1 Day Without Us: Let’s Have a Different Conversation About Migration

The One Day Without Us campaign came into existence in the autumn of 2016, out of a conversation on Facebook. We were migrants, EU citizens and UK nationals, all of whom were appalled by the shocking increase in anti-migrant hate crime on the streets, by the scapegoating of migrants in the media and on social media, by the cynical disregard for the EU citizens whose lives have been plunged into turmoil as a result of Brexit, and by the ‘hostile environment’ polices enacted by the UK government which have deprived undocumented migrants of the basic supports necessary for survival in a civilised society.

Our campaign set out to counter these developments. In the face of the relentless denigration of migrants, we wanted to celebrate the positive contribution that migrants have made in our communities, schools, workplaces, and families. At a time when migrant voices tend to be marginalised or ignored in a one-sided national ‘debate’ about immigration, we set out to create a platform that would enable migrants of many different backgrounds and perspectives to make themselves heard, and which would also express a more positive affirmation of the UK as an open and welcoming society.

On 20 Feb these aspirations brought tens of thousands of people across the country to take part in the UK’s first-ever national day of action in solidarity with migrants, with the support of universities, trade unions, cultural institutions and charities. Next month, on 17 February, 1 Day Without Us will hold another national day of action. For 24 hours we invite migrants and their supporters to mobilise their organisations and communities around the campaign message ‘proud to be a migrant/proud to stand with migrants.’

At present, the loudest voices in the UK’s immigration ‘debate’ continue to be those who describe immigration as a problem and a threat. At its most extreme fringe are those who attack the Grenfell survivors as ‘illegal migrants’ sponging off the state, who accuse British Muslims of being nothing more than terrorists and grooming gangs, who tell men and women who have been living here for years that they should ‘go home’ or stop speaking their own language.

It is easy – and convenient – to attribute the more outrageously xenophobic or racist expressions of anti-migrant hostility to a ‘few idiots’. But such rampant xenophobia and hatemongering is the most unacceptable manifestation of a broad consensus that extends across much of the political class and the media and a significant section of the public, which depicts migration as problematic, threatening and dangerous.

Such is the power of this consensus that even politicians who recognise the necessity and the inevitability of migration are reluctant to stand up for migrant rights, or challenge the often evidence-free assertions that blame and scapegoat migrants for social and economic problems that they did not cause. We do not take a position on Brexit, but these tendencies have clearly been exacerbated by the referendum result, as migrants and the descendants of migrants find themselves more under threat than at any time since the late 1970s.

Today we live in a country in which a woman who reports rape to the police is arrested on immigration offences; where a Jamaican woman who has been living in the UK for fifty years is threatened with deportation; where 3.4 million lives have been held ‘in limbo’ for the last eighteen months; where migrant workers are simultaneously blamed for lowering wages and ‘undercutting’ British workers or accused of being ‘health tourists’ or ‘scroungers’.

We believe that such actions do not reflect the best traditions of this country – and also that they conceal a far more positive picture of migration that is the routine experience of communities up and down the country. On 17 February we are asking our supporters to show their solidarity with the men and women who have made the UK their home – and also to celebrate the culturally and ethnically diverse society we have become.

 

In our new campaign video, one our young migrant interviewees says ‘migrants are just people, who come from another country.’ It is astonishing how often that obvious message is forgotten. Today, the word ‘identity’ has become a staple of our national conversation about immigration, usually in order to present migrants and migration as a threat to who ‘we’ are, or as an anomalous aberration.

We believe that migrants are part of that first-person plural, that 21st century British society is the sum of all its parts and its many different communities and identities, and that our common interests would be best served by embracing that reality and finding ways to make migration work for all of us.

Because if we are to prevent the UK’s ongoing transformation into a hostile anti-migrant fortress, we need to acknowledge and defend the gains we have made and the society we have become. We need to remind our politicians that there are millions who reject the stigmatisation and victimisation of the men and women we have known as colleagues, neighbours, workmates, family members and friends. These are the people who are routinely categorised as ‘migrants’ – a term that has too often been a pejorative term in British political discourse.

