Category Archives: Migration

Border crossings

The first time I crossed a border, I was ten years old. I was in the back of my father’s car, wedged in between a significant chunk of my family’s earthly possessions, with the book I was reading at the time stored securely in the microwave oven at my feet. We were leaving Bulgaria for good. We were going to start a new life in Austria. I have a couple of very specific memories about that first border crossing.
I remember setting my watch to CET. And I remember my Dad telling me how he’d picked up some East German hitch-hikers in their late teens or early twenties and how crossing into Bulgaria had been the first time they had crossed time zones. He wanted me to understand what a privilege it was for me to be doing this aged ten.
I remember, in the lead-up to our emigration, my grandmother telling me how Bulgaria was the most beautiful country on earth. If you’ve never driven through eastern Serbia (then Yugoslavia) and western Bulgaria, there are some stunning landscapes and geographical features there. And if it wasn’t for the queue and border guards and document check and strip of no-man’s land and then another queue with border guards and document check, there’s no way to tell whether a particular tree or rock or hill belongs to Bulgaria or to Serbia. I remember very clearly thinking how beautiful that landscape was on the “wrong” side of the border and wondering if it was okay to think that.
I don’t remember crossing the Yugoslav-Hungarian border that day. What I do remember is arriving at the Austrian border at 9 o’clock that evening, July 31st 1991. My father had been living in Austria for a month already at that point, but my visa and my mother’s didn’t start until August 1st. The Austrian border guard was very nice about it (or at least he was the way my father translated him), but he wouldn’t let us enter the country until midnight. We slept for three hours in no-man’s land.
My early and mid teens were characterised by crossing borders bearing a passport that marked me out as the undesirable kind of immigrant. Travelling east, “home” ostensibly, was relatively painless. I don’t know how many times I crossed those borders, collected the relevant stamps: Austria to Hungary, Hungary to whatever successor state of Yugoslavia was flavour du jour, that to Bulgaria. In cars and in coaches, sometimes relatively quickly, often after four or five hours of waiting. Travelling west remained a near-impossibility for years. Nothing came of the plan to go to Berlin to see the Reichstag wrapped by Christo – I would have needed a Schengen visa for that. I did manage to get a visa for a school trip to the UK, but not one for a yearbook editors’ training event in Amsterdam. It was as if the Iron Curtain had simply moved a few hundred miles to the west.
And then I was Austrian: citizenship applied for with years to go before we met the minimum residency requirements, and granted – I suspect – based on some nebulous concept of “integration” and how well I in particular spoke the local dialect. (Thank you, former classmates who made me say “jo” instead of “ja” and wouldn’t put up with my misguided attempts to speak Hochdeutsch.) I was a citizen of the European Union, of a Schengen member state. My passport gave me the right to be anywhere in Western Europe. The freedom was almost unimaginable.
Border crossings were different after that, yet for me no less noticeable. They stay with you, those borders you couldn’t cross for years. There was the time I flew to Greece from Munich airport. Part of the journey to Munich involved a train that had started out in Slovenia. Schengen or not, you bet that train got checked at the German border. I was wearing branded clothes and had been on the train for two hours, rather than twelve like my fellow passengers. I was the only person in that carriage to not get asked for a passport. There was the epic “going home by train for Christmas – UK to Germany via Belgium, France and Austria” trip of 1999: only two years earlier I couldn’t have dreamed of that! There were regular trips to Ireland to see my then-boyfriend, complete with getting sniffed for drugs when getting off the ferry at 7 a.m., not having slept in 24 hours. One memorable weekend shortly after the introduction of the Euro, I found myself, completely unexpectedly, going from Austria to Germany to the Netherlands and back to Germany in the space of a couple of days – no border checks and even more startlingly no currency exchanges.
Bizarrely, for a time going east became an issue. I needed a visa to study in the Czech Republic for three months. The Czech embassy in London was confused by the Austrian living in the UK with no entry stamp in her passport. In mid December, I withdrew my application in order to get my passport back, so I could travel to Germany for Christmas. A trip in person to the consulate in Bonn on one of those ungodly days between Christmas and New Year sorted it all out eventually.
These days, my more adventurous border crossings tend to be outside of Europe. I check my sense of humour at the US border. Russia – as expected – is not that different. Europe is still good for a few surprises though. Entering Schengen at Schiphol continues to be a bane of my life as I invariably get interrogated about what I’m doing there. Last time I cleared immigration at Newcastle, an Asian-looking woman got pulled out of the EU passport queue in front of me, presumably because people like her couldn’t possibly be EU citizens. Perhaps my favourite recent border crossing though was an unintentional one: there is a length of road somewhere in central Europe one side of which belongs to Austria and the other to Slovenia. I like that the Iron Curtain has become a three-letter country code either side of a dotted line.

