Eden Fessahaye on: Migrant Voice's Documentary Launch and European Election Discussion

GMT 17:44 Thursday ,22 May 2014

 Migrant Voice - Eden Fessahaye on: Migrant Voice's Documentary Launch and European Election Discussion

Eden Fessahaye

With the impending European Parliamentary elections looming over us, opinion polls are indicating that far-right wing parties such as Ukip are heading for a victory later this month. What could this potentially mean for our diverse nation? Reportedly haunted by the impact of immigration, disillusioned voters are said to be lending their support to far-right groups. However, the omission of low migrant participation in the European elections, in much of the analysis, serves to ignore other plausible reasons for why far-right parties tend to perform strongly in these elections. Instead, the popularised message, churned out by the various media outlets, is that migration from within and beyond the EU leads to competition for scarce resources. These messages have provided fertile ground for divisive and anti-immigrant sentiment and elevated the position of extremist groups. If they attain greater influence in the next round of EU parliamentary elections, integration initiatives could be adversely affected. In turn, this is set to endanger social cohesion and the rich tapestry of cultures in our heterogeneous society. Against the prevailing shadow of asylum and immigration hysteria, Migrant Voice launched their documentary ‘Faces of our city; stories of migration past and present’ followed on by a discussion on the EU elections, at Europe House, on 24 April. This space was developed to illuminate the threat to the dynamic co-existence of migrants and non-migrants alike, as portrayed by the documentary, if migrants do not exercise their right to vote. Why?  It potentially provides a stage for anti-migrant parties such as the BNP and Ukip to set the agenda and manipulate mainstream parties to implement ever more stringent immigration policies. Within this context, Migrant Voice seeks to remedy the dire consequences of such policies by promoting a constructive debate on migration and integration. In a nutshell, Migrant Voice aims to provide a counter voice to the dominant by engaging and enabling migrants to share their stories through media channels. The film 'Faces of our city; stories of migration past and present’ is born out of Migrant Voice’s Face2Face project. The Face2Face project, funded by the European Integration Fund, runs in partnership with organisations in the Czech Republic, Italy, Spain and the UK and endeavours to dismantle negative stereotypes of migrants. What’s more, it facilitates communication between migrants and the host community. The beauty of Face2Face is that it celebrates the contribution migrants make in their community. As one of the initiatives from the aforementioned project, the documentary commits to bringing people from migrant and host communities together. It also seeks to amplify the voices of migrants and showcase their unique ways of adapting to their ‘home away from home’. The short documentary film, screened during the first half of the launch, captures three journeys of integration in London. At the same time, it serves as a potent reminder of the contribution that migrants have made to London as we have come to know it today. Sara Davidson takes us on the first journey of migration and integration through a historical narrative. She reveals that her grandparents, Jewish immigrants from Romania, were the first pioneers in her family to migrate to the UK to flee poverty and persecution. In her segment, Sara reminds us that the ‘history of London is the history of migration’ and illustrates this point when she talks of how East London was home to different people; English, Irish, Huguenots, Jewish and Muslim at different times. ‘Prejudice against immigrants is not new’ proclaims Sara as the camera turns it focus to the mural of Cable Street; a mural depicting the people of East London stopping a march by fascists in 1936. Soon after, we are transported to Mariko Hayisha’s story of acculturation. Born and raised in Japan, Mariko migrated to England to study at the age of 18. As part of her journey, we see her immersed in the ‘Welcome to Walthamstow’ day, informing migrants of their rights when stopped and searched by immigration officers. This demonstrates Mariko giving back to the very community that welcomed her with open arms. We later learn that Mariko has been returned to Japan due to changes in the family reunification rules. Finally, we arrive at Abras in Willesden where we are introduced to Ricardo and Simone. Both work as immigration advisors and assist Brazilian migrants to integrate into British society. With Ricardo telling us that it is ‘hard to point to any negatives of Brazilian migration,’ why are the negative aspects of migration magnified in mainstream forums? The film having ended it was over to the panellists for a discussion on the importance of the migrant vote in the European elections. Jacqueline Minor, Head of the European Commission representation to the United Kingdom, started the discussion by focusing her attention on the EU’s perception of migration and diversity. Minor argued that scares of immigration ‘being out of control’ had led to various skewed perceptions of migration in Europe. How many of us learn from our press that 2.2 million Britons live for part of the year in a member state? Minor told the audience that breaking down the notion of migrants and immigration and talking through the reality of their perception, will go some way in developing a more nuanced debate. Why do the European elections matter? Admittedly, this is a question I would have been hard pushed to answer before this event. Minor succinctly explained how the EU Parliament has an immense impact on our everyday lives and affects anything from the air that we breathe to the safety of food on our plate, for example.  