The Good Immigrant is a loaded notion.
There’s no doubt that the current pandemic has made people question their beliefs — from their political loyalties, to their economic ideologies, to the most pressing questions about mortality. One idea that seems hard to budge, however, is that of immigration, specifically, the contribution of migrants to the UK.
The statistics are clear and shocking. Migrant doctors and nurses make up a disproportionate amount of deaths of frontline workers. Of the 19 confirmed deaths of NHS staff from coronavirus, 10 have been from a migrant background. It’s important to note that any figures at this time are probably underestimates, and these statistics are correct at the time of writing, but as the deaths rise devastatingly higher, it’s hard to keep up. I also don’t want to diminish the life and death of anyone to a number, or a label. In fact it is the very thing I want to get away from. A note to those who think highlighting these discrepancies is ‘political’ or ‘race baiting’, who cry ‘don’t make this about race’ — immigration and race is always political, and you can’t pick and choose when to weaponise it for your own agenda.
Now is perhaps not the time to venture too much into why the deaths are so disproportionate amongst BAME doctors (another detestable label, but also a symptom of the wider issue), but once out of the grimmest part of this deadly marathon, it should undoubtedly be one of the questions we commit to answering during the nation’s post-Covid soul searching. Don’t be fooled by the likes of Piers Morgan who many rushed to praise when he recently highlighted the roles of Filipino nurses and other migrant workers, criticising the ‘hysteria’ around immigration debates in the country, or the media’s attempts to show the lives behind the statistics, or the Prime Minister’s shout out to the immigrant nurses who looked after him. They do, however, all get more points than David Vance, who suggested that Muslim nurse Areema Nasreen made no ‘sacrifice’ as she was on annual leave when she started showing symptoms of coronavirus. There were too many unanswered questions around her death for Inspector Vance to simply pay his respects, or, even better — keep quiet.
But, however unknowingly, Vance demonstrates the problem perfectly. There are perhaps many distortions in his thinking, but the one of interest today is the view of ‘The Good Immigrant’. What is ‘The Good Immigrant’? If you want a comprehensive answer I suggest reading Nikesh Shukla’s book of the same title. The Good Immigrant (and I’ll go to the effort of capitalising the term throughout just to really push home the objectifying nature of it) is exceptional. He or she is at either ends of the spectrum — highly educated/talented in some field, be it sport or music, they compete at the Olympics under the Union Jack, they are the 28.4 per cent of non-British doctors in the NHS (according to The Health Foundation, 2019). They are also accused of taking jobs, racially abused at work and criminalised, but if they speak out they are ungrateful — this country made you. Nothing to do with your hard work, or the efforts of your home country to train you (20.1 per cent of GPs in England qualified outside the UK).
At the other end, The Good Immigrant is one of the 13.3 per cent NHS staff working in hospitals with a non-British nationality, they’re traumatised asylum seekers, children fleeing war, people at the mercy of the good will of the British people and the UK Government. They must show their gratitude by going on to be similarly exceptional in some way, to prove they were money well spent. They cannot ever make a mistake. They cannot ever speak up about injustices they face because that would make them ungrateful too. They need to struggle, and then, when they make it ‘against the odds’, they should get in touch so we can plaster their success story everywhere to show what a great country we are. We’ll use them as political pawns when it suits us, but don’t worry we’ll also be thankful when you die doing your job to protect us. Congratulations, Good Immigrant, you have now made the ultimate ‘sacrifice’ — when you were doing your job in normal times it was a ‘stolen’ one, but now you’ve died doing it, you’re a hero.
To all those who think an immigrant has to either be on their knees when arriving in this country, or turn up as a ready-made package, in order to be respected and treated fairly, you’re wrong. Whether they’re a Syrian refugee, a surgeon, or a cleaner, they don’t owe you anything. I know that may bruise your ego, but ‘letting them’ settle here and build a life does not give you ownership over them. They don’t have to be extra kind or extraordinarily talented (although many are). Don’t weigh them down their whole lives with the perpetual need to prove they are indeed ‘bang for the buck’. It’s like renewing your license every few years, but in this case it’s renewing your right to exist. I suppose we all have to, to some extent. We all need a purpose, and we all need to feel useful, otherwise what are we doing in this life? The same applies to The Good Immigrant, but at least hold them to the same human standards as everyone else, be it moral or economic. There are the good and the bad, but no more or less than the rest of us. In fact, The Good Immigrant is ‘the rest of us’ — so stop othering them.