The Immigration Drinking Game

Today is International Migrants’ Day. Not that you’d know that from the Today Programme coverage of immigration this morning. So I have decided to bring you the Immigration Drinking Game. Get a (large) bottle of your favourite liquor and settle down. (Feel free to add more items in the comments or tweet them @elmyra.)
The United Nations produces promotional material featuring only people of colour? Yes, white people are a global minority, and yes, many migrants are indeed people of colour. However not acknowledging that white people can be migrants too perpetuates racist stereotypes. It’s why I can pass as British unless I shout about being foreign, whereas people with brown skin who were born here, and whose parents were born here are constantly asked where they’re from and complimented on their English. So take a drink.
“Economic migrants” hurled as an insult. Because wanting to work and make a contribution to society is clearly somehow a bad thing. Because having the strength to do a job you are vastly overqualified for on minimum wage is somehow to be despised. Take a drink.
RomaniansandBulgarians. One word. Breathless. A prayer. An invocation. A curse. Take a drink.
Benefit tourism. Check your facts. Take a drink.
It’s all the EU’s fault. Nevermind that it is also the EU that enables you to export over a million of your retired (aka unproductive, with greater healthcare needs) citizens to Spain. Take a drink.
A drain on local community resources. Let’s do some maths. Brits in Bulgaria as percentage of population: 0.246%. Bulgarians in UK as percentage of population: 0.0743%. Bulgaria’s GDP/capita: $7k. UK GDP/capita: $38k. Most Brits in Bulgaria are retirees and thus not contributing hugely to the economy but requiring more healthcare resources than average; most Bulgarians in the UK are relatively young, healthy, evil economic migrants. Now tell me who’s a drain on whose resources. And take a drink while you’re at it.
Learn English. Integrate. We’ve cut funding for ESL classes? Take a drink.
We should welcome immigrants because they do all the jobs the feckless, undeserving, spoiled British underclass is too lazy to do. It’s fun, playing off the poor against the foreigners. They’re so busy hating each other, they won’t even notice when the Tories win the next election. Take a drink.
We should leave the EU if we can’t stop free movement of labour. By all means, cut off your nose to spite your face. Take a drink.
RomaniansandBulgarians and Roma. Would you like some racism with your racism? Take two drinks.
Racists of the world, unite! Down the fucking bottle. And another one for good measure. That’s it, you’re done.

How to talk to foreigners

With so many people I meet, one of our early (if not first) conversations tends to go a bit like this:

They: So where are you from?

Me: The short answer is Europe.

They: But really, where are you from?

Me: *sigh* Born in Bulgaria, legally Austrian, have spent most of my life in the UK now but also lived in other places in Europe. European.

They then proceed to tell me about every Austrian they’ve ever met, and/or that one time they went skiing in Bulgaria, and what they thought of it. If they can’t think of anything to say about Austria and/or Bulgaria in particular, they start fishing around for anything to do with Eastern Europe and/or Germany. “Oh, I met a girl from Romania once…” On a really bad day, Austria or Bulgaria will have been in the news for something. “Oh, isn’t it awful about that Austrian guy keeping his daughter in a basement for years and raping her?”