Minor added: “If you’re a migrant you have a special reason for participating”. Through the ballot box, migrant voters have an opportunity to determine who will deliberate on some of the most important issues affecting our lives. Yet, the question which remains unanswered is how we communicate this message to the very people who stand to be affected? Jean Lambert, MEP spoke of collaborating with all parties within the European parliament in her quest to combat some of the populist, anti-immigration policies. Lambert told the audience that the UK had a ‘semi-detached attitude’ to European issues. She warned that with the European parliament presiding over critical matters such as asylum and immigration, social security and third country nationals, our vote really matters! What’s more, Lambert told the audience “……Parliament really has a voice in this and so, it really matters, whose fingers is on the button… as to what position the Parliament takes in these negotiations and who sits down with national government to make the rules”. Yet, with diminished commitment from the UK to the European Union potentially jeopardising effective communication of the EU’s significance, it’s hardly a surprise that voter participation in the European elections is low. Simon Woolley, the Director of Operation Black Vote, zoomed in on the importance of the individual’s role in “…..supporting and empowering our communities”. Woolley suggested we do this by embracing the ideas of solidarity and empowerment. Solidarity, he argued, was fundamental for a number of reasons, “……not least for the individuals themselves but for the society we want to live in”. The kind of solidarity that sees Migrant Voice “…..offer a hand of friendship” to migrants and sees Mariko supported and welcomed by the St Barnabas Church in Walthamstow. Woolley continues by saying that solidarity alone is not enough and empowerment is often the missing link. We are powerful when we exercise our ‘right to franchise’. In the words of Woolley, that means “…..we no longer have to ask for decency, equality and fairness. We can demand it!” Concluding, Wolley states that London owes much of its success and dynamism to diversity. Migrant participation in the elections can help to protect it. Voting is no doubt one way in which migrants can campaign for their voices to be heard. However, we still have some way to go in developing strategies to safeguard our open society values such as acceptance, diversity and inclusion. With the election discussion wrapped up, it was over to the floor for questions. One contribution centred on how we can persuade mainstream parties not to pander to the venomous anti-immigration views of the minority. In response, Woolley told us that “we can change the political debate if we engage” and that migrants are not subject to the dictates of the far-right if we register our votes. To illustrate his point, he referred to research conducted by Operation Black Vote over the summer of 2013. This report demonstrated that the non-white vote, in the 2015 general elections, could decide who wins and who loses in 168 marginal seats. Shortly after the disclosure, political leaders got into contact with Woolley to discuss the needs of black and minority communities. For a long time, but particularly during election times, the spotlight has shone brightly on issues of immigration and asylum. The discourse surrounding immigration, as ever, remains selective and power serving. It appears to mask the underlying problems contributing to the UK’s political and economic turmoil which may embarrass the government and hold it to account. As the public forum stages a seemingly one-sided immigration debate for political expediency, it turns a blind eye to how it compromises the welfare and dignity of migrants. Parts of the media often colludes with the dominant agenda by increasing its reporting on race and faith related issues at a sensitive time before elections. The current discussion about labelling meat to reflect methods of slaughter is just one example. Again, an opportunity for certain groups to be vilified for their religious practices. The proverbial punishment rod in action for migrants who fail to assimilate to the British way of life. This practise appears to harp back to the colonial era when the British Empire employed the ‘repugnancy clause’ to denounce the practice of customs that were seen to be in conflict with the laws of the ruling elite. At a micro level, the devastating consequences of a hostile climate are being increasingly felt. It was only last week my friend expressed her sheer disbelief at the onslaught of racial abuse she faced as she walked her 5 year old daughter from school in Islington. ‘You n****** multiply like vermin’, ‘go home, you n*****’ were some of chilling words that were fired at her, in broad daylight, on 7 May 2014. Incidences such as these have far-reaching implications for the moral fabric of our society and acts as an impediment to integration. For those opposed to the anti-immigration rhetoric, casting your vote in the elections may go some way in dismantling the xenophobic and populist campaign. However, it does not provide all the answers for the systemic racist ideology that is deeply entrenched in some of our institutions. In the words of Mandela, ‘…..People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite. With that in mind, we can all play a part in sustaining and constructing an inclusive society by ‘offering a hand of friendship’ to those around us. It’s a small but powerful gesture that could assist in the development of more harmonious communities. A proper debate on immigration and asylum is sorely needed and can only really start when migrant communities are invited to the table. Whether that will happen anytime soon is doubtful and so, in the meantime, it is up to us to ensure that our voices are heard.        


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