Life was hard being an immigrant in Brussels. When I first migrated to Belgium from London in 2011, I spent much of my time lost, dazed and confused. The waiters and bar staff shot me murderous looks when I requested their services. The water tasted so foul that I feared it was polluted with cholera. Registering at the local authority was as complex as getting a visa to live in North Korea.
Integration has been a challenge. Do I speak Flemish or French or English or neither? This apparently depends very much on where in Belgium you are and who you are speaking to. Speaking French to a Flemish person in Antwerp is like slapping them in the face apparently. Do I kiss the cheek of person I've just met? If so, how many kisses? One if I'm in the Flemish countryside, two if I haven't seen the person I'm meeting for a while, but only if they're French-speaking. Do I admit I work in the European Parliament, and expect a look of 'oh god, another eurocrat' or do I pretend I am unrelated to the EU machine (it's not just Ukippers who hate the EU)?
Navigating Belgian administration, which all migrants are required to do on their arrival, is like trying to sort out a Rubik's cube with a blindfold on. You have to register with your local commune which requires several visits to several offices at several different times of the day. A police officer at some point knocks on your door to make sure you actually live where you say you live. And you also have to fill in a form for an identity card that only idiot-savants can truly understand.
Despite these challenges, as the years have passed, I have come to delight in Brussels and the Belgian way of life. I don't know whether it is a case of Stockholm syndrome, but I do genuinely quite enjoy playing 'dodge the dog cr*p' on the pavements on my way to work. I have now realised that shouting at my landlady about illegally re-wiring my radiators to 'fix' them will not get them fixed any faster. Indeed, on realising that Belgians really couldn't care less what I think about their capital city, I decided it would be best to just go with the flow.
Why am I bringing my experiences of moving to Belgium up? Mainly because, as an immigrant, I find the debate around immigration unbelievably irritating, especially in the UK. On the basis of most headlines in the British press, it's easy to get the impression that all immigrants exist purely to steal jobs from hapless Brits or scrounge money off our apparently generous welfare system.
Before anyone goes bright red with rage and accuses me of being a bleeding-heart closet-terrorist, I agree that a borderless world is not realistic or pragmatic. I know it's a bit rich saying this given I benefit from the EU's right to free movement. But given how few jobs there are and how overstretched the UK's welfare system is, it should be okay to ask for a Canadian or Australian points based system without being accused of being racist.
I also think it's entirely reasonable to ask anyone moving to the UK to leave their extremism, religiosity and psycopathic tendencies at the border. This goes for all individuals, regardless of creed or colour (Buddhists, Chinese communists, Russian spies and drunk Australians are just as capable of unpleasant behaviour as Muslim extremists.)
To assert that all immigrants are the same, as the current participants in the British immigration non-debate do, is quite frankly ridiculous. An immigrant is a person who has moved from one place to another. It's that simple. An immigrant can be a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, a Vogue model, a Romanian tramp or a Chinese student. It is idiotic not to differentiate between these groups.
Sadly this is exactly the premise that the government's current immigration policy is based on. It is so absurd that Theresa May's only solid commitment is to reduce immigration rates to "tens of thousands' a year. Presumably this means when they have successfully limited it to 99,999 individuals, everyone can chill out.
To reach this figure, the government has to close its borders to exactly the people we need right now. Students from the booming emerging markets to be charged extortionate fees by our underfunded universities. Obscenely rich bankers from New York to pay wedges of cash to HMRC to pay for our free healthcare. Engineers and scientists from India to help rebuild our creaking energy and transport infrastructure. Instead of making it easy for these groups, who tend to have lots of dosh and a desire to work rather than receive benefits, the government is pulling up the drawbridge.
The ire of the electorate is directed towards Polish people and Muslims. No one seems too fussed about the 400,000 Frenchmen who live in west London. And no one seems to have noticed that most Muslims in the UK have been here for decades and don't generally feel like blowing up St Paul's Cathedral. Bunching all foreigners together is not only intellectually stunted but also hugely damaging for the UK's prospects, social, economic and cultural.
The government should grow some balls and confront Ukip's simplistic complaints head on, start a debate in Europe about the right to free movement (the UK is not alone in questioning the status quo) and stop making decisions based on what the Daily Mail's headlines will say the next day. Not all immigrants are Islamist fruit pickers.Suggest a correction