Then there are some of my favourite/particularly weird variations. There are the Austrian expats who latch on to the “legally Austrian” part and interpret it as “Austrian”. There’s a reason I use “legally” as a qualifyer. We probably don’t have a lot of Austrianness in common. There was also the Austrian in Austria who’d been told by the person who introduced us (who should have known better) that I was “from Bulgaria”. She then proceeded to tell me at great length about her business trips to Bulgaria, completely ignoring the fact that actually I’d been living in the UK for well over a decade at that point and hadn’t been to Bulgaria in about 4 years.

On the rare occasion when I do stick to “European” and refuse to explain further, I also get some interesting comments. Most recently, it was something along the lines of “I wonder if in the future we’ll all say we’re European.” Well, I guess if in the future everyone has a set of life experiences that shape their identity in this particular way, then we will.
What’s perhaps worse is that most of the people I have these interactions with tend to be nice, fluffy, generally left-leaning types. None of them are EDL or BNP supporters, or even UKIP or Tory voters.

I totally get what people are trying to do: they’re trying to keep the conversation going and they’re trying to establish rapport by finding something they have in common with me. That’s how smalltalk works and that’s why it’s so often ghastly – you’re extrapolating from tiny pieces of information to try and build a connection with someone. What these comments actually achieve is basically a microaggression. Let me give you some examples of how some of them translate in my head:

“I went to Bulgaria on holiday once. It was lovely/grey/strange/I don’t remember much of it.” – “I think of one of the complex places that has shaped your identity solely as a holiday destination. My opinion of it is important.”

“Oh, I work with lots of Austrians. They are lovely/not German/German.” – “I am sure you are just as lovely/German/not German as all these other Austrians I’ve had brief interactions with. My opinion of Austrians is important.”

“I met a girl from Romania once. She was lovely/strange/Eastern European.” – “My knowledge of Eastern European geography, politics and culture is non-existent. My opinions on the subject are important.”

“Oh, isn’t [inevitably misreported newsworthy event in Austria/Bulgaria/Eastern Europe/Germany] awful/interesting/strange?” – “I vaguely pay attention to mainstream media and form all my opinions of things I know nothing about based on that. My opinions are important.”

“Oh, you’re Austrian/Bulgarian!” – “I asked you a question and couldn’t be bothered to listen to the answer.”

“Oh, aren’t we all European?” – “I cannot conceive of the set of life experiences that have shaped your identity and I think you’re just saying this for the attention. My opinion is important.”

Congratulations, you’ve just killed any rapport you may have been trying to establish. If you’re lucky, I will nod and smile at you inanely and move the conversation on – or go talk to someone else. On a bad day, I may decide to subject you to some of my opinions of your country. They have been formed over the course of a decade and a half of living, studying and working here. Your media is racist. Your housing stock and transport infrastructure would have greatly benefited from being flattened in the Second World War and rebuilt from scratch. What on earth made you think it was a good idea to have carpet in your bathroom? And while we’re on bathrooms, seriously, have you not heard of mixer taps? Other foreign inventions you may wish to consider include salad dressing, proportional representation, and Leibniz’s notation.

If you want to save yourself that conversation here are some ideas. If my origin story is really something you wish to pursue in conversation, there is no shame in admitting that you know very little about Austria or Bulgaria or other places where I’ve lived. “You know what? I’ve only been there on holiday. What’s it really like?” is a perfectly good conversation starter. “You’re European? What kind of experiences led you to identify that way?” is not half bad. “Legally Austrian, you say? What’s the story there?” That’ll do. “That’s cool. I’m from this tiny village in Wales and this is what things are like where I come from.” That’s pretty interesting, and might highlight points of difference that we can bond over much more successfully than an imagined shared experience of parts of Europe you know nothing about. If in doubt, move the conversation on. We can talk about your job, your hobbies, my hobbies, how we’ve both found ourselves at this event and what we think of it – plenty of options there.
Extrapolating and trying to find points of commonality is how smalltalk works. But maybe we should move beyond smalltalk. We might all learn something from the experience.