Migration in the UK encapsulates many different expectations, historical experiences, day-to-day realities and legal jurisdictions. Nevertheless we do not believe that migrant should be ever an insult or an object of shame, and we reject the distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’ that it implies. We celebrate migration as an entirely normal activity, and we celebrate the kind of society the UK has become as a result of migration.

We don’t pretend that a single day of action can change entrenched attitudes in a single day. But if we are to shift the narrative about migration in a more positive direction, then we need to be bold, positive and proactive in affirming our vision of the UK as an open society that is comfortable with its diversity and confident in its ability to construct a future in which all its different components can find a place. So we invite all those who share that vision to join us on 17 Feb. Look for 1 Day Without Us events in your community, which you can find on our website at: www.1daywithoutus.org. If there aren’t 1DWU groups in your area, then create one. Or organise an event that best reflects your community, your organisation and your priorities.

Do what best suits you and what you are best able to organise. Hold a rally. Protest or demonstrate. Link arms around a public building. Organize a communal meal. Photograph yourselves with your migrant colleagues and post them on social media. Wherever and whoever you are, join in our unifying action at 2 o’clock, and post pictures of whatever you do.

For 24 hours, let the country and world know that there are millions of people up and down the country who are proud to be migrants and proud to stand in solidarity with the people who have made this country their home, and who are now a part of us, just as we are part of them.

One Day Without Us 2018

It’s just under a year since I was part of  a Facebook discussion about the alarmingly xenophobic drift of post-referendum UK society.  We were people from many different nationalities, backgrounds and political persuasions.  Some of us were migrants, others the descendants of migrants or British nationals who know migrants as our friends, colleagues, partners, carers, workmates and classmates.

All of us were appalled by the dangerous convergence of  street-level violence towards migrants with the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by too many politicians.  We were disgusted with the cynical references to  3 million EU citizens as bargaining chips, and the persistent denigration and stigmatisation of migrants in sections of the British press.  We did not see migrants as intruders, outsiders or interlopers, but as valuable and valued members of British society and our local communities.

So on 20th February we invited migrants and their supporters to take part in a national day of action celebrating the presence of migrants and the contributions they have made to British society.  For 24 hours, we asked the British public to imagine what a ‘day without immigrants’ might be like.

We were bowled over by the response. Tens of thousands of people held protests, rallies and other events up and down the country.  There were One Day Without Us events in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; fetes in tiny villages, rallies in city centres, stalls in town markets. Members of the public, businesses, trade unions, NGOs, charities, and universities all supported what was in effect the first-ever national day of solidarity with migrants in British history.

It was a fantastic experience for everyone involved.  In providing a platform for migrants and their supporters to make their voices heard,  One Day Without Us presented the UK with a very different vision of migrants and migration to the one that has been presented to the public for too long by politicians and the media alike.   Eleven months later the need for this vision remains as urgent as it was then.  And so next year, on 17th February, we’re planning another national day of action.   For twenty-four hours we’re inviting migrants and their supporters to take part, and organise events in their local communities, under the slogan ‘Proud to be a migrant/Proud to stand with migrants.’  We’ve chosen that date to coincide with the week of UN World Day of Social Justice, but this time we’ve chosen to stage it on a weekend, so that everyone can get involved.

Our message is simple: we refuse to accept the divisive ‘us versus them’ political rhetoric that presents migrants as interlopers and outsiders and immigration as a burden.  We believe that migration had been broadly positive both for migrants and for UK society, and we want to celebrate that.   We think it is shameful and disturbing that the word migrant has become a dirty word in British politics; that EU citizens living in Britain are still living in limbo or leaving the country because of the hostility directed towards them; that families with non-EU migrant spouses remain permanently separated because they can’t meet arbitrary income thresholds; that migrant workers are described as if they were nothing but economic commodities.

We want to change that.    We do not believe that migrants are intrinsically better or worse than anyone else, but no one should ever have to feel ashamed, vulnerable or under threat because of who they are or where they came from.   It should not even need saying that migrants have the same hopes, dreams, aspirations as  British citizens, but the debased debate about migration too easily ignores this simple truth and prefers to scapegoat migrants and blame them for problems that they did not cause.  Too often migrants are described as if they were nothing but takers and migration is depicted as something unnatural and even sordid.

