical foreign policy. I, like the countless local activists in each of the countries where Britain prop ups abusive regimes, have no problem taking a stance in favour of ethical foreign policies. However, I have yet to hear that our government has decided, through a reasoned process of inquiry and consensus, that we are having a non-ethical one.
But there is a bigger question about immigration here too. We consider British immigrants to be people of means, whether former military personnel once stationed luxuriously in the Raj or today’s corporate lawyers enjoying tax-free living in the Gulf. If we bothered to think about our real view of British immigration, we would probably conclude that immigrants we don’t regard as a problem are those who aren’t poor.
We are generous enough to extend these ideas about immigration to a few other people too. On the day the Home Office announced its settlement scheme for EU migrants, I was speaking to a Dutch banker who has lived in the UK for years. “Will you apply?” I asked him, innocently. He looked at me as if I were a bit simple. “I’m just assuming that, like all these things, there will be an exemption for rich people,” he replied.
He is undoubtedly right. We suspend judgment for all rich immigrants, just as we do for British immigrants – so much so we don’t even call them immigrants. And so I guarantee that when it comes to countries where the immigrants are both rich and Brits, such as Brunei, we will avoid conducting any further analysis at all.
• Afua Hirsh is a Guardian columnist
Since you’re here…
… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading and supporting our independent, investigative reporting than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we have chosen an approach that allows us to keep our journalism accessible to all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford.
The Guardian is editorially independent, meaning we set our own agenda. Our journalism is free from commercial bias and not influenced by billionaire owners, politicians or shareholders. No one edits our editor. No one steers our opinion. This is important as it enables us to give a voice to those less heard, challenge the powerful and hold them to account. It’s what makes us different to so many others in the media, at a time when factual, honest reporting is critical.
Every contribution we receive from readers like you, big or small, goes directly into funding our journalism. This support enables us to keep working as we do – but we must maintain and build on it for every year to come. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.