In this together

The most family-friendly government strikes again. At the weekend, Theresa May announced changes to immigration rules which will force many families to choose between splitting up or leaving the country. What strikes me about this particular move is that it’s perhaps the first time that this government has admitted that it hates both poor people and immigrants in the same breath. The Tories have a history of playing us off against each other, but in this case, we’re clearly “in this together”.
It’s difficult to get exact numbers at this stage: The Guardian quotes slightly higher figures for the income requirement than Conservative Home, but it looks like in order to be able to settle in the UK with your spouse who is not a EU citizen, you’ll have to demonstrate that you’re earning somewhere between £18,600 (ConHome) and £25,700 (Grauniad). For a couple with two children the income threshold rises to up to £46,260.
For perspective, the median income of a full-time worker in the UK is £26,244. As by far not all of us work full time, the overall median income is actually considerably lower. The Home Secretary is essentially sticking up two fingers at over half the UK population and saying “Tough, if you fall in love with a filthy foreigner you’d better be prepared to leave the country.” And if you dare to have children with a filthy foreigner, we only want you if your income is in the 90th percentile.
All of this is allegedly to protect the “tax payer” from having to support immigrants coming in on family visas. As in most cases only the UK citizen’s income will count towards the initial assessment (unless the spouse is already working in the UK on a different type of visa), this completely neglects the earning potential of the immigrant spouse and assumes that they will never contribute to the UK economy. Insulting doesn’t even begin to cover it. Add to that the requirement for the immigrant spouse to speak English and the proposed “attachment test”, and we’re beginning to see a certain pattern here of government small enough to fit in our bedrooms. I sat through 20 minutes of Ms May lecturing on the benefits of marriage (gay and otherwise) at the Stonewall Workplace Conference earlier this year, but this makes it clear that some marriages are more equal than others, and that having cash definitely helps make you more equal.
The Guardian estimates that somewhere between 45 and 60% of the 53,000 family visa applications a year will not be compliant with the new rules. Brooke Magnanti has some thoughts on what exactly the government is trying to achieve with this new measure. Suffice to say that’s a lot of families the “most family-friendly government in history” will be breaking up.

[Elsewhere] What have immigrants ever done for us?