We want to restore the courage, heroism and dignity, the adventure and discovery that is part of the experience of migration.  As migrants and non-migrants, we want to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions that migrants have made to our country in the past and continue to make today.

We are proud that the UK is a country that people want to come to in order to live, work, study, or seek safety and protection.  We do not want a ‘hostile environment’ that turns doctors and nurses into immigration police and presents deportations of tens of thousands of foreign students on the basis of flawed or inadequate evidence as a badge of honour.  We want a UK that is welcoming, open, and inclusive in its attitude towards migration.

In celebrating migrants and migration we do not only refer to EU nationals.   Though we recognize that migrants who have come to the UK fall under many different legal categories, we do not recognize hierarchical distinctions between worthy and unworthy migrants, between EU citizens and non-EU nationals, between refugees and asylum seekers, between migrants past and presents.

The hostility directed towards migrants in post-referendum UK does not confine itself to any single target. It  can equally be directed against Polish schoolgirls, Muslims of Pakistani heritage, Bulgarians, Romanians, refugees or ‘failed asylum seekers’ .  It might be aimed at EU citizens or it might be directed against people who were born here who simply look or sound like foreigners.

Once confined to the extremist fringe, such hostility has begun to permeate the mainstream to the point when it threatens the very foundations and the character of our society, and drives government policy in ways that are harmful to migrants and to our common future.  One of the reasons why this has happened is because millions of people with a very different view of what UK society could be like have not made their voices heard.

On 17th February this is your opportunity.  We invite migrants and their supporters to join us in a positive affirmation of migrants and migration.  We invite you, whoever you are and whatever your race, religion or nationality, to take part in a day of unity, celebration and protest.  We invite you to join with us and say it loudly ‘ Proud to be a migrant.  Proud to stand with migrants’.

For further information about events and volunteering possibilities, see our website at: http://1daywithoutus.org/

And @1daywithoutus

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.

A Bunch of Migrants

No one should be surprised that our prime minister should have marked Holocaust Day to regale the nation with a contemptuous joke about how Jeremy Corbyn met with a ‘bunch of migrants in Calais’ and ‘told them that they could all come to Britain..  Contrary to Jonathan Freedland’s schoolmasterish suggestion that this jocularity was ‘beneath him’, Cameron’s remark was in fact perfectly in character  and pitched at exactly the level – somewhere in the lower levels of the political and moral gutter – that he and his government naturally inhabit.

After all, we are talking about  a politician who has long since shed the flimsy veneer of compassionate conservative/green bicycle man that the Tory PR department invented for him, back in the days when it was politically convenient to do so.  In power, Cameron has shown exactly what kind of man he is and what kind of politician he is.  He has rarely missed an opportunity to portray immigrants as parasitic and dangerous intruders and enemies of the taxpayer whether they come from Eastern Europe or from outside it.

So it is entirely natural  that he would say something like this in parliament, and that he would think that in doing so he was being funny and hilarious in a blokish Mock the Week/Jeremy Clarkson kind of way, and those who have accused him of demeaning his office or failing to pay due spirit to Holocaust Day are trying to give this hollow chancer a gravitas and integrity that he just doesn’t have.

Some of Cameron’s critics have highlighted the callousness of his ‘bunch of migrants’ remark; others have criticized him for diminishing and dehumanising the men, women and children it refers to.   Both accusations are entirely correct, but there is another dimension to Cameron’s jocular banter that goes beyond the question of character or the suggestion of bad taste.

His choice of words wasn’t just intended to get his own backbenchers rolling in the aisles, it was aimed at a wider gallery that already shares the same contempt and loathing that his formulation expressed so glibly.  The Oxford Dictionary contains the following definition of ‘migrant’:

  1. A person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.
  2. An animal that migrates.

The dictionary also defines the adjective ‘migrant’ as ‘tending to migrate or having migrated: “migrant birds”.’  Merriam Webster echoes the same definition, though it also has an older and more specific variant of migrant as ‘a person who moves regularly in order to find work especially in harvesting crops.’

