I don’t know if my daughter will be allowed to stay in the UK if we leave the EU. Despite being born in Britain to two settled EU citizens and is British by birth under EU Law, she was ‘born in the wrong year’ and must register to acquire a British passport. The price tag: £1,000. This is the “hostile environment” in action.
My daughter is the first child in my family for seventy years to be born to an immigrant, not a refugee thanks to Europe and to the United Kingdom. I am the child of a refugee, and the grandchild of a refugee.
I have been fortunate. I did not have to flee my home in fear of death, as my father and grandmother did. I was free to seek opportunity, jobs, love, and build a life in the country of my choosing. As a newly elected MEP, I now represent my country and one of the world’s most vibrant cities in the largest democratic institution in the world.
Today, I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my colleagues from the same countries whose wars once displaced families like mine. Instead of sheltering from the threat of arms, we are building alliances and cooperation, and strengthening our union. Far from being an undemocratic bureaucracy, the European institutions give expression to quarrels between countries, governments and peoples and they find resolutions. As the most successful peace project the continent of Europe has ever seen, the European Union is a guarantee that problems are solved by ‘jaw-jaw, not war-war’.
The progress Europe has made would have been unimaginable to my Armenian grandmother. When she arrived in Istanbul at the age of 22, smuggled aboard a merchant’s ship, she sold her long black hair to a wig maker to afford a ticket to Brussels. She undertook a dangerous, uncertain journey on the promise of escaping the horrors and desperation of her home. In her case, it paid off. But she was the lucky one. She and her mother were the only members of her entire family who were not murdered by the Bolshevik army.
Instead of embracing refugees and supporting them, British governments have seen them as a problem to be solved.
We are often led to believe that refugees arrive in a country and remain passive, idle victims. Mere pawns in a wider geopolitical game with no desire to contribute to their new country or build a life there. People forget that refugees by definition have to possess the resilience, determination, and bravery to escape persecution and war in their homeland. My own grandmother became the first female economics student at the University of Cologne, and her daughter – my mother – went on to become a lecturer, teaching Russian at Munster.
Yet, instead of embracing refugees and supporting them, British governments have seen them as a problem to be solved. We even stop those in the asylum system from working. The hostile environment fostered by the Home Office simply results in a foolish waste of ability and talent. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has shamefully ratted on the government’s obligations to take refugees from Syria. Still only a handful of child refugees have been taken into the UK, despite the Dubs Amendment, which imposed legal obligations to do so.
In behaving in this way, the British government is misreading the public mood. One of the curious consequences of the bitter battle over Brexit has been that public support for immigration in general has increased. Where 64% believed it had a negative impact back in 2011, only 26% agree today. Recent polling suggests Britain is now among the most positive countries in the world in terms of attitudes to immigration, alongside Australia, the US and Sweden.
Britain is not the country Nigel Farage imagined us to be when he tried to appeal to people’s fears with his now infamous poster of dark-skinned people queuing at our border. We rightly see immigration as an opportunity not a threat, and we now need a new government that will do the same.
The £1,000 citizenship fee is nothing more than discrimination against the poorest in our society. That’s why I have launched a petition calling on the UK Parliament to lower the cost of citizenship from £1,330 to £372. Being a British citizen should not depend on the size of your salary.
As an election approaches, Liberal Democrats will give Britain the choice of a government which shares our national character. A government that embraces the vulnerable and takes pride in sharing our rich, vibrant country with those who seek the peace and opportunities here. A government of which my grandparents could be proud.
Irina von Wiese is a Liberal Democrat MEP, lawyer and activist.