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.

A Bunch of Migrants

No one should be surprised that our prime minister should have marked Holocaust Day to regale the nation with a contemptuous joke about how Jeremy Corbyn met with a ‘bunch of migrants in Calais’ and ‘told them that they could all come to Britain..  Contrary to Jonathan Freedland’s schoolmasterish suggestion that this jocularity was ‘beneath him’, Cameron’s remark was in fact perfectly in character  and pitched at exactly the level – somewhere in the lower levels of the political and moral gutter – that he and his government naturally inhabit.

After all, we are talking about  a politician who has long since shed the flimsy veneer of compassionate conservative/green bicycle man that the Tory PR department invented for him, back in the days when it was politically convenient to do so.  In power, Cameron has shown exactly what kind of man he is and what kind of politician he is.  He has rarely missed an opportunity to portray immigrants as parasitic and dangerous intruders and enemies of the taxpayer whether they come from Eastern Europe or from outside it.

So it is entirely natural  that he would say something like this in parliament, and that he would think that in doing so he was being funny and hilarious in a blokish Mock the Week/Jeremy Clarkson kind of way, and those who have accused him of demeaning his office or failing to pay due spirit to Holocaust Day are trying to give this hollow chancer a gravitas and integrity that he just doesn’t have.

Some of Cameron’s critics have highlighted the callousness of his ‘bunch of migrants’ remark; others have criticized him for diminishing and dehumanising the men, women and children it refers to.   Both accusations are entirely correct, but there is another dimension to Cameron’s jocular banter that goes beyond the question of character or the suggestion of bad taste.

His choice of words wasn’t just intended to get his own backbenchers rolling in the aisles, it was aimed at a wider gallery that already shares the same contempt and loathing that his formulation expressed so glibly.  The Oxford Dictionary contains the following definition of ‘migrant’:

  1. A person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.
  2. An animal that migrates.

The dictionary also defines the adjective ‘migrant’ as ‘tending to migrate or having migrated: “migrant birds”.’  Merriam Webster echoes the same definition, though it also has an older and more specific variant of migrant as ‘a person who moves regularly in order to find work especially in harvesting crops.’

In both dictionaries ‘migrant’ is distinct from ‘immigrant’, which the Oxford Dictionary describes as ‘ A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. ‘ Merriam-Webster also refers to ‘a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.’

It’s worth revisiting these definitions in order to see how far we have moved from them, and how Cameron’s remark yesterday was removed from them.  In British political culture the word ‘migrant’ has become an almost entirely pejorative term.  If we applied its strict dictionary meanings, we would find that many of the people who have come to the UK are both ‘migrants’ and ‘immigrants’ rather than one or the other.  We would also have to refer to British citizens who live abroad as migrants and immigrants or both.

But these definitions don’t even begin to encapsulate the meanings that the word ‘migrant’ has acquired through decades of relentless misuse by politicians and newspapers.  Like ‘asylum seeker’, ‘migrant’ has become a word that automatically dehumanizes and demeans the people it refers to.

Both terms have acquired various sub-meanings that are automatically understood by those who use them and those who hear them.   Today ‘migrant’ has become a code word in British tabloidspeak which is synonymous with ‘invader’, ‘intruder’, ‘alien’, ‘parasite’, ‘criminal’, ‘job thief’, ‘fraud’ and a host of other assumptions.

These imagined and assumed characteristics routinely invite and enable the British public to freely fear and despise the men and women who come this country whether to ‘find work or better living conditions’ or in order to seek sanctuary and protection from war and persecution, without every having to express their xenophobic or racist sub-texts outright.

Let’s not pretend there are any other sentiments behind headlines like ‘Migrants take over idyllic British tourist hamlet’ (Daily Express), ‘ Migrants take our jobs’ (Daily Express again), ‘Migrant rape fears spread across Europe.’ (Daily Mail)

There is a lot more where this came from, and we have been digesting it for years.  Within this more general framework of fear and loathing there is always room for specific variants, whether it’s Poles who come here to take our benefits; Bulgarian or Romanian criminals; or the shadowy hooknosed invaders in the Daily Mail’s ‘rats’ cartoon, walking into Britain with rats scuttling around their sandalled feet.