This article was originally published on Huffington Post UK.
Apart from a ten-line blip in a seven-page speech David Cameron made back in April, whenever immigration comes up in the news in this country it is in a negative context. Ed Balls says Labour let too many of the likes of me in, and Theresa May seems to think that the country is overrun by evil immigrant cats – or something like that. Yet every day, millions of immigrants work hard, pay our taxes and try to contribute to the British economy and society as best we can – much like everyone else in the country. Here are some examples of what immigrants do for this country.
Work hard
The lady who cleans my house every couple of weeks is Bulgarian and works for an agency where the majority of the staff are from my native country too. This is not because of some Great Immigrant Conspiracy; but when I was looking for a cleaner I left voicemails for about five different companies, and by the time I got to this one I was so fed up I didn’t even bother. Five minutes later my phone rang: “We’re sorry we missed your call, madam. How can we help?” It was only when the proprietor turned up at my house to assess it that we found out we were from the same country.
My cleaner works hard. Sometimes she gets in at 7.30 in the morning, before I’ve left for work, and sometimes she leaves my house at 6pm and goes to yet another client. She puts up with all my idiosyncrasies, the constant mess that is my house thanks to my full-time job and numerous extracurricular activities, the occasional last-minute request for her to rearrange her entire schedule and please come back later. On top of that, most of the staff at the agency are doing NVQ qualifications in order to improve the service they give customers.
My cleaner and her colleagues are not the only ones who work hard. Claudia is from Germany. She works with autistic people. Michelle is American. She works as a producer and project manager for performance artists. Currently she is working on a project involving the performance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in various languages, including Sign. The nuclear physics group of a certain Scottish university is made up of 15 people of ten different nationalities. Immigrants can be found in every profession and walk of life, working hard to contribute to the economy and make a better life for themselves and their families.
Play hard
Sometimes even when we play, we work. When my Scottish friend Morna put out a call on Twitter earlier this year for developers, marketers and media professionals to help her start up her business using the unique “Sweatshop” method, I am not sure what she expected. What she got was a motley crew of 30 or so passionate professionals. While there were sizable English and Scottish contingents among us, immigrants were disproportionately represented. About a third of the Founders’ Team came from all over the world: Slovenia, Poland, Italy, Israel, Australia, South Africa, Denmark. In exchange for free food and lodgings and a small number of shares in the start-up, we travelled to Dundee and put three weekends’ worth of hard graft into bootstrapping a business from nothing. We didn’t do it for the money, nor for the glory. We did it because it was fun and because we believed in the project: a social platform with the potential to revolutionise adult and higher education in this country.
The FlockEdu crowd aren’t the only ones combining work and play. Kathryn, who is Canadian, uses her skills as a musician and composer to run her local church choir. Iman, a writer of Pakistani origin who grew up in Saudi Arabia, donates her time and skills to various campaigning groups and political publications. Even in something as British as the recent referendum on the voting system, we had a fair number of immigrants doing their bit to improve democratic representation for UK citizens.
Care in the community
It often strikes me how disproportionately engaged immigrants are in the communities I’m involved with. At the Star & Shadow, a small, entirely volunteer-run cinema and arts space in Newcastle where I occasionally help out, people from all over the world are at the heart of the community, side by side with our British friends. Stephanie from France runs great seasons of foreign films or cult British television sci-fi. Yaron from Israel puts on gigs with the most weird and wonderful local bands, giving them a much-needed opportunity for exposure. Cathy from China pulls pints like a pro behind the Star & Shadow bar.
Edinburgh, too, has its own volunteer-run arts space. After the bankruptcy of their landlord, the Forest Café is currently on hiatus while trying to raise enough money to buy the building they have called their home for over a decade. Yet you only need to listen to the voices in their fundraising video to understand the passion of all their volunteers and the important contribution immigrants make to the project.
I spoke to Margarida, a 23-year-old Portuguese woman who is a Volunteer Coordinator and member of the Forest Action Team. For her, the Forest is a home and a family. Even after her European Volunteer Service funding ran out, Margarida chose to stay in Edinburgh.

“I couldn’t leave the Forest behind in such a crucial moment. Right now, the Forest needs everyone and I’m here to help bring the Forest back with everything I have to give, be it time, energy, creativity.”

She wants to make sure that the Forest lives and continues to provide a unique and amazing space and service to everyone in Edinburgh. At the same time, she is making new friends, learning new skills, developing projects old and new. Margarida finds Edinburgh as a city and the Forest as a community warm and welcoming – only the British press with its persistently negative coverage of immigration worries her; though, she adds cynically, it doesn’t surprise her.
Not only arts spaces but also charities which provide vital services often benefit from the contribution of immigrant volunteers. Mara, from the US, runs the Abortion Support Network – the only charity which provides practical help and funds to women from Northern and Southern Ireland who need to travel to England for an abortion. She and her small volunteer team provide a non-judgmental listening service, factual and impartial information, and much-needed funds and accommodation for women who otherwise would not be able to access safe and legal abortions. Immigrant volunteers are at the heart of the “Big Society”.
An experience many of us immigrants have in common is a kind of multiple personality disorder we observe in the country we have chosen to make our home. One on one, as individuals, we are welcomed by our British friends. We find communities we can contribute to and integrate in. We find people who reach out a helping hand, like the English Language Conversation Group at the Star & Shadow. We find our contributions valued. When, however, it comes to political gain and newspaper circulations, things turn quickly to an “us and them” mentality which is healthy for no one.
Recognising immigrants’ contributions to this country is the first step towards recognising how much we all have to learn from each other – and how much we can all gain from truly being “in this together”.


