The UK government has published its Immigration White Paper. While waiting for this key document that signals their policy and plan for future immigration to the UK, I have been thinking about the reason I and my organisation, the3million, are getting involved in this discussion. We are after all not immigration policy experts, we are simply fighting for EU citizens already in the country to continue their lives as before Brexit. But this fight sadly includes opposing the toxic way EU citizens have been split from their fellow residents in the UK. In the vacuum of a missing fact-driven national discussion on immigration, successive governments have decided immigration is bad, it needs to be ‘controlled’, it needs to be ‘cracked down on’.
I am one of the 3.6million people already experiencing the seismic impact of a poisonous division that will affect my younger brother if he wants to come to the UK after March 2019. Before the referendum I was indistinguishable from my British friends, thanks to non-discrimination and the reciprocal EU right to move freely and start a life anywhere. This has irreversibly changed. The reasons are manifold – tough living and working conditions in deprived areas of the UK, scapegoating of migrant workers, structural neglect, political lies to cover a lack of investment and vision for the whole of the UK.
The result should alarm anyone calling the UK their home: a government-endorsed perception of foreigners as something worrying, that needs to be controlled, constantly monitored. Any new immigration policy that is based on Theresa May’s loathing of ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘citizens of nowhere’ will not heal the UK, but increase the hostility the3million have already experienced since the referendum. Take EU citizen Susie who lives in Grimsby and told me that she doesn’t speak “unless I have to because as long as nobody hears my accent, I’m safe.”
Or Fran, who came to the UK 44 years ago as a teenager to study and never thought her foreign-ness was an issue until now. Not only would she not be let into the country anymore under any proposed income threshold of £30k but the painful process of validating 44 years to the Home Office in the context of this hostile environment has changed how she feels. “My head thinks surely they can’t refuse me this,” she said. “What travesty that would be... My tortured brain then worries and worries that they’re looking for something, anything. To refuse me this. Anxiety levels at an all time high. Fear is setting in.”
While the real conversation on immigration will not be forced by the perceived overrunning of migrants but by the renewed need for people to come and help to build and grow the UK, the prime minister is celebrating what she wrongly identifies as the reason people voted for Brexit: the ending of Freedom of Movement.
This often misunderstood right – with its phenomenal benefits for all EU citizens and the responsibilities that come with it – is the ultimate Brexit sacrifice. The people paying the immediate price are the five million people who have based their lives on living and working freely across Europe – EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the UK. But the people who will suffer most from ending this precious achievement of the European project will be the sick – the NHS relies on EU carers, nurses and doctors; the young – wages increase with age and EU or British immigrants will not be allowed to naturally progress, especially once language skills improve. And finally the British people – because this ‘crackdown’ is likely to be reciprocated by EU27 countries and many British citizens wouldn’t be able to continue to earn a living in the EU under similar rules.
What we see is an ideology, not a sound immigration policy. I ask myself why we must defend something that is ultimately beneficial to this country: migration.
Whilst I got over the first shock of the brave new world for EU citizens currently living in the UK I now wonder whether I am ready for the post-March 2019 landscape. Will I live in a country with highly restricted immigration control where you face an even more hostile environment if you don’t comply? Will I be subjected to rules crafted to satisfy a populist fear of ‘them’?
The Migration Observatory noted a sharp increase in the volume of newspaper coverage relating to migration since the election of the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010, and an apparent change in how immigration is discussed, with an increase in focus on the scale of migration from 2009 onwards.
The picture below is based on the most-used headlines in the UK media during the past 10 years, headlines that have shaped the populist narrative we see today.
This is a key moment for all of us living in the UK. We should sing the virtues of immigration and stand up for Freedom of Movement.