International Migrants’ Day is upon us. And it is a good opportunity to reflect on the relevant events and developments around migration that took place over the last year. This day was proclaimed by the UN thirteen years ago as a way of recognizing the increased number of migrants across the globe, and the undeniable role of migration as an economical, social, and cultural force that shapes everyday life and the structures that sustain it. But in an era of crisis, migration is often portrayed in a negative light. With the rhetoric used in the media and from policy makers, it seems the UK, as several other countries in Europe, has declared a metaphorical 'war' on migrants (similarly to that declared on the working class and people who claim benefits). Migrants are portrayed by the government as a contributing factor to the financial crisis, and as a burden on the UK, taking jobs from locals and abusing public services.
Many of us find ourselves having to discredit these unfounded accusations on a daily basis when talking about migration, but I will not do so here. In this blog, I will instead reflect on the reactions I have encountered to the government's anti-migration stunts this last year, and what this can tell us about the discussions around migration in the UK nowadays. To this end, I will refer to three specific instances in which certain reactions to developments around migration have provided insights into how the public (or certain publics) thinks about migration. These are the appearance of the ‘Go Home’ van, the documentation checks at tube stations, and the new immigration bill.
The so-called ‘racist’ or ‘Go Home van’ began to circulate in certain boroughs of London on the 22nd of July 2013, and concluded its parade one month later. This measure, which was only responsible for 11 people leaving the UK , has received widespread criticism from politicians and the general public alike. But the van was not only criticised; it was also mocked, as the UK Border Agency began to receive texts asking for rides home and ridiculing the whole scheme. One of the frequent jokes made via text was regarding the royal family. This response to a highly racist and xenophobic scheme is not only interesting because of the ‘cheeky’ mood, but also because it brought together issues around migration with other social and political issues, such as the welfare state and the role of the Royal family in the UK.
As part of the same UK Border Agency operation, this summer saw identity document checks being implemented in tube stations around London, with the intention of spotting undocumented migrants. A common critique of this tactic, apart from the hostile environment it created for migrants and non-migrants alike, was the use of racial profiling for detecting potential undocumented migrants. Months after these checks had appeared in the news, a discussion around the topic took place on a Facebook group for migrants from my home country who are living in England. While the first comments showed indignation and outrage towards the way migrants are treated in the UK, suddenly a very aggressive comment appeared, justifying the profiling of certain races because they were ‘essentially corrupt’. I engaged in a conversation with the person who had posted this, which was quite confrontational and did not lead anywhere. What was interesting, however, was the way that other group members joined in, taking sides and also attempting to present ‘in-between’ positions. I took away two things from this experience. First of all, sadly I learned from my own community that migrants don’t necessarily empathise with other migrants, and racism can be so blinding that it divides those who should be united. Secondly, the ‘in-between’ position, which had a certain degree of popularity, seemed to stand against racism but for the removal of undocumented migrants. This was also linked to a dislike for so called ‘benefit scroungers’. So in this case migration was also linked to other social and political problems. Sadly, this time it meant a further separation from other migrants, and from the general working class in the UK.
Finally, this year saw the proposal of a new Immigration Bill, which among other things would affect deportation appeal processes, introduce charges for migrants using the NHS, including a levy which students and other temporary migrants would pay, and impose upon landlords the task of carrying out mandatory visa checks when renting property. As a result, student unions across the UK started to campaign against this law. What I was surprised to see, however, was a focus on how this bill would affect overseas students as one specific group. Aren’t we all affected by this law in one way or another? Should we not also think of others, and unite in solidarity against the bill?
All these cases made me wonder: where are we right now in a discussion around migration? Recent protests and social movements in the UK and abroad have in many cases brought together a number of issues and demands, aiming for social justice as a common goal, and relating the struggles of workers, students, migrants, and the disabled. The response to the ‘Go Home’ van is evidence of how migration and the rights of migrants can be articulated into a discourse around austerity, and social and economic justice. On the other hand, there is still a divide among migrants, perpetuated by racism, self-interest and a lack of empathy, among other things. Hopefully, if we continue to relate and further incorporate migration into broader discussions around social and political issues, we will increase the understanding of migration among the general public. But also, as migrants, we will stop thinking of migration as an isolated issue, hence improving the connections to other migrant groups and to other struggles in the country we all live in. This, I believe, would be a step forward towards a holistic approach to social change for everyone.