I first realised I wasn’t wanted around the age of 9. It was having to get up at 4am to be in a monstrous queue outside an embassy by 5am in the hope of getting a visa for some foreign Western European country that did it. It sticks in your mind when you have to spend most of your summer doing this, aged 9.
The next clue I got aged 10, in Austria, when I had to stay in on the anniversary of Reichskristallnacht for fear of skinheads.
Aged 12, my class mates were talking about all the foreigners and refugees from the wars which heralded the demise of Yugoslavia, who got “free food, and free housing, and even an allowance” and got to “sit around doing nothing all day”. Our teacher pointed at me and asked, “What about Mili?” “Oh,” they said, “Mili’s not like them. Mili’s different.” It left a bitter taste.
More recently, there was Bigoted Woman. A couple of the days ago, it was Ed Balls lamenting how Labour shouldn’t have let the likes of me into this country. In some ways, two thirds of my life have been a long series of microaggressions, based on the simple fact that I was born in a different country.
What is particularly painful is watching this trend get worse, all over Europe. From the neo-fascists in my own native Bulgaria, to policing the way women from certain cultures dress in France, and the persistent barrage of immigration scare stories in the British media, Europe is lurching to the right faster than you can say “flocking Eastern Europeans”. I find it sad, frustrating, and simply unworthy of liberal, democratic Europe in the 21st century.
Maybe one day the low-level racism and xenophobia I encounter on a daily basis will drive me away from this country. Where I’ll go I don’t know. Where are human beings welcome these days?

On foreigners and benefits scroungers

It might as well be there in black and white in the Conservative manifesto: “We will play off poor people and foreign people against each other, for political gain to the Conservative Party and the general entertainment of Daily Mail readers.”
Last month we had Graeme Archer, who describes himself as “a bog-standard Conservative activist”, lecture us about how poor Polish workers are paying tax to subsidise all the benefits scroungers. Ping.
Today, the tables have turned, with Iain Duncan Smith pretty much calling for British jobs for British people. Pong.
Isn’t it great to throw a bone and watch the dogs fight over it? You can lean back and put your feet up in the absolute certainty that in their frenzy over benefit-scrounging scum and filthy foreign scum the media won’t notice some key points:

These are just some highlights of the monumental structural and social problems which are likely to be this government’s legacy to the UK. It is not me, the immigrant, taking your jobs – it’s your government. And it is not the poor, disabled and disadvantaged who deserve your scorn for having tax money spent on them – it is your government for continuing to stick their heads in the sand and refusing to acknowledge that their economic policy is simply not working.

Can I have my “good immigrant” sash now, please?

I woke up this morning to find I had been branded “good immigration” by the government. What a relief.
In his speech to Conservative Party members today, the Prime Minister said he believed politicians’ role should be to “cut through the extremes of [the immigration] debate and approach the subject sensibly and reasonably.” He wanted, he said, “good immigration, not mass immigration”. He even went so far as to acknowledge that immigrants made a huge contribution to Britain. I should be happy, right?
Not so much. Cameron wants us to believe that he has a holistic, joined-up policy on immigration, but his rhetoric on the subject is as disjointed, confused and pandering to the lowest common xenophobic denominator as the next guy’s.
One often-brandished key word in what passes for a debate on immigration is “integration”; and the favourite way of measuring “integration” is whether/how well someone speaks English. In the Prime Minister’s own words,

when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods, perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there, on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate, that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.

And yet, this government which claims to be so keen on us immigrants learning English is cutting crucial funding for ESL classes, meaning many immigrants will no longer be able to to afford to learn the language.
This same government, which has a stated ambition of being the most family-friendly government in UK history, is now proposing to clamp down on the family immigration route. If you are under 21, you will not be able to join your spouse in the UK; if your spouse is an undergraduate student, you won’t be able to join them; if your English is judged to not be satisfactory, tough luck – you’re staying at home, and nevermind the fact that you’d learn it so much faster if you were in this country! One can’t help but wonder if that last restriction will apply to the spouses of people coming in on the new entrepreneur visa – essentially a “buy yourself into Britain” scheme. It seems the government gets to pick and choose which families it wants to be friendly to.
The section on permanent settlement is particularly… unsettling. Having harped on about how we should all integrate or else, Cameron suddenly turns around and says that “it cannot be right that people coming to fill short-term skill gaps can stay long-term”. Combined with the stated aim to “select and attract the world’s brightest to our shores”, this should give you a good idea of how the Conservative party regards immigrants: not as human beings with emotions, lives, attachments to people and places, but as spare parts who can be shipped in and out of the country as and when the “market” sees fit. Huge contribution or not, we’ve been put on notice – we can be kicked out any time our skills are no longer deemed sufficiently rare or useful. Does this give immigrants an incentive to integrate; to form relationships and contribute to British society? Hardly, if next time your visa comes up for renewal you may be told to leave all that behind you.
The coup de grâce of the speech, however, is the assertion that