In both dictionaries ‘migrant’ is distinct from ‘immigrant’, which the Oxford Dictionary describes as ‘ A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. ‘ Merriam-Webster also refers to ‘a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.’

It’s worth revisiting these definitions in order to see how far we have moved from them, and how Cameron’s remark yesterday was removed from them.  In British political culture the word ‘migrant’ has become an almost entirely pejorative term.  If we applied its strict dictionary meanings, we would find that many of the people who have come to the UK are both ‘migrants’ and ‘immigrants’ rather than one or the other.  We would also have to refer to British citizens who live abroad as migrants and immigrants or both.

But these definitions don’t even begin to encapsulate the meanings that the word ‘migrant’ has acquired through decades of relentless misuse by politicians and newspapers.  Like ‘asylum seeker’, ‘migrant’ has become a word that automatically dehumanizes and demeans the people it refers to.

Both terms have acquired various sub-meanings that are automatically understood by those who use them and those who hear them.   Today ‘migrant’ has become a code word in British tabloidspeak which is synonymous with ‘invader’, ‘intruder’, ‘alien’, ‘parasite’, ‘criminal’, ‘job thief’, ‘fraud’ and a host of other assumptions.

These imagined and assumed characteristics routinely invite and enable the British public to freely fear and despise the men and women who come this country whether to ‘find work or better living conditions’ or in order to seek sanctuary and protection from war and persecution, without every having to express their xenophobic or racist sub-texts outright.

Let’s not pretend there are any other sentiments behind headlines like ‘Migrants take over idyllic British tourist hamlet’ (Daily Express), ‘ Migrants take our jobs’ (Daily Express again), ‘Migrant rape fears spread across Europe.’ (Daily Mail)

There is a lot more where this came from, and we have been digesting it for years.  Within this more general framework of fear and loathing there is always room for specific variants, whether it’s Poles who come here to take our benefits; Bulgarian or Romanian criminals; or the shadowy hooknosed invaders in the Daily Mail’s ‘rats’ cartoon, walking into Britain with rats scuttling around their sandalled feet.

The goalposts can also shift according to necessity.  When the Daily Mail claimed three days ago that ‘David Cameron rejects calls to take 3,000 migrant children’, it ignored the fact that most of these ‘migrant children’ in Calais are too young to be seeking work and are in fact seeking asylum, so they aren’t technically migrants at all.

But the purpose of this headline was the same as so many others: to fuel the bitterness, hatred and resentment that is steadily corroding British society, and present migrants of whatever age and origin as a threat to our jobs, security, culture and way of life.

Cameron’s ‘bunch of migrants’ joke yesterday was intended to have exactly the same effect.  Last year, Cameron – or one of his ghostwriters – wrote an introduction to a report on Holocaust remembrance,which pointed out ‘…The poisonous words and passive acceptance of discrimination which marked the beginning of the Holocaust can clearly be found in the ideology of extremism or in the hatred that underpins antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism and homophobia today.’

Yesterday Cameron delivered more ‘poisonous words’ with the casual insouciance that you would expect from Jeremy Clarkson.  He did so in the course of a debate about corporate tax avoidance,  in which he  variously depicted Corbyn as a defender of Argentinian claims to the Falklands, and a supporter of trade union rights – all of which supposedly defined  the Labour leader and his party as enemies of the ‘British people and the hard-working taxpayer’.

So let’s not pretend that it was a mistake or a throwaway remark.  Cameron knew exactly what he was doing and exactly which audience he wanted to reach.  It is certainly true, as so many of his critics have pointed out,  that language like this  ‘demeans his office’, but it is also extremely useful to his government that his audience should think about migrants and migration as a threat.

Cameron’s intervention was partly a cynical distraction.  But it was also a massive flashing green light to those who already see the ‘bunch of migrants’ in exactly the same way as he does, to continue what they are doing and thinking, which makes his remarks not only contemptible, but dangerous.