The ‘Migrant Crisis’ and Losing My Faith In Humanity

“It is not possible to stop human mobility, if you try to stop it with violence, we are responsible for genocide

Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo

As a student of global politics, I learned huge amounts about colonialism, imperialism, trade, aid, debt and all the other issues that tend to cause the world’s problems. Above all though, I learned how complicit I was; how complicit we all are in perpetuating the political and economic conditions that allow such huge inequalities to persist, from the way we shop, to the way we eat and the way we travel.

Back then I believed that if we all knew; if we all really understood the damage that the way we lived had on those we couldn’t see, we would immediately radically readjust our way of life in the name of humanity. The Calais ‘migrant crisis’, however, proved me wrong.

Trying, as I do, to understand this world and the people in it, I pictured a scene where a family of desperate people seeking refuge arrive in a village. Do the people of this village a) think for a minute about where’s best for them to stay as there must be somewhere in the entire village that this one family can camp out in, explain the story to the local supermarket and maybe get them sorted out with some food until tomorrow when a longer term plan can be considered. Or b) um and ah about how terrible their plight is but also kind of shrug because you and your neighbours need your spare rooms for storage and their situation is sad but also you don’t really know these people. You might give them some food though, and if you come up with any ideas on how to help them, you will let them know. Or c) do you meet their arrival with rage and indignation, disgusted that they thought it was appropriate to turn up to your village in their hour of need (perhaps because it’s the most affluent village they knew of) and commit to showing as much hostility as possible so ‘their kind’ won’t get the impression they can survive here.

Knowing Britain, I thought option b) was the obvious choice. But no, no this time we’ve decided to do nothing in halves, and I’d say that c) best fits the recent reaction to the migrant crisis we now claim to be facing. Some may say that the difference between my analogy and the current situation is the scale of the arrival of the migrants to temporary camps in Calais. Really? 2000-5000 people between two countries of a combined population 130 million? Yawn, for want of a better word. Around 2000 babies are born every day in England and Wales alone, yet on February 29th headlines do not read “PANIC! POPULATION CRISIS RIFE AS UK TRIES TO COPE WITH 2000 EXTRA HUMANS”.

When my naïve, student self wanted nothing more than for the average citizen to see and understand the connections between our choices and the living conditions of the Chinese labourer or Palestinian child of war, it never occurred to me, not once, the fear that a threat to one’s ‘way of life’ could drum up. Neither did I consider that this fear could grow to such a magnitude and become so palpable that it would override the most basic human emotion of empathy.

Empathy, is all it would take to restore my faith in humanity. A sense of responsibility would simultaneously blow my mind and restore my faith in the education system (almost). When people migrate, they don’t simply pick a spot on a spinning globe (unless they are rich, white and adventurous). The movement of people follows the movement of capital. If we don’t want the migrants, we’ll have to give up the cash too. And if you think all this cash is ours because we earned it fair and square, think again.

migrant threat to wway of life

Regarding this language of a looming threat that these swarms of migrants are supposedly posing, the politics of fear need toning down. As this title suggests, I’m as big a fan of hyperbole as anyone, but when I use such disproportionately dramatic language, I’m usually ridiculed and laughed at. The only fear these speeches incur for me, is the fear that these politicians are actually being taken seriously. Otherwise, I genuinely struggle to understand what it is I am supposed to be terrified of, what daily delights will be torn from me should more people come through the tunnel?

This government’s welfare cuts have made it crystal clear that they are not interested in the well-being of poor, brown people and seem committed to the idea that poor, brown people should have as few links to the state as possible. So if you are already more or less committed to the idea of ignoring the existence of poor, brown people, what difference does it make to you if there are a few more thousands of them? Besides, my recently gentrified area could frankly do with a few more poor, brown people to curb the enthusiasm of culture vultures and property developers who I consider far more of a looming threat to my way of life.

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On Gentrification

I won’t lie. The first time I had to queue to get into a bar in Peckham, I was outraged. Despite being from Lewisham and having only discovered the wonders of Peckham in my late teens, as a South London native I felt I deserved an automatic queue jump. When it became evident that I was fuming in vain, I jumped on my high horse (the 436) and rode off to a pub somewhere in Camberwell.

Peckham used to be a typical South London area with a high street that consisted of a Macdonalds, a Primark, a handful of black hair shops and a budget cinema. Over the past five or ten years that very high street has seen huge changes with many locals complaining of influxes of Shoreditch rejects congregating to sample the latest vegan* brunches and vintage fashion. As more and more shops catering to the hipsters and hipsters-in-denial have popped up and rents then have continued to increase Peckham has become the poster child for the gentrification of South London.