immigration and welfare reform are two sides of the same coin. Put simply, we will never control immigration properly unless we tackle welfare dependency.

And there we have it, the two mortal enemies of the Daily Mail reader – filthy foreigners and benefits scroungers – inextricably linked for all to see. Only a Conservative government can rid us of both.
How is an immigrant – “good” or otherwise – supposed to feel about this speech? Happy that our contribution to British society has been at least acknowledged, however briefly and fleetingly? Motivated to continue contributing, to “integrate”? Perhaps Mr. Cameron secretly hopes that none of us speak English well enough to understand what he said.
If the Conservative Party really finds us so loathsome, I would like their leader to come out and say it. If, however, the contribution immigrants make to this country on a daily basis is truly valued as Mr. Cameron claims, and if “integration” is truly desired, then I have a few suggestions for the government:

  • Cut the anti-immigrant rhetoric. You dedicated ten lines out of a seven-page speech to our contribution, and the rest of it to how to keep others like us out and ship some of those of us already here off this island again. Either I am valued or I am not. This tells me I am not.
  • Bite the bullet and educate the public. Stop pandering to the lowest common denominator – that is easy. Challenging prejudice, taking the time to explain what immigrants do, how they contribute and why immigration is important to this country is hard. But in the long run it might lead to the kind of social cohesiveness you claim to value.
  • It is easy to say immigrants should integrate. Some of us find this easier than others. Reaching out a helping hand, being proactively inclusive, can only make this process of integration easier for everyone involved. That includes funding ESL tuition, but there are also other things you can do. Mr. Cameron is apparently fond of street parties. Maybe we can have some street parties to celebrate immigrants’ contribution to the UK and get to know our immigrant neighbours? Go on, I’ll even make baklava!
  • Finally, how about creating a vision of a Britain that immigrants find inspirational and want to contribute to and be integrated in? A Britain that is open, tolerant, and inclusive? Maybe one day, I guess.

Beware the flocking immigrants

Another installment in my semi-regular “I read ConHome so you don’t have to” feature…
A few days ago, Conservative Home linked to this article in the Sun. The angle ConHome chose to take on it was… interesting.

Half a million Hungarians could come to Britain
“PM David Cameron vowed to cap net immigration – currently 200,000 a year – at “tens of thousands”. But the influential Institute for Public Policy Research says that does not take account of the flow from European countries. About 500,000 ethnic Hungarians living in non-EU countries could head to Britain…A Sun investigation has found that 300,000 living in Serbia and 160,000 in the Ukraine are among those who could seek to come here on Hungarian passports.”

A few things strike me about this.

