It’s just under a year since I was part of a Facebook discussion about the alarmingly xenophobic drift of post-referendum UK society. We were people from many different nationalities, backgrounds and political persuasions. Some of us were migrants, others the descendants of migrants or British nationals who know migrants as our friends, colleagues, partners, carers, workmates and classmates.
All of us were appalled by the dangerous convergence of street-level violence towards migrants with the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by too many politicians. We were disgusted with the cynical references to 3 million EU citizens as bargaining chips, and the persistent denigration and stigmatisation of migrants in sections of the British press. We did not see migrants as intruders, outsiders or interlopers, but as valuable and valued members of British society and our local communities.
So on 20th February we invited migrants and their supporters to take part in a national day of action celebrating the presence of migrants and the contributions they have made to British society. For 24 hours, we asked the British public to imagine what a ‘day without immigrants’ might be like.
We were bowled over by the response. Tens of thousands of people held protests, rallies and other events up and down the country. There were One Day Without Us events in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; fetes in tiny villages, rallies in city centres, stalls in town markets. Members of the public, businesses, trade unions, NGOs, charities, and universities all supported what was in effect the first-ever national day of solidarity with migrants in British history.
It was a fantastic experience for everyone involved. In providing a platform for migrants and their supporters to make their voices heard, One Day Without Us presented the UK with a very different vision of migrants and migration to the one that has been presented to the public for too long by politicians and the media alike. Eleven months later the need for this vision remains as urgent as it was then. And so next year, on 17th February, we’re planning another national day of action. For twenty-four hours we’re inviting migrants and their supporters to take part, and organise events in their local communities, under the slogan ‘Proud to be a migrant/Proud to stand with migrants.’ We’ve chosen that date to coincide with the week of UN World Day of Social Justice, but this time we’ve chosen to stage it on a weekend, so that everyone can get involved.
Our message is simple: we refuse to accept the divisive ‘us versus them’ political rhetoric that presents migrants as interlopers and outsiders and immigration as a burden. We believe that migration had been broadly positive both for migrants and for UK society, and we want to celebrate that. We think it is shameful and disturbing that the word migrant has become a dirty word in British politics; that EU citizens living in Britain are still living in limbo or leaving the country because of the hostility directed towards them; that families with non-EU migrant spouses remain permanently separated because they can’t meet arbitrary income thresholds; that migrant workers are described as if they were nothing but economic commodities.
We want to change that. We do not believe that migrants are intrinsically better or worse than anyone else, but no one should ever have to feel ashamed, vulnerable or under threat because of who they are or where they came from. It should not even need saying that migrants have the same hopes, dreams, aspirations as British citizens, but the debased debate about migration too easily ignores this simple truth and prefers to scapegoat migrants and blame them for problems that they did not cause. Too often migrants are described as if they were nothing but takers and migration is depicted as something unnatural and even sordid.
We want to restore the courage, heroism and dignity, the adventure and discovery that is part of the experience of migration. As migrants and non-migrants, we want to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions that migrants have made to our country in the past and continue to make today.
We are proud that the UK is a country that people want to come to in order to live, work, study, or seek safety and protection. We do not want a ‘hostile environment’ that turns doctors and nurses into immigration police and presents deportations of tens of thousands of foreign students on the basis of flawed or inadequate evidence as a badge of honour. We want a UK that is welcoming, open, and inclusive in its attitude towards migration.
In celebrating migrants and migration we do not only refer to EU nationals. Though we recognize that migrants who have come to the UK fall under many different legal categories, we do not recognize hierarchical distinctions between worthy and unworthy migrants, between EU citizens and non-EU nationals, between refugees and asylum seekers, between migrants past and presents.
The hostility directed towards migrants in post-referendum UK does not confine itself to any single target. It can equally be directed against Polish schoolgirls, Muslims of Pakistani heritage, Bulgarians, Romanians, refugees or ‘failed asylum seekers’ . It might be aimed at EU citizens or it might be directed against people who were born here who simply look or sound like foreigners.
Once confined to the extremist fringe, such hostility has begun to permeate the mainstream to the point when it threatens the very foundations and the character of our society, and drives government policy in ways that are harmful to migrants and to our common future. One of the reasons why this has happened is because millions of people with a very different view of what UK society could be like have not made their voices heard.
On 17th February this is your opportunity. We invite migrants and their supporters to join us in a positive affirmation of migrants and migration. We invite you, whoever you are and whatever your race, religion or nationality, to take part in a day of unity, celebration and protest. We invite you to join with us and say it loudly ‘ Proud to be a migrant. Proud to stand with migrants’.
For further information about events and volunteering possibilities, see our website at: http://1daywithoutus.org/