While I appreciate the availability of prosecco and proscuitto at a 15 minute walk from my house  my issues with the gentrification of South London run far deeper than frustration at excessive waiting time at a local bar. Growing up in a ‘deprived’ area of the UK, proprietor of the formidable Great British Pound, has always made me hugely sceptical of trickle-down economics. The idea that money that flows into the top will eventually find its way down to those who need it at the bottom is difficult to swallow when your borough has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the capital. Inequality in London is nothing new. Every year millions of tourists descend on the city to wonder at historic architecture, royal palaces and stolen artefacts pouring incomputable amounts into this wonderful city’s economy. Meanwhile, not too far South, overworked GPs and locals must campaign relentlessly to keep our hospitals open, because if not where else will the local stab victims, substance abusers and the mentally unwell be treated?

The deep set resentment that many feel towards the proprietors and customers of these new businesses and inevitably their new neighbours may seem difficult to grasp at first. Some newer residents may feel that if anything they are contributing by paying substantial prices for rent, food and nights out in the area, some who are more in tune may simply feel that they too are humans who need a place to live and have an appreciation of the neighbourhood. Fair enough. But it is worth acknowledging that the failure of trickle-down economics is more difficult to swallow when all you’re asking for is the money to trickle not from the top, but  across from those living on your doorstep. So as money flows into the hands of big landlords and savvy businesspeople who swooped in at just the right time, those outside of this network remain ignored.

Neglected areas are exactly that, they are areas where poorly paid social workers play mother and father to every abandoned or mistreated child (of whom there are plenty) and those with a community spirit spend their lives fighting tooth and nail to keep the community afloat, together. Their lives are made only harder as more money gets thrown forcing them to pay more for everything from rent to coffee.

Of course not every South Londoner is a hero, there are many happy-go-lucky “it’s shit but we love it” types and just as many “we might not have much but we’re a family” locals or even some “it’s not great but it’s all I know” ones. But there’s also an angrier, more bitter kind whose hardships were perhaps not so easy to overcome. Let’s call them the “I hate this place and everything it represents” South Londoner.

Growing up in an area like mine there are a million experiences available to the average teenager that shouldn’t be, from drugs and sex (and hence teen pregnancy) to the emasculating routine of stop and search and equally shameful procedure of getting mugged every other week. Many of those hit the hardest by the real issues of the borough, do not want to be there. Success would be to escape but they are trapped in a cycle of poverty that limits their options and confines them to that oh-so-trendy place. As superficial change  grows exponentially accompanied by that fearless freedom that comes with middle-class options, free to saunter down the street you scurried through as a scared teenager, reminding you once again of everything you never had, so then grows your resentment at still being stuck there.

This is no one’s fault and we are none of us perfect. I myself write this article from a fabulous three bedroom flat in Barcelona were vegan* brunches are advertised in the window of the café a few doors down from me, in an area, I am told, taxi drivers refused to go through prior to the 1992 Olympics, when it was populated predominantly by working class Catalans and immigrants from Pakistan, North Africa and the Middle East. It’s not obvious at first, the art galleries and bike shops that look like art galleries may distract you, but the ghosts of ghettos past are certainly there. Nonetheless, I take comfort in the fact that my awareness of this familiar situation encourages me to engage with the situation by educating myself in order to understand the local socioeconomic situation and contribute to long-standing local businesses that need the support, rather than just creaming off the cool of the area whilst showing no respect to those who must tolerate the high turnover of international hipsters with no interest in learning their language nor exploring their culture.

Gentrification is a reflection of the inequality and injustice that continually festers in our society. In the UK as inequality increases and the homeless are no longer ignored, but instead greeted by spikes at night as a reminder of their problematic existence, hikes in South London rents mean that those who have spent a lifetime in these previously neglected areas are simply being out-priced out of the area and the city alike.

The current issue is not that Peckham has changed. The issue is that Peckham hasn’t changed at all. A boy growing up in Peckham suffers the same hiked probability that he will become somehow become embroiled in violent crime as his counterpart did ten years ago. Despite huge efforts from local councils which have seen tremendous slashes in teen pregnancy statistics, a girl growing up in Peckham is still more likely to fall pregnant before her 20th birthday than a girl based in any other London borough, except neighbouring Lambeth.