The goalposts can also shift according to necessity.  When the Daily Mail claimed three days ago that ‘David Cameron rejects calls to take 3,000 migrant children’, it ignored the fact that most of these ‘migrant children’ in Calais are too young to be seeking work and are in fact seeking asylum, so they aren’t technically migrants at all.

But the purpose of this headline was the same as so many others: to fuel the bitterness, hatred and resentment that is steadily corroding British society, and present migrants of whatever age and origin as a threat to our jobs, security, culture and way of life.

Cameron’s ‘bunch of migrants’ joke yesterday was intended to have exactly the same effect.  Last year, Cameron – or one of his ghostwriters – wrote an introduction to a report on Holocaust remembrance,which pointed out ‘…The poisonous words and passive acceptance of discrimination which marked the beginning of the Holocaust can clearly be found in the ideology of extremism or in the hatred that underpins antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism and homophobia today.’

Yesterday Cameron delivered more ‘poisonous words’ with the casual insouciance that you would expect from Jeremy Clarkson.  He did so in the course of a debate about corporate tax avoidance,  in which he  variously depicted Corbyn as a defender of Argentinian claims to the Falklands, and a supporter of trade union rights – all of which supposedly defined  the Labour leader and his party as enemies of the ‘British people and the hard-working taxpayer’.

So let’s not pretend that it was a mistake or a throwaway remark.  Cameron knew exactly what he was doing and exactly which audience he wanted to reach.  It is certainly true, as so many of his critics have pointed out,  that language like this  ‘demeans his office’, but it is also extremely useful to his government that his audience should think about migrants and migration as a threat.

Cameron’s intervention was partly a cynical distraction.  But it was also a massive flashing green light to those who already see the ‘bunch of migrants’ in exactly the same way as he does, to continue what they are doing and thinking, which makes his remarks not only contemptible, but dangerous.

 

Calais: the dystopian frontier

In these nervous, gloomy times our cultural appetite for dystopia often seems insatiable.   Again and again in book, tv series and film we like to imagine places in the near or distant future where our worst fears are realized, and the destructive or oppressive tendencies that we perhaps sense in the present are taken to their logical extreme to produce a fantasy dystopia – a bad place or perhaps the worst of places. Pom

Nowadays we don’t have to look far for inspiration. No need for Mad Max, Big Brother or the Hunger Games.   All we have to do is cross the Channel to the venerable port of Calais, the place where Mary Tudor once left a piece of her heart when it fell to the French in 1558.

There we can find a city that has become a perfect mirror of our dysfunctional world, a place where men and women fuelled by the promise of sanctuary or the hope of a different life collide with the UK’s pitiless and implacable borders, and intersect with the dreams of the citizens of one of the richest countries on earth, heading for their holidays or returning from them.

Two days ago my family were part of that latter exodus.  The last time I was in Calais was three years ago, when I went there with my daughter on a journalistic assignment to look at the conditions that migrants were facing in the city. At that time there were about four hundred migrants in and around the city. Now, as the British public knows well, there may be five thousand, most of whom are living in a new ‘Jungle’ that has already begun to acquire the characteristics of a semi-permanent shantytown.

On Wednesday my family and I returned to Calais again, passing through Eurotunnel on our way to France and Spain by car. We had a booking, and a good thing too, given the chaos spreading through Kent, that became clearer the nearer we got to Folkestone.   Most of the time we tried to avoid the M20, but as we got closer to the coast we thought we’d try our luck because the motorway looked clearer than we expected.

