As the bus bumped up the hill leading home I wished the passenger on the lower deck would stop barking down his mobile - we were in Britain for goodness sake. Typically newspapers were raised over faces, ear phones plugged in, and a few passengers chatted softly. But the man downstairs hollered non-stop ‘It’s a lie! It’s a lie!’ between spurts of Pidgin English. I could tell he was Nigerian.
I wondered how the passengers felt about a guy belting out Pidgin English on a bus in England surrounded by English people speaking in measured tones. If I wasn’t fatigued I probably wouldn’t have minded, after all I’m Nigerian too. but the man also rekindled thoughts about the undying issue of immigration.
This week in Ireland, important personalities conferred to thrash out a resolution to an immigration crisis. Following an economic boom, Ireland opened its doors to immigrants. Suddenly they had to face up to the reality immigrants were not just units of labour. They also needed education, housing and health facilities.
According to the BBC:
‘The most thorough European survey of attitudes to immigration showed that Irish people were averagely well-disposed to foreign workers, neither unusually welcoming nor unusually hostile compared to other EU countries.
‘But ask opinion on a Dublin street corner, and you will hear plenty of individuals whose attitude is decidedly resentful.’
And that’s why immigration is such a thorny issue. Foreigners coming on to your buses and shouting at the top of their voices – disrupting your conservative lifestyle; foreigners forgetting to say please or thank you; invading your personal space; depleting the number of jobs available to the indigenous population; siphoning your resources: claiming benefits, enjoying free access to healthcare, and in some cases, flaming terrorism.
Though it’s not as simple as that, social structures tend to exclude immigrants. That’s why there have been repeated immigrant riots in Paris and elsewhere. Immigrants are not given an equal standing in society.
But people like Margaret Thatcher felt the British way of life was being ‘swamped’ by immigrants. Enoch Powell too in his infamous ‘Rivers of blood’ speech pursued the same line.
Clearly immigration is often worrying to the host country. Host countries are constantly trying to protect their 'culture’. In Japan, for instance, due to labour shortage the government decided to let in second and third generation Japanese Brazilians. The argument was, because they had Japanese blood they would speak the language, understand the culture and integrate more easily. But the experiment doesn’t seem to be going to plan. The immigrants are not taking to their culture like duck to water unfortunately.
Personally I think the hullabaloo over immigration all boils down to identity. People are afraid of losing their identity. Everyone, I believe, has an identity - a sense of location and position - that gives them a sense of belonging. I’m yet to hear someone say I come from nowhere.
When I say I’m Nigerian it means I belong to certain geographical boundaries. It means I belong to the Igbo tribe; I come from Enugu state, and can trace my roots to Nigeria.
And that’s what makes immigration such an explosive issue. People feel territorial because their land gives them an idea of who they are and how they relate to others in the world around them. It gives them a sense of location in the world and provides a link between them and the society they live in. If they lose their land to immigrants, then what becomes of their identity?
Crucially national Identity pinpoints what we have in common and the ways we are different from others who do not share our way of life.
Kathryn Woodard in her book ‘Identity and difference’(2002) argues 'Laying claim to an identity involves the naming of an ''us'' against a ''them'': identity is always an exclusionary practice'
In a nutshell, she contends:
1. We build identity through difference e.g. flags, uniforms etc represent our difference.
2. We maintain identity through social and material conditions. So if a group is marked as the enemy, that will have real effects because the group will be socially excluded and materially disadvantaged.
3. Identity as a concept uses systems of classification by dividing people into two opposing groups ‘us’ and ‘them’.
There are counter-arguments that identity is not fixed, it is always fluid. Think about the various influences on present-day Britain – the Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Romans, Normans…Identity is by no means static. But in an increasingly globalised world where our lives becomes enmeshed, people feel greater urgency to hold on to what they believe is theirs.
My belief is that we can’t help feeling territorial. We can’t help feeling threatened. We will always want to guard what we believe is ours. Who doesn’t feel strongly about their culture and country?
But however hard we fight to cling on, an aphorism still holds true: the only guarantee in life is change and not permanence.