I’m sure I was not the only child growing up in a neglected area who at some point experienced a profound epiphany which led to the understanding that actually I was not part of a national community in the way others were. The institutions and structures that govern us do not expect a 100% success rate which for me meant that many of my friends and neighbours would be unfortunately and inevitably among those who fell outside of those structures and would simply be forgotten, whether dead or in jail or just piss poor and angry their whole lives. It’s the realisation that actually not all that many people care about you and you can watch the children of Sweets Way N20 experience it here.

Pushing poverty from post code to post code seems to be a process that continually reproduces itself in society but the ignorance that often accompanies it is an individual choice. Today you can take a pleasant stroll through SE-anywhere, stop for a lovely coffee or maybe some delicious Jamaican food on the way and remain blissfully unaware of the ongoing local issues, from parents battling addiction and their children turning to crime to failing schools and crumbling hospitals.

Although no amount of cocktails and coffee can save our schools or hospitals, nor make the area any safer to grow up in, we can make the most of this transitional phase to learn about the issues faced by our neighbours that the media has consistently failed to communicate. It is easy to bury your head in your smartphone or cross the road at any sign of perceived danger but there is much to be gained by simply doing some research and befriending your neighbour. An area with such different worlds colliding is the perfect opportunity for us to discover the experiences of others and truly understand the fabric of our society, and perhaps then more young people growing up in the area might have the sentiment that someone somewhere noticed their existence.

*It’s actually a real shame that veganism is even associated with irritating hipsters, it’s supposed to be excellent for the environment.

Theresa May versus James Dyson and Why Are We Still Having This Conversation?

Home secretary Theresa May plans to expel international students after graduation as a means of controlling immigration. Sir James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson hoover, thinks this is a short term crowd pleaser which will lead to long-term economic decline. Nigel Farage believes the poor level of English of immigrant doctors is “scandolous”. A study by UCL found that in the last 15 years immigrants to the UK have made a net contribution to public finances. Why then are we still having this conversation?

The conversation I am talking about is of course the immigration debate. In the last election the Liberal Democrats didn’t even consider immigration an issue, but this year it seems it is all anyone can talk about. Immigration and benefit fraud are the two biggest non-issues that consistently made headlines in 2014, despite having essentially no negative impact on the economy that they are always accused of destroying. The statistics for benefit fraud speak for themselves. False benefit claims only make up about one sixth of unclaimed benefits. That is to say if all those who were legible for benefits claimed them there would be less money in the kitty than there is now. End of discussion.
BenefitFraud1609
The immigration debate  seems not quite so easy to quash however. A number of studies have shown that immigration has brought a wide range of benefits to both to the British economy and public services but people will not be convinced. Nothing makes this clearer than the rise of Mr One Policy and One Policy Only, Nigel Farage. By focusing on this one issue alone UKIP has gained enough popularity to force every other party to start developing their policies on immigration, with even Ed Miliband claiming it was an issue that Labour was taking very seriously. Interesting because ‘issues’ used to mean problems or concerns, things that we should be thinking about and addressing. I am not concerned about immigration and I do not think it is a problem.
                I feel genuinely confused as to what expectations those who demand changes to immigration policy actually have. Assuming the hope is that some robust policies on immigration will lead to a reduction of the number of immigrants in the country, how then will Britain be so greatly improved? More English will be heard on public transport, less of a language barrier with your doctor or nurse, less queuing at the doctor’s surgery or hospital, more places at the best schools and of course jobs for all!
               The idea that one immigrant gone means one more job for the angry and unemployed (or worse in work and still poor) has been disproved again and again. Those who have made no effort to understand the economics around this and genuinely follow the logic that more immigrants mean less jobs need to do their research. The idea that the NHS could survive without without immigrants is simply incredible, in the literal sense of the word. With a saving of £70 000 on nurses and almost £270 000 on doctors (of whom 26% are indeed immigrants), who arrive already equipped with training that the government then avoids paying for, a 100% British health service would be dire for the financing of the NHS. As for the best schools, inequality within the education system is by no means a product of recent times, although it is worsening as the cuts continue. It is a long held British tradition that those who can pay, do, and generally go on to great things. Our Prime Minister, for example, is a product of Eton College a school established in the 15th Century and which currently costs around £33 000 per academic year. Accessibility to the ‘best schools’ is therefore a difficult topic, private education considered.
              Again, those who do not know must teach themselves, but Theresa May pulling pointless policies