Why the ‘citizens of nowhere’ hurt the fight for open migration

According to various anecdotal reports, Europeans are leaving the UK because of Brexit. Apparently, the audacious decision of the 52 per cent to leave the undemocratic, unaccountable European Union is forcing people out of the country. One article in the Guardian focused on a select group of doctors, academics, small business owners and professionals from across Europe. Driven to their decision by emotional despair, these people apparently feel that their future is better secured in a country that remains within the EU.

But this response from largely hyper-mobile, middle-class Europeans is founded more on emotions than the reality. Aside from one story of a family who had stones thrown through their windows and were told to ‘go home’, there were no examples given in the piece of explicit anti-foreign sentiments or aggression. Such behaviour is unacceptable and must be challenged, but are rare instances of abuse really a sign of a wider anti-European prejudice in Brexit Britain?

I can’t help but compare these angst-ridden stories to my own. Commonwealth immigrants, like my parents, came to the UK in the 1960s in search of a better life for themselves and their children. They worked hard to integrate, to become part of a community, to seek work, secure mortgages and citizenship, and to put down roots in spite of a background of state racism and everyday racism. They didn’t simply give up at the first inkling of hostility. Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was given just three years after my parents emigrated to the UK, but even that wasn’t enough to move them. And back then, racism was a real political force – Powell, an elected Tory MP at the time, is said to have helped the Conservatives get back into power in 1970.

A popular slogan among black and Asian communities in the 1970s was ‘Here to stay, here to fight!’. And fight is exactly what we did. We worked with the trade-union and labour movement, engaged in political activism, built solidarity with the working-class movement and took part in anti-racist action.

The people interviewed in the Guardian piece said that they do not wish to apply for British citizenship because it is an arduous and painstaking process. Well, welcome the world of the non-EU migrant, guys! The British Nationality Act 1981 allows a person who has been in the UK for five years to apply for naturalisation as a British citizen. But the devil is in the detail – and there are bureaucratic hurdles which all non-British citizens face. Rather than campaign against this complex system, now that they too may be subjected to it, middle-class EU nationals would rather cut and run. This is despite the fact that, pending the Brexit negotiations, EU nationals who stay post-Brexit will likely have had a far easier path to citizenship than many of those who came to Britain from outside Europe.

This rootless, ‘citizens of nowhere’ attitude will do nothing to bolster the argument for an open, progressive immigration system. We must fight for an immigration policy which works for all citizens of the world who wish to set down roots and contribute towards building an equitable, tolerant United Kingdom. Those whining today would do well to remember the fighting spirit of immigrants in the past.

Manick Govinda is head of artists’ advisory services and a producer for Artsadmin and the visiting artists co-ordinator for the Manifesto Club’s campaign against visa restrictions on non-EU artists. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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