  • Quite how the Sun has decided that the free movement of people (as well as of course the important things like capital, goods and services) in the European Union is news is beyond me. Britain joined the EU in 1973, and thus this news item is about… oh, 38 years out of date. Even if you could argue that the government’s plans to cut immigration are more recent, most papers picked up on this particular point several months ago.
  • I particularly like the ConHome sensationalist headline. Not even the Sun dared go with “500k Hungarians expected to flock to Britain” – that was a small part of the article. What’s actually behind this headline is the fact that Hungary is extending the right to Hungarian citizenship to around 460,000 ethnic Hungarians who currently live outside the EU. So basically what ConHome is telling us is that all those people are going to claim their Hungarian passports, after which they’ll up sticks from places where they and their families have lived for centuries, and all move to Britain. Now, even if we assume that indeed all of those people decide to move (highly unlikely!) the EU has 27 member states; even if we thought that proportionaltely more would come to Britain simply because Britain is one of the larger countries, there’s no reason to think that more than about 55,000 would come to Britain. So basically, the assumption that all 500,000 of these people would move to Britain is about as realistic as saying all of Germany could decide to up sticks and come here next. “80 million Germans about to flock to Britain” would be a much more fun headline, and about as accurate, don’t you think?
  • And just in case a realistic look at the numbers hasn’t stopped you from quivering in your boots with fear of all the flocking immigrants, I also love the Sun’s explanation of “how citizens of struggling countries such as Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal will flock to Britain seeking work if the UK’s economy does better than the eurozone.” Might I point out that Germany’s growth projections look quite healthy right now, and they have the lowest unemployment rate since reunification, while this government is cutting public sector jobs, raising sales taxes which is highly likely to negatively impact consumer demand, and generally doing all within its power to drive us back into recession? Now, which of these two countries looks like a more attractive destination?
  • And lest we forget, the largest wave of intra-EU migration is still Britons moving to Spain. Ho hum.

BigotGate Redux

Yesterday I was in tears. Today, I’m in the Guardian and on the BBC World Service. So first of all a huge THANK YOU to everyone who commented, linked, retweeted, posted my article on Facebook. I had no idea how much of a chord this would strike with people when I was sitting here pouring out my sadness and anger on to the Internet last night.
I’ve had nearly 200 comments here, over 800 on Comment is Free, and more tweets than I could keep up with even if I’d stayed up all night. I want to summarise and address a few of the common themes I’m seeing.
The comments I’ve received to this article here and elsewhere fall roughly into the following categories:
1. A lot of people came forward and said “I’m sorry I didn’t stand up to this earlier, I took it as given that she was a bigot and didn’t think it needed saying.”
2. A slightly smaller number of people have re-iterated concerns about immigration – some coherently, others less so.
3. A small number of people tell me they’re fine with me personally and with others like me who pay tax, but all those other immigrants should go home.
4. A small number of people have told me that I’m overreacting and that people say much worse things on a daily basis about immigrants.
5. And a tiny minority have told me to eff of home.
To those who didn’t think it needed saying: If you don’t speak up and tell your leaders that you don’t buy what you’re being fed by the tabloids, your leaders will only listen to the tabloids. It doesn’t matter if you’re a majority – if you’re a silent majority it’s as if you don’t exist. Speak out, don’t let things like this go unchallenged.
To those who say Gillian Duffy’s comments were harmless and people say much worse things: You are right, they do. But most people who say worse things don’t get grovelling apologies from the Prime Minister or to dominate the news cycle for over 24 hours.
To those who are fine with me personally: Thanks. I am flattered. No, not really. I’ve been on the receiving end of this all my life. Huge loud heated discussion about all those foreigners taking our jobs and our women, then someone turns around, sees me, falls silent and mutters how of course they didn’t mean me. It comes back to this: Every human being deserves to be treated with some basic dignity and respect, regardless of whether they work hard, pay tax, speak perfect English, or contribute in some other way to society. It’s easy to forget that – and I have at times been guilty of forgetting it myself. But maybe by standing up and writing this, I can help us all remember.
To the people who would like me to eff off home: Britain is my home, for better or for worse. I have lived here longer than in any other country; my partner is British; most of my friends are either British or live here; when I have children, I want to raise them here. It’s as simple as that.
And finally, as it’s the most complex issue, to those who have re-iterated concerns about immigration: Of course there are legitimate concerns in this area. However, the word immigration is often used to cover a multitude of sins – from unemployment, to housing, education, health care, social services. These are all complex issues, and I believe we should look at them individually and give them the amount of attention they deserve. Using immigration as a short-cut is lazy and cheap political point-scoring. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: The sad thing is that the political culture of this country makes it difficult to have a real debate on those issues because presenting a balanced view on the subject would be political suicide.