Keir Starmer's Dog Whistle Comments About Bangladeshi Migrants are Shameful, Wrong and Dangerous. By William Gomes

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Keir Starmer's recent comments singling out Bangladesh as an example of where illegal migrants in the UK could be deported to were reprehensible. In an interview with The Sun this week, the Labour leader said "At the moment people coming from countries like Bangladesh are not being removed, because they're not being processed." He then pledged that under a Labour government, "I'll make sure that we've got planes going off – not to Rwanda, that's an expensive gimmick – they will go back to the countries where people come from."

These remarks play directly into racist stereotypes about immigrants from South Asia. By specifically naming Bangladesh, Starmer is perpetuating the false notion that Bangladeshi migrants are uniquely prone to exploiting the UK asylum system.

In reality, according to Home Office figures, Bangladeshi nationals are not even among the top 10 countries of origin for migrants crossing the Channel in small boats. In the year ending March 2024, Afghans were the most common nationality, making up just under a fifth of all small boat arrivals. They were followed by Iranians (12%) and Turkish nationals (11%). About 85% of those arriving via this method were male, and nearly a fifth were between 25 and 39 years old where age was recorded. The reality is that in the year ending March 2024, only 8 of the over 31,000 migrants who arrived in the UK illegally by small boats were from Bangladesh, according to Home Office figures.

So why did Starmer choose to call out Bangladesh, a country that is demonstrably not a major source of "illegal" migration to the UK? His comments echo the infamous rhetoric of Enoch Powell's 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech, in which the far-right MP demonized South Asian and West Indian immigrants, claiming they would soon outnumber the white British population.

Powell's speech is widely blamed for inflaming racial tensions and validating racist violence against people of colour. By similarly singling out a specific ethnic community, Starmer risks legitimizing the same dangerous attitudes and emboldening those who wish to scapegoat immigrants for the nation's problems.

As a country, Britain has deep and profound ties to Bangladesh rooted in our colonial history. The Bangladeshi community has been an integral part of the social fabric of the UK for generations, making immense contributions culturally, economically and in every sphere of public life. To have their ancestral homeland bandied about as shorthand for unwanted migrants is deeply insulting and hurtful to the over 450,000 people of Bangladeshi origin who call Britain home.

Sadly, this is nothing new for the British Bangladeshi community, who have faced racism, Islamophobia and hostility for decades. I myself have witnessed and experienced this prejudice on a regular basis in different parts of the UK - from racist slurs and assaults in the street, to discrimination in education, employment, healthcare, and housing. Racism haunts us in our daily lives, on public transport, in hospitals, in schools. I fear that one day, racists will even pursue me to my grave, demanding that my dead body be "sent home".

When high-profile politicians like Starmer carelessly stigmatize the countries we come from, it makes already vulnerable people even more exposed to such cruelty and intolerance. His words have real, often dangerous consequences.

In the 1970s, there was a sharp rise in violent attacks on Bangladeshis in areas like East London. The horrific murder of Altab Ali in 1978 became a rallying point for the community to resist racist violence.

In the 1990s, the British National Party's electoral success in parts of London sparked a new wave of attacks on Bangladeshi youth. Teenage students were beaten into comas and stabbed in the face by gangs of white men. The Bangladeshi community once again had to organize to defend and protect themselves.

While overt violence may be less common today, discrimination and Islamophobia remain daily realities. Bangladeshi Muslims, in particular, are frequently demonized in certain corners of politics and media.

Labour's shadow  cabinet minister Jon Ashworth compounded the offense of Starmer's remarks by falsely claiming that migrants 'from the Indian subcontinent do not get returned...they can stay in hotels for the rest of their lives.' In fact, according to Home Office statistics, 12 failed asylum seekers were deported to Bangladesh in 2023, while a further 66 returned voluntarily that year.

Furthermore, I strongly disagree with any portrayal of Bangladesh as a universally "safe" country to which asylum seekers can be casually returned. There is ample evidence that many people, including human rights defenders, journalists, and political activists, have fled Bangladesh due to torture, persecution, and threats to their lives. If forcibly returned, they could face imprisonment, brutal mistreatment, enforced disappearance, or worse.

Bangladesh, sadly, cannot currently be called a true democracy - the ruling Awami League has tightened its grip on power and cracked down on dissent. The British government has shamefully failed to recognise this reality or to provide adequate protections to Bangladeshi asylum seekers with legitimate claims.

Of course, the UK asylum system is under strain and reform is needed. No one is arguing that all asylum seekers should be allowed to stay indefinitely. But the solution is to fix the Home Office's dysfunctional bureaucracy and invest in humane, evidence-based solutions - not to vilify particular communities for political gain or to put vulnerable people in grave danger through reckless generalizations.

To their credit, some Labour figures have spoken out against Starmer's comments. Apsana Begum, Labour's incumbent candidate in Poplar and Limehouse where a third of residents are of Bangladeshi origin, said "I will never ever stand by and let migrant communities be scapegoated." Councillor Sabina Akhtar resigned from the party in protest, saying "I cannot be proud of the party any more when the leader of the party singles out my community and insults my Bangladeshi identity."

But this incident speaks to a deeper malaise within Labour under Starmer's leadership. In his eagerness to distance himself from the Corbyn era and prove Labour's "credibility" on hot-button issues like immigration and national security, Starmer often seems willing to triangulate at the expense of his party's progressive values and its historic commitment to anti-racism.

We saw this earlier this year when Starmer wrote an op-ed for the right-wing Sunday Telegraph promising "the largest ever peacetime increase in defence spending" - an obvious pander to militarism. 

Leadership means having the courage to challenge prejudice, not caving to it. On immigration, Labour should be making a positive, principled case for a welcoming Britain - one that honours our international obligations, treats all migrants with dignity, and recognises the immense social and economic benefits that immigration brings. Crude nativism may play well in focus groups, but it is unbecoming of the party of Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Blair at his best.

Starmer is a fundamentally decent man who I believe abhors racism. He must now reflect carefully on how his rhetoric enables it, take full responsibility for the hurt and fear it has caused, apologize unreservedly to the Bangladeshi community, and commit to doing better. In the heat of an election campaign, it's all too easy for "optics" to trump basic morality. But some principles should be non-negotiable for any leader who aspires to be prime minister - chief among them a refusal to single out or stigmatize any ethnic group for political advantage, or to recklessly put lives in danger. If Labour cannot stand up for that, then what on earth is it for?

 

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