LONDON - "Immigrants are welcome here."
This was the clear message from last week’s anti-racism protest in the British capital, where people from different backgrounds showed a united stance against racism and anti-immigrant mentality.
Politicians and activists joined labor unions and migrant groups as they marched from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square near Whitehall, the main offices of central government in the UK, to take a stand against racism and fascism on Saturday, March 22.
Filipinos were among the migrants to show support at the protest, some of whom claim to have experienced racism themselves. Representatives from Filipino Domestic Workers Association (FDWA) and Kanlungan Filipino Alliance donned Philippine national costumes while carrying signs calling an end to racism.
Members of Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW), a multinational migrant support group led by Filipina domestic worker and campaigner Marissa Begonia, were also seen at the event.
Vilma Martinez, a Filipino nanny and housekeeper who has lived in the UK for 15 years, said she joined the march because she has also experienced racism.
"London is a cosmopolitan city so it’s used to different races and cultures. But sometimes you can still feel racism in certain places especially if you leave the city. Sometimes you can feel that you’re not welcome here because you’re not white, like the way they serve you in some restaurants," she said.
According to the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS), the police have recorded more than 35,000 cases of hate crime based on race, using figures from England and Wales in 2012-2013. The same data also showed that an overwhelming majority - 83% - of the total reported hate crimes have been racially motivated.
For Fr. Salvador Telen, a London-based Filipino chaplain who joined the protest, the current policies of the UK government encourage anti-immigrant sentiments, which became his primary reason for supporting the cause.
"The British government should not dismiss us," he told ABS-CBN Europe.
"Filipinos and other nationalities in the UK are here to help the country. We work for them. We support their economy."
But instead of embracing this, he added, immigrants are being specifically targeted by government policies, from cutting state benefits to stricter visa regulations, a view that reflects the key theme of the march.
The problem with immigrants
Protesters are urging the British government to stop using immigrants as scapegoats when dealing with economic and social issues in the UK, referring particularly to recent policies on immigration.
“We’re concerned at the tone of politicians and certain sections of our society in this country,” a spokesperson from the Muslim Council of Britain said at the event.
“Whether it’s the form of representation of Muslims in the media, or whether it is in the form of legislation on immigration bills. This country is all of ours. We all belong to this country.”
Since 2008, when the UK was badly hit by the global recession, media reports have suggested a rise on anti-immigrant mentality across the UK, demonstrated by growing support towards “alternative” political groups claiming to champion the best interests of British locals.
Organizations like the British National Party (BNP), English Defence League (EDL), and UK Independence Party (UKIP), all of which have been consistently branded as “racist” due to its aggressive rhetoric against immigrants, have reportedly had more recruits in the last few years.
Crucially, official government views and policies since the economic crisis have started to reflect the anti-immigrant sentiments propagated by such groups. This is evident from the increasing number of laws targeting immigration, from the increase of annual income requirements for migrants wishing to bring their loved ones to the UK, to shorter stays and lesser privileges for migrant domestic workers entering Britain with their foreign employers.
Furthermore, the current government - a coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - is pushing for a new Immigration Bill, which is now being processed in Parliament. The bill aims to add further restrictions and tighter regulations for immigrants, particularly those who have no legal right to remain in the country.
Key clauses in the bill include: the introduction of immigration status checks for renting, banking and driving license applications; further powers for immigration and police officers to search individuals and premises; and fees for unqualified migrants who are using state-funded provisions like the National Health Service (NHS).
British politician Diane Abbott, a Member of Parliament (MP) representing Hackney North and Stoke Newington in London, suggested that immigrants are becoming pawns to a “dirty” political game aiming to lure votes at the upcoming elections.
“Political parties should not be scrambling in the gutter with UKIP for anti-immigrant votes,” the Labor MP said at the protest.
"It is not immigrants that are a drain to the National Health Service. Without immigrants, we wouldn't have a National Health Service. Time to end the lies and misinformation about immigration.”
The UK is due to have its local elections in May later this year, followed by general elections in 2015. A recent poll from national newspaper Independent on Sunday suggested that UKIP is increasingly becoming the most “favorable” political party, with 27% percent of the total respondents, followed closely by Labour at 26%, Conservatives at 24%, and Liberal Democrats at 14%.
“We don’t want to see an election with dirty politics blaming immigrants of Britain’s economic problems. So we say to politicians of all parties: no to racism, no to fascism,” Abbott concluded.
London’s anti-racism protest is part of a series of events worldwide marking the United Nation’s International Day of Eliminating Racial Discrimination, observed annually on March 21 since the 1960s, following a racially motivated massacre in South Africa.
In his message this year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged political, civic and religious leaders from around the world to “strongly condemn” any form of racism and hatred, calling them to take the lead on the fight against discrimination.