Imagine a Country Without Migrants

It’s nearly three months since the idea of a national protest by and in support of migrants in the UK on Feb 20 next year went viral on social media. In that time what began as a Facebook discussion has morphed into the national campaign One Day Without Us. We now have more than two dozen groups across the country. We have received support from various organisations, including Hope Not Hate, War on Want, and the Migrants Rights Network.

When I first suggested this possibility back in early October, I asked what people would think of a national migrant strike/boycott on the lines of two similar protests in the US in 2006 and in Italy in 2010. In the course of the many discussions that have taken place since then, this concept has evolved into a National Day of Action to highlight the contribution that migrants make to British society, in which taking time off work is one of a wide spectrum of actions that people can take to highlight the contribution that migrants make to British society and show solidarity with them.

Launching an organic grassroots campaign without any financial support or the backing of any political party has not been easy. Throughout this process I have been inspired by the many people who have rallied to this idea, and by the courage and commitment shown by migrants and British citizens across the country who have given their time entirely voluntarily to help organise what is an unprecedented protest in the history of the UK.

Along the way I have constantly been reminded of why an event like this necessary: the Belgian told to ‘go home’ when walking his dogs on the beach; a Greek who has had his windows broken; a Portuguese woman chased down a London street by a racist gang; a British Asian woman racially abused with her mum and two cousins on a bus; the desperation and insecurity of men and women who have lived in this country for decades and are told that their right to remain is in jeopardy.

This has been a year in which the national ‘debate’ about immigration has more than ever been saturated with hatred, fear and anti-migrant hostility; when migrants are blamed for problems they didn’t cause; when politicians too often lack the courage to speak out against these tendencies and prefer to pander to them instead.

In this climate it has been heartening and deeply moving to be reminded of the many people in this country – both migrants and British citizens – who do not accept the alarming victimisation and scapegoating of migrants, and are determined to try and counter it with a more positive and inclusive vision of what British society could be.

Many people have given not just their time, but their creativity to our campaign. This week we have launched a remarkable campaign video, that was shot and produced by Emigrant Beard productions, a Bristol-based company of mostly Spanish nationals which specialises in internet documentaries on ’emigration in the UK from the emigrant perspective.’

Emigrant Beard approached us at a very early stage in the campaign and offered to make the video for free. We asked the company to come up with a concept based on the idea of disappearing people – and particularly disappearing workers – that would invite people to imagine what the UK would be like if there were no migrants in the country for one day.

Having agreed on this basic concept, Emigrant Beard asked us to give them a script that would be poetic and evocative. We then approached the playwright Steve Waters, author of Temple and the forthcoming Limehouse. Waters welcomed the opportunity to participate in what he calls ‘ a wake-up to all of us to celebrate the diversity of our country and the vital role people of all nations play in the way we live and work.’

In little more than a day,Waters came up with a beautifully-turned rhymed script written as a short question and answer dialogue, in which migrants from various professions – baristas, surgeons, teachers, cleaners – tell their interlocutors that Feb 20 will be ‘ a day without us.’ The ‘questions’ are spoken by the professional actors Linus Roache and Lee Ross, who generously – and in the current climate – courageously – offered their services for free.

For Roache, this was a philosophical decision, in keeping with his belief that ‘we are living in a globalizing world. There is no going back, we need to be fearless in our embrace of diversity. This is the march of human evolution toward greater unity.’

The rest of the script was spoken by migrant ‘actors’ from Bristol. Carlos Blanco, who is also one of the cameramen and editors,appears in the film because ‘ I felt it was important first of all because I am a migrant and I don’t feel that bad about it. I think all of us should be proud of it; to be a migrant is to be brave. I hope people realize that.’

For Nadia Castilla, the video was an opportunity ‘ to be part of a project that includes everyone and that sends such a positive message’. To Emigrant Beard’s sound engineer Gerardo Pastor Ruiz, even the sound was part of the film’s attempt to give ‘ a voice to people who needed to be heard.’

What gives the video its power and its visual poetry are the close-up shots of eyes, mouths and parts of faces, which powerfully highlight the humanity of people who too often are not regarded as people at all, but as intruders, usurpers and outsider.

The result is a not just a campaign video, but a short film of real beauty and emotional power, which we are proud to associate with our campaign. For the film’s director Jacobo GF, the message of this video is: ‘Lets make the United Kingdom an amazing place to live, a paradise for everyone who really appreciates it. It does not matter where are you from or what is your background as long as you contribute to the cause of making this place better day after day.’

This is not a perspective we are used to hearing in these bleak times, but we feel that nowadays it needs to be heard more than ever. As the film reminds us, migrants are not invaders and strangers, but part of society in which all have a place:

We live with you and work with you
We”re part of this place we”ve travelled to
We”re part of your today and your tomorrow too

February 20 is an opportunity to recognize that reality – and also to celebrate it, anyway you can.

The Daily Mail: turning tragedy into bigotry

I know I’ve written on this subject before, but it needs to be repeated again and again: the Daily Mail  is a toxic pool of xenophobia, racism and rancid little-Englandism, and the fact that it attracts six million readers every week is a huge indictment of the British newspaper-reading public.

