10 Jan 2014

Is the United Kingdom a racist country?

Immigration is a hot topic. “Go Home” vans appeared on the streets, and now the Times has caused a stir by pointing out that one in 10 babies in Britain is Muslim. But is Britain racist?

In Britain in 2014, immigration is rarely out of the headlines.

At the beginning of the year, a rule change allowed Romanians and Bulgarians to come into the country. But the much-discussed flood of migrants never materialised – other than in the volume of headlines.

This week, a top EU official even claimed British ministers are scaremongering about an “invasion of foreigners”. European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding said it was a “myth”, adding: “You are destroying the future of your people, actually.”

In part, the issue in Britain has risen to the top of the agenda as times get tough – and as politicians from the three main parties recognise the rise of Ukip.

But the situation is more complex. Within the immigration debate lurks, in some cases, elements of xenophobia and even racism – for example, in the concept of “benefits tourism”, which suggests at its extreme that anyone not born in the UK who comes here is probably a bit of a scrounger.

Or last year’s “Go Home” vans. Aimed at illegal immigrants, many complained the phrase itself was offensive because it was reminiscent of slogans used by racist groups to attack immigrants in the past.

On Friday, the Times published a story about how one in 10 babies and toddlers in the UK is Muslim, pointing to higher birth rates among Muslim families – but also to immigration from countries including Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many asked whether this headline would be acceptable if used about any other group.

But what does it feel like as an immigrant to the UK to be greeted with so much negativity, both over immigration itself and also, potentially, over race? Channel 4 News went to St George International: English School in central London to ask recently arrived students how they felt – and it seems the picture is rather more positive than the headlines suggest.

Baha, from Turkey, came to the UK to study in September.

“When I came to London, usually I’m lost and need to find the tube station, I asked British people and people helped me,” he told Channel 4 News.

The students said that the multicultural nature of London made it more welcoming. Ania, from Poland, arrived in November on an internship.

I think it is a fear run up by politics. Denis, from France

“Every time I travel to work, I can see more than five nationalities on the tube and people feel comfortable here, I guess… If a situation like here happened in Poland, maybe we would be more racist because it’s not really common for Poland to have so many foreign people,” she said.

And Denis, from France, said the UK was less racist than his home country.

“You go in the shop, perhaps the [person at the] cash desk is Muslim, that is not a problem. In France, that is a problem,” he said, but he accepted that there was a “fear” about immigration here.

“I think it is just fear run up by the politics: ‘Oh, vote for me please,'” he added.

Channel 4 News accepts that the picture in London is different to the rest of the UK – try our survey to find out if your area is different and tweet us your thoughts on this issue @channel4news.

And check out our other coverage on immigration here for a wider picture.