A bad decision.. Approaching Charing we saw a roadside sign calling on Cameron to do something about ‘them Frenchies’ – a message with a curiously faint flavour of the Napoleonic wars.   But the rows of banked trucks on the hard shoulders were very 21st century, before we were diverted onto the A20.   More trucks parked in laybays for no obvious purpose. Just outside Ashford we ground to a halt and took about forty minutes to go three hundred yards.

Sensing disaster we pulled off the road and began to improvise, driving helter skelter through the narrow byways of the Garden of England, threading our way forward until hallelujah! We reached the entrance to Eurotunnel.   We didn’t miss our booking, but we had to wait two hours because of the knockon.   All this, Eurotunnel assured us, was due to ‘migrant activity’ the previous night.

We felt moderately stressed but relieved to have got that far so quickly.   All around us were cars filled with children, dogs, bicycles, holiday luggage, the bric a brac of the summer exodus, the two weeks when we abandon our homes to rent another or get back to nature in a tent or caravan.

On the other side of the channel were men, women, and children with nothing at all, trying to get to our side of the water in order to continue their lives or find a liferaft steady enough to hold them in this violent, crazy planet where war engulfs whole countries, some of them with our participation or the participation of our allies.

The journeys they made were infinitely harder and tougher. They had crossed deserts and oceans, maybe a hundred or more in a boat. Some will have seen their friends and loved ones die in front of their eyes.   Others will have fled the destruction of their cities, homes and neighborhoods.

The tabloids call them invaders. Our disgusting Prime Minister calls them a ‘swarm.’ That smirking cheekie chappie Nigel Farage, who also passed through Calais recently, has called for the army to protect ‘holidaymakers’ whose lives may be at risk.   Nine migrants have died in the last two months trying to get into the Calais port or Eurotunnel. During the ‘migrant activity’ of the previous night, one pregnant woman lost her child while trying to jump onto a truck.  Dozens have been injured trying to climb trucks or board one of the moving trains that we finally drove our car onto.

No one talks of protecting them.   No sympathy for them from Farage, or from Cameron, who expressed his empathy with ‘holidaymakers’ and described their situation as ‘deeply concerning.’ Let me say that Cameron doesn’t speak for me or my family. We don’t want his concern. We don’t want COBRA.   We want him to let the migrants in.

We want justice and we want humanity. Both qualities are conspicuous by their absence in the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Calais. And the result is an astonishing situation in which migrants can’t enter Kent and ‘holidaymakers’ and truck drivers can only leave it with difficulty.

Why is this happening? Because of public ‘concerns’ about immigration. Because we are worried about our national identity. Because we don’t want to lend a hand to the brown and black-skinned human beings who we prefer to describe as ‘swarms’ and ‘invaders’ – the better to justify their exclusion and our indifference to them.

The result is a genuinely dystopian scenario – the stuff of fiction, where the people of the inner zone – let’s call them the Holidaymakers, glimpse those who are not permitted to enter the zone, let’s call them the Outsiders or the Unwanted. OK, let’s just call them the migrants. Because this is the name we have given to the shattered men and women we see from the road at Coquelles, blown by the storms of war and poverty to our deadly borders, looking for ways to cross the rows of fences, the razor wire and the strip of water that defines our island home.

We glimpse them briefly amongst the trees and fields, harrassed by French cops on our behalf, before we drive on to our hotels, cottages and campsites. From a distance we look kind of like refugees with our packed cars stuffed with bags and suitcases.

But we aren’t. They are, and it shames us all that we can’t – or won’t recognize this, and bring this nightmare to an end.

Lampedusa 2

LAMPEDUSA, Italy, Jun 22, 2011 (IPS) – It’s only a few hundred metres from the rocky hillside overlooking Lampedusa’s commercial port to the other side of the protected bay. For more than a decade this narrow strip of ocean has been a migratory gateway into Europe for tens of thousands of mostly African migrants. The numbers have risen and fallen in response to shifting government policies and geopolitical developments.

Second of my two IPS Lampedusa pieces.   Here’s the link to the whole article:

http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=56181