Today Paul Dacre’s ghastly rag has demonstrated once again  that are no depths that it will leave unexplored,  with Sue Reid’s pseudo-investigation into the tragic case of Alisa Dmitijeva, the Latvian teenager whose remains were found in the Queen’s estate at Sandringham on New Year’s Day.

Reid has a long history of writing anti-immigrant stories,  and today’s piece about ‘Drugs, the teenager found murdered on the Queen’s estate and how the Baltic Mafia is terrorising one of Britain’s oldest market towns’ belongs firmly within  the same body of work.

The article is ostensibly devoted to the ‘pretty Latvian teenager’  whose decomposed remains were found at Sandringham – a sobriquet illustrated with two photos of Dmitijeva striking a provocative pose in a short skirt and heels to provide Mail  readers with another dose of sleaze – and titillation, in its portrait of  ‘an unedifying tale of how her life spiralled out of control as she turned into a drug-addicted wild child’.

This cliché pretty much sums up the quality of Reid’s equally unedifying exposé.  For Dmitijeva’s tragic and brutal death is essentially a pretext for the Mail‘s evocation of another corner of Olde Englande violated and defiled by imported foreign sleaze and criminality.  Thus we learn that

The end of Alisa’s life was tragic but her death offers a terrifying window into a far wider problem — that of the sinister Eastern European drug and crime rings nicknamed “the Baltic Mafia” with which she became embroiled.  These gangs are taking over the English Fenland towns, terrifying local residents and ensnaring teenage girls such as Alisa.

So far neither the Mail nor the police know whether Dmitijeva was ‘ensnared’, since the crime has not been solved and its motivations are not known.  Reid doesn’t offer any convincing evidence that Baltic gangs are ‘taking over’ English Fenland towns.   But her evocation of sinister foreign criminal gangs protected by a ‘wall of silence’ from within their communities relies less on facts than it does on painting pictures to its readers – or rather reproducing pictures that many Mail readers already carry in their heads, such as the following:

Wisbech is a once-glorious and wealthy town boasting the oldest grammar school in the country, overlooking the banks of the River Nene.  However, drug dealers operate among the Georgian terraces, the cobbled streets, and in the grounds of the magnificent early Norman St Peter and St Paul”s Church.  Even in daylight, drunks lie among the church”s tombstones, and the churchyard is littered with empty beer cans covered in Slavic brand names.

Grammar schools, Georgian houses, magnificent churches, drunks who don’t even respect the English dead – about the only things missing from this imagery are cricket matches on the green, warm beer and John Major’s ‘old maids cycling in the morning mist’.   Anyone would think that Wisbech was ‘glorious and wealthy’ right up to the point when local farmers and canning factories began recruiting East European workers from 2004 onwards, and created a town with a population of 20,000 Eastern European migrants,  where ‘ in the streets you hear a cacophony of foreign tongues.’

This ‘cacophony’ is bad enough, but  Reid claims that the Mail only visited Wisbech ‘after a flurry of letters from local residents in which they complained about a spate of murders, sex attacks and stabbings.’    One can only  admire this  characteristic willingness  to stand up for the common man – and woman –  who has been abandoned to the migrant hordes, according to one local resident, since ‘no politician will confront the issue for fear of being branded a racist’.

Such cowardice, Reid suggests,  has left the locals in a ‘desperate situation’, besieged by drunken migrant yobs who urinate in the streets, take drugs and terrorise the locals, since ‘We spoke to many other town residents with countless stories of how the East European migrant influx had brought with it a culture of crime and anti-social behaviour’.

One suspects that these stories were not ‘countless’ but could probably have been easily numbered in any reporter’s notebook.  But never mind, put it down to poetic license.   Are there any English drunks?  Are there English teenagers in Wisbech who take ketamine, crystal meth or heroin, as they do in many other ‘once-glorious’ market towns where there are no Eastern Europeans at all?   Do Fenland youths commit crimes or engage in anti-social behaviour?

Reid does not ask, and leaves her readers to assume that the 67,000 people who make up the rest of Wisbech’s population are all going to the town’s magnificent churches or studying Norman history in their Georgian houses, before ending her tale by squeezing one more fat crocodile tear onto her keyboard:

In one haunting shot, Alisa has puffy eyes and is wearing a white swimsuit as she lies on the grass in the sunshine. She is smiling at the camera, but in her grubby left hand is a lighted cannabis joint.  What a terrible end for the teenager who had hoped for such a bright future in a new country — but whose life has become a symbol for how East European migration has fundamentally changed once-proud Fenland towns such as Wisbech.

Whatever the causes of Dmitijeva’s murder, it does not symbolise any such thing.  And the Mail‘s utterly scurrilous and shameful willingness to use the death of a disturbed and fragile teenager to feed its readers with another dose of hatred, is worthy only of contempt.

But that’s not what you get it in the comments section, with its calls to join the BNP and UKIP, its bitter rantings against ‘Labour’s open door policy’, Blair’s ‘treason’, ‘mass immigration, the EU, the Human Rights Act and all the other things that Mail readers love to hate.    Comments like ‘Oh my England, what have they done to you?’ and ‘ I cry for the England I once knew’,  give an indication of the general tone.

And that, one cannot help thinking,  is exactly what this shocker of an article was intended to achieve.