But, I too have fallen into the trap of quantifying The Good Migrant in terms of economic returns. The facts are there if you want to go and look at them. Migrants contribute more to the system than they take out. I hope that satisfies the money people, but probably not. For those that see human worth beyond the rim of a pound coin, The Good Immigrant enriches your life in ways you take for granted, but even if you’ve never met one (doubtful), they don’t have to prove themselves to you. They have families like you, money worries like you, hobbies like you, flaws like you, relationships like you. The problem is, you see, that The Good Immigrant cannot so freely vocalise anything beyond their occupation. As someone recently said to me, ‘people will only ever see migrants as people who have come here to work, not to live’.
This country has an abusive relationship with The Good Immigrant. We hated you, but now we love you so please come back. We want you to be successful so that you give back to the society that gave you a chance, but not too successful that you take away from us homebred folk. You have to show some humility. A perfect example of The Good Immigrant is Bafta-winning film maker Hassan Akkad who has volunteered as a hospital cleaner during the coronavirus pandemic. He praised the ‘diversity’ in the NHS in a viral tweet. He’s overcome adversity, achieved exceptionally, been selfless, shown his gratitude. He is The Good Immigrant. No. He is an exceptional human being, who happens to be an immigrant. The people following government guidelines on social distancing are doing their bit, and some of them happen to be migrants too. Some people are exploiting the chaos for criminal purposes – some of them probably happen to be migrants.
And to put it into sharp focus, some of the people dying and leaving countless families heartbroken are migrants. The workforce working tirelessly to try and stem the flow of death is made up of many nationalities, if you haven’t heard by now. But what does it matter if we’re all mere mortals? Every death is tragic, right? Spare me the platitudes. Here is where we reach the impasse in our relationship with The Good Immigrant. We want them to be at once visible and invisible, dancing to our tune but not the star of the show. You can’t have it both ways. Praising the diversity of a workforce but feigning distaste for the politicising of human life when it’s pointed out that certain parts of it appear to be dying in greater numbers. Where’s your self-righteousness when people exploit the immigrant background of criminals?
And where does the definition of The Good Immigrant start and end? How many generations must serve the country selflessly until the The Good Immigrant is upgraded to ‘The Good Citizen’? Many of the migrant doctors who have died from coronavirus have British-born children. Many follow their parents into medicine.
I can’t generalise, but I know the first generation of The Good Migrant will be anxious for their children to get a ‘respectable’ career, one that is of benefit to society. Not only does it act as an economic shield, but there’s also the indispensable nature of it. You may be abused by patients and staff, bullied by management, but you’ll always be an ‘essential’ worker. You’ll be valued at least for your work, a bit, if not for you worth as a human being.
One thing hit a nerve for me, and it’s when I read a piece on the lives of some of the first (migrant) doctors to die on the frontline of the pandemic. Colleagues and family members spoke fondly of the ‘diligent’ doctors. The article was full of superlatives. I have no doubt they were apt descriptors. The attempt to acknowledge the doctors’ commitment to their work, but also to their families and identity beyond the NHS workforce was obvious. The assumed tragedy was that they had come to this country, served the country, and died for the country. I’d say the tragedy is in their deaths alone, with this added sting. But then I watched an interview with the brother of one of the deceased Sudanese doctors. He spoke with a British accent. I thought of the late doctor’s British children, born, raised and educated here. I won’t assume to know what they’re thinking as they grieve, but I can imagine my own anger if my doctor father was paraded as ‘The Good Immigrant’. It would feel like he’s still not his own person. His background is still being used in this subversive way. I’m not saying don’t celebrate or acknowledge diversity and immigration. It’s vital to highlight inequalities where they exist, but The Good Immigrant is another fanciful notion, just as the ‘invading foreigner’ is. It’s another, more subtle, extreme.
There’s a running joke in migrant communities about the demanding parents pushing their children into professions like law or medicine. Is one motivation the inconspicuous perception of The Good Immigrant? With it comes, for some, an inferiority complex that becomes hard to shake, so you get a good job, pay your taxes, bake cakes for your neighbours. It all stinks of hypocrisy. The same people that shout about immigrants changing their way of life (I can assure you dismantling your way of life is the furthest thing from their mind), explicitly or otherwise, expect migrants to live a life of permanent gratitude and subservience. Sounds just as oppressive to me. And if I stoop to such a low level for a moment, in a game of tit-for-tat, does Spain really need more British expats (note the use of ‘expats’ — sounds somewhat more sophisticated and less self-pitying. Maybe terminology needs a rethink), opening up yet more sports bars? Why aren’t they on the frontline helping fight coronavirus? Do I sound unreasonable and petty? Funny, that.
In short, The Good Immigrant is someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, friend, neighbour and colleague. And, The Good Immigrant doesn’t owe you anything.