Defending Free Movement

Last night I spoke at the launch meeting of the Alliance for Free Movement, hosted by Caroline Lucas at the Houses of Parliament.   The alliance is a broad-based movement of organisations, politicians, unions and NGOS, whose aim is to defend, uphold and extend the EU’s free movement rules at a time when the concept of free movement tends to be depicted more often than not as another of the many evils inflicted on the nation by the ‘dictatorship of Brussels.’

The initiative came out of a joint letter to the Guardian last month, of which I was one of the co-signatories.  Its stated aim is ‘to champion the right to live, work, study and retire abroad.  We want to defend and extend the freedom to move.  Migrants have not run down our public services, failed to build proper housing or caused a race to the bottom on wages or conditions.  These are results of political choices made by governments and corporations.’

Last night’s panel made these points in various ways.  Caroline Lucas spoke with her usual lucid eloquence about the importance of migration to the UK.  The barrister Colin Yeo spoke about the legal nightmare that is likely to unfold post-Brexit regarding EU nationals.   A Spanish nurse who has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years spoke movingly about  the insecurity which he and so many other EU nationals have felt since the referendum.  A speaker from Unison spelt out the dire consequences that are already unfolding for the NHS as European nurses, radiographers and other staff continue to leave the country in droves because of the poisoned post-referendum atmosphere – and all this at a time when British applications for nursing training places have dropped by 20 percent.

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Alliance for Free Movement launch meeting

These panel speeches were followed by sometimes abrasive but mostly thoughtful, passionate and considered contributions from the attendees.  Some had voted Leave and argued that the ‘hard Brexit’ that is now unfolding was not what they voted for. Some made the often-repeated point that ‘not all Leavers are racist.’  Others declared unequivocally that Brext was a racist vote and must be stopped.

These differences were not resolved – and could not be, in the time available – but they made very clear the political faultlines that left/progressive forces in this country will have to negotiate their way round if we are to find a way out of the dismal trajectory in which the country is currently trapped.

On the issue of free movement however, there should be no doubts or ambiguities. This is a principle that the left – in the broadest sense of the term – must fight for, even in its limited European form.  To abandon it would inflict enormous damage on British society – not to mention the millions of people whose lives are likely to be disrupted if Amber Rudd’s pledge to ‘end freedom of movement as we know it’ is realised.  It would be a giant step backwards and inwards and a capitulation to xenophobic reaction, fear and misinformation.

This is a campaign that can be won.  It has the potential to develop into a really broad coalition of unions, organisations and campaigners.  It can include employers and workers and can reach out across party lines.   Defending freedom of movement means rejecting the politics of scapegoating and fear.  It means recognizing the positive contribution that migrants make to the UK in many different ways.  It means upholding the right of workers to seek work in other countries and to have rights when they do so. It means giving our children and grandchildren the same opportunities that we now have to work, study and retire in Europe.

If we reject even the limited version of free movement enshrined in the EU’s four freedoms then we have very little chance of extending the same principle beyond the EU, and we are likely to entrench ourselves even deeper in our ongoing Trumpish dystopia of walls, fences and militarised borders.

That’s why I went to the meeting last night.   To sign up and find out more, visit www.forfreemovement.org

Imagine a Country Without Migrants

It’s nearly three months since the idea of a national protest by and in support of migrants in the UK on Feb 20 next year went viral on social media. In that time what began as a Facebook discussion has morphed into the national campaign One Day Without Us. We now have more than two dozen groups across the country. We have received support from various organisations, including Hope Not Hate, War on Want, and the Migrants Rights Network.

When I first suggested this possibility back in early October, I asked what people would think of a national migrant strike/boycott on the lines of two similar protests in the US in 2006 and in Italy in 2010. In the course of the many discussions that have taken place since then, this concept has evolved into a National Day of Action to highlight the contribution that migrants make to British society, in which taking time off work is one of a wide spectrum of actions that people can take to highlight the contribution that migrants make to British society and show solidarity with them.

Launching an organic grassroots campaign without any financial support or the backing of any political party has not been easy. Throughout this process I have been inspired by the many people who have rallied to this idea, and by the courage and commitment shown by migrants and British citizens across the country who have given their time entirely voluntarily to help organise what is an unprecedented protest in the history of the UK.

Along the way I have constantly been reminded of why an event like this necessary: the Belgian told to ‘go home’ when walking his dogs on the beach; a Greek who has had his windows broken; a Portuguese woman chased down a London street by a racist gang; a British Asian woman racially abused with her mum and two cousins on a bus; the desperation and insecurity of men and women who have lived in this country for decades and are told that their right to remain is in jeopardy.

This has been a year in which the national ‘debate’ about immigration has more than ever been saturated with hatred, fear and anti-migrant hostility; when migrants are blamed for problems they didn’t cause; when politicians too often lack the courage to speak out against these tendencies and prefer to pander to them instead.

In this climate it has been heartening and deeply moving to be reminded of the many people in this country – both migrants and British citizens – who do not accept the alarming victimisation and scapegoating of migrants, and are determined to try and counter it with a more positive and inclusive vision of what British society could be.

Many people have given not just their time, but their creativity to our campaign. This week we have launched a remarkable campaign video, that was shot and produced by Emigrant Beard productions, a Bristol-based company of mostly Spanish nationals which specialises in internet documentaries on ’emigration in the UK from the emigrant perspective.’

Emigrant Beard approached us at a very early stage in the campaign and offered to make the video for free. We asked the company to come up with a concept based on the idea of disappearing people – and particularly disappearing workers – that would invite people to imagine what the UK would be like if there were no migrants in the country for one day.

Having agreed on this basic concept, Emigrant Beard asked us to give them a script that would be poetic and evocative. We then approached the playwright Steve Waters, author of Temple and the forthcoming Limehouse. Waters welcomed the opportunity to participate in what he calls ‘ a wake-up to all of us to celebrate the diversity of our country and the vital role people of all nations play in the way we live and work.’

In little more than a day,Waters came up with a beautifully-turned rhymed script written as a short question and answer dialogue, in which migrants from various professions – baristas, surgeons, teachers, cleaners – tell their interlocutors that Feb 20 will be ‘ a day without us.’ The ‘questions’ are spoken by the professional actors Linus Roache and Lee Ross, who generously – and in the current climate – courageously – offered their services for free.

For Roache, this was a philosophical decision, in keeping with his belief that ‘we are living in a globalizing world. There is no going back, we need to be fearless in our embrace of diversity. This is the march of human evolution toward greater unity.’

The rest of the script was spoken by migrant ‘actors’ from Bristol. Carlos Blanco, who is also one of the cameramen and editors,appears in the film because ‘ I felt it was important first of all because I am a migrant and I don’t feel that bad about it. I think all of us should be proud of it; to be a migrant is to be brave. I hope people realize that.’

For Nadia Castilla, the video was an opportunity ‘ to be part of a project that includes everyone and that sends such a positive message’. To Emigrant Beard’s sound engineer Gerardo Pastor Ruiz, even the sound was part of the film’s attempt to give ‘ a voice to people who needed to be heard.’

What gives the video its power and its visual poetry are the close-up shots of eyes, mouths and parts of faces, which powerfully highlight the humanity of people who too often are not regarded as people at all, but as intruders, usurpers and outsider.

The result is a not just a campaign video, but a short film of real beauty and emotional power, which we are proud to associate with our campaign. For the film’s director Jacobo GF, the message of this video is: ‘Lets make the United Kingdom an amazing place to live, a paradise for everyone who really appreciates it. It does not matter where are you from or what is your background as long as you contribute to the cause of making this place better day after day.’

This is not a perspective we are used to hearing in these bleak times, but we feel that nowadays it needs to be heard more than ever. As the film reminds us, migrants are not invaders and strangers, but part of society in which all have a place:

We live with you and work with you
We’re part of this place we’ve travelled to
We’re part of your today and your tomorrow too

February 20 is an opportunity to recognize that reality – and also to celebrate it, anyway you can.

One Day Without Us

Being a writer isn’t always the most dramatic kind of life.  Unless you’re out researching in the field, most of the drama takes place inside your head, and most of your day is spent looking at a computer.  This is pretty much how it was for me until the last day of the Tory party conference in Birmingham.  It would be something of an understatement to say that I had’t really enjoyed the proceedings.  Most of the time I tried to ignore them, but this became increasingly difficult, as politician after politician stepped forward with a series of jaw-droppingly spiteful policies that really made my skin crawl. .

Foreign doctors? No thanks. Foreign students? Get rid.  Name and shame employers who employ foreign workers – even though employer after employer insists that the British economy needs foreign workers?  Bring it on.  Depict people who call themselves ‘citizens of the world’ as unpatriotic and rootless outsiders?  Icing on the cake.

In a famous essay on the origins of World War I, Freud once argued that barbarism is kept in check by a certain set of moral standards that society establishes to control its worst instincts.  Individuals might feel certain destructive impulses, he suggested, but most people won’t give into them because they don’t want to be censured or criticized by the community they belong to.

This risk of censure, he insisted, is precisely what holds a civilised society together.  But these standards can also change – in wartime for example –  and then primitive and destructive instincts  that have previously been kept in check can explode into the open and create a new normality.

Here in the UK, Brexit has shattered many of the standards that many of us previously thought were taken for granted.  It wasn’t that people didn’t rip the hijabs off Muslim women in the street or screech at foreigners to speak English before the referendum – they did. But since the referendum large numbers of people – larger than we are prepared to admit – now feel entitled to do these things.  They now think it’s ok to tell foreign doctors that they only want a British doctor, to rant at strangers to go home, and recycle old racist taunts that many people had not heard since the 70s.

Rather than combat these tendencies, the cascade of xenophobic proposals oozing out of Birmingham seemed explicitly designed to pander to them.   This was not dog-whistle politics.  It was out-in-the open nastiness, a post-referendum nativist walpurgisnacht in which it was painfully and shockingly clear that the government is now prepared to pander to the worst instincts in the British population in order to manage the UK’s exit from the European Union.

In normal circumstances I might have expressed these opinions in a blog or ranted at the tv, but this time I did something different.  I wrote a brief Facebook post in which I asked what people thought of the idea of staging a mass day of action on the lines of the 2006 ‘One Day Without Immigrants’ protest in the US and a similar protest in Italy in 2010.  The essential idea of both protests was a 24-hour boycott, by immigrants and their supporters.

Some downed tools.  Some closed their restaurants and businesses.  Others took their kids out of school and didn’t spend money or go shopping.  The two protests took place in very different contexts, but their aims were broadly similar – to demonstrate the contribution that immigrants made in societies that were increasingly hostile to their presence, and which often marginalized or ignored their contributions.

It seemed to me that this would be a good idea right now,  at a time when similar sentiments were running rampant in the Uk both on the street and also at the political level. Within a few hours of my post, it became clear that many people felt the same way.  The post went quickly viral, and within a few days a group was formed with over two thousand members, and a broader discussion about the protest was unfolding across the Internet.

By the following Monday, One Day Without Us was firmly established.   It had a date – February 20 next year – and the nucleus of an organization.  It was receiving offers of help from individuals and organizations across the country, from a range of nationalities and political persuasions.  It had become the subject of national and international media attention.   By the end of the week at least fifteen groups were formed or in the process of forming in various towns and cities.

The idea of a mass protest has clearly caught a wider mood of indignation, despair and concern, following the national tragedy that has unfolded as a result of the referendum campaign.  Today some three million EU nationals, many of whom have lived here for decades and thought this country was their home, are now undergoing the painful experience of being described as ‘migrants’ – a word that has acquired almost entirely negative connotations in British vocabulary through decades of tabloid usage.   Some have already begun the extraordinarily convoluted process of applying to become naturalised British citizens. Others are preparing to abandon the country they thought was their home.

Many feel insecure and even despairing about their legal status and vulnerable in the face of the increasingly vicious mood of the British public, and a post-Brexit racism that makes no distinctions between EU national, between ‘migrant’ and ‘immigrant’, and which doesn’t care if you come from Poland or Pakistan.  Whether the xenophobes and racists see difference in skin colour, your language, your nationality or your religion – they have only one message for foreigners and people who look like foreigners – get out.  This is what happened in a London street only two days, when a gang of racists chased a young Portuguese woman down the street and told her to get back to ‘whatever hellhole you came from.’

Millions of British-born citizens – both Leavers and Remainers – are appalled and shamed by the alarming transformation of Brexit Britain into a xenophobic dystopia.   And that is why this emerging movement has taken off.  Its members all share the same common goals.  We want to remind the British public and politicians that immigrants have a past, a present and a future in this country, and celebrate that presence.

We don’t want to do this with a march.  These are extraordinary times, and we wanted to do something extraordinary to get our message out there.  Everybody involved in this project  is conscious that more dramatic, wide-ranging and inclusive was required than a single march or mass rally.  We wanted something entirely different; a peaceful mass protest, unfolding simultaneously in towns, cities, communities and workplaces across the country.  We wanted a demonstration of solidarity and unity that no one will be able to ignore, which might help burst the poisonous bubble that Brexit has created.

We know that some opinions will never be changed, but we also know that there are millions of people who are shocked and disturbed by the divisive and dangerous politics that are leading us all to disaster, and we urge them to join us on February 20 and make make One Day Without Us a day to remember.

 

 

 

Óscar Martínez: A History of Violence

Many years ago, in 1993 I visited the bombed out ruins of the town of Aguacayo,  the former ‘capital’ of the FMLN-held liberated zone in Guazapa Province during much of  El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.  It was just only one year after the guerrillas had disarmed in  the town  as a result of the implementation of the Chapultepec Peace Accords that brought the war to an end.  Even in peacetime, El Salvador was a rough place.   The country was plagued with criminal violence and awash with weaponry left over from the war, some of which were used to rob banks in commando-style raids.   There were bands of former guerrillas and members of the armed forces operating in parts of rural El Salvador.

The National Guard, the Treasury Police and the government-sponsored death squads were gone, and the army had been put on a leash, but violent death was still alarmingly common.  As I was walking through the countrysdie towards Aguacayo, I met a campesino who told me that a schoolteacher had just been shot on the same path a few days beforehand.  When I asked him why, he simply replied ‘porque sí’ – for the hell of it.

There were a lot of people being killed ‘porque sí’ in post-war El Salvador, and their numbers have continued to soar in the ensuing years.  Today an average of twenty-three people are murdered in El Salvador every day – 80 out of every 100,000 inhabitants in a tiny country with a population of 6.34 million.  Much of this staggering epidemic of violence is due to the prevalence of El Salvador’s huge gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 and Mirada Lokotes 13, some of which were established in the United States during the war.

The interventions of Mexican drug gangs like Los Zetas, has added to the lethal mix, generating levels of violence and insecurity that make Europe’s ongoing terrorist emergency seem like a sideshow by comparison.  A similar cocktail of poverty, institutionalised corruption, gangs or ‘maras’ and the savage ‘primitive accumulation’ of the narcotrafficantes has ravaged other Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and Honduras.  These are societies supposedly at peace, with a per capita murder rate that blurs the distinctions between peace and war.

No one has described Central America’s tragic predicament more eloquently than the brilliant young Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez.   A contributor to the El Faro website, Martínez is a gifted storyteller and a remarkably courageous and intrepid investigative reporter.  His first book The Beast (Verso 2013) was a blistering masterpiece of investigative journalism which chronicled the desperate journeys undertaken by Central American migrants to reach the United States, using the Mexican train that migrants rightly call ‘ La Bestia‘ – the beast.

To tell the stories of these men and women, Martínez rode the trains with them, and walked with them through remote country backroads where migrants are routinely raped and murdered.  He visited country brothels and migrant safe houses and spoke to trafficked women and former migrant slaves.  Martínez described this bleak and terrifying world with skill, grace and humanity.

Now he has brought his formidable talents to bear in a new book which looks at the societies these migrants have tried to escape from.   A History of Violence:  Living and Dying in Central America (Verso 2016) is not an easy or comfortable book to read, and it is not intended to be give comfort.   With his customary forensic rigor, Martínez shines a light on the ongoing calamity unfolding in the region the United States likes to think of as its ‘backyard.’

Martínez ignores nothing and noone.  He speaks to bent and decent cops, to lawyers and soldiers, to narcos, gangsters and contract killers, to male and female gang members, to migrants and the  ‘coyotes’ or guides who help them reach their destinations.  He visits El Salvador’s brutal dystopian prisons, narcotowns in Guatemala’s remote Petén jungle, and the scenes of crimes and massacres.

None of this is macho danger zone posturing.  It is not intended to be salacious, sensational or entertaining.    Martínez has not gone to these places to brag or talk about himself, but to tell the stories of the men and women he meets.   His writing reminds me of Jason Stearns’s superb account of the wars in the Congo Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, in its ability to connect even the most horrendous individual stories with the wider political and socioeconomic context that makes them possible, and even logical.

This doesn’t mean that Martínez is a detached observer.   In his introduction he asks the question ‘ What can I propose to bring an end to these terrifying stories? ‘ before answering that ‘ Journalism only has one method of boring into reality, and it is the same method that the sea uses against the coast: the constant lapping of the waves, whether they are gentle or turbulent.’

Martínez suggests that his readers are an essential part of this process:

‘My proposal is that you know what is going on.  Because I believe that knowing, especially with people like yours, who know how to wield politics, is the beginning of a solution.   I believe, sticking with the metaphor of the sea and the rock, that knowing is what moves the waves.  You can be the waves. ‘

And to North American readers in particular, he has this reminder:

This book isn’t about Martians.  It doesn’t chronicle the tragic life stories of distant, faraway people living in the wilderness, without the Internet, eating nothing but millet.  It doesn’t discuss people you will never see up close or see only on the television.  This book is about the lives of people who cut your lawn and serve you coffee every morning.  It tells the stories of the people who cut your lawn and fix your plumbing.  These lives are very similar to the lives of about 6 million people living in your midst.  It tells the story of the more than 1,000 human beings who every day leave the three northern Central American countries to try to enter, without permission, the United States and other countries of the North.’

Last but not least, Martínez points out that ‘the broken puppet that we are as a region was mostly armed by American politicians’.  As a consequence:

‘ Our society is a cauldron of oppressive military governance, the result of a failed peace process.  We’re living with government corruption and incompetent politicians.  We are living with violence, with death always close at hand: in a traffic accident, a soccer brawl, or in defense of our families.  We are ignorant of peace.  We haven’t had the chance to get to know it.’

No one who reads this terrifying book can remain ignorant of these consequences, and the conclusions that Martínez has drawn from it are not only relevant to Central America.   Martínez takes as an epigraph a quotation from the martyrd Archbishop Óscar Romero, that ‘ Violence will keep changing in name, but violence will always remain as long as there’s no change at the root, from where all these horrible things are sprouting.’

That observation applies to many parts of the world, and the search for solutions begins with a willingness to acknowledge the kind of world we have, rather than the one we think we have.   All of which is one more reason to read this tragic but essential book from one of the most courageous and brilliant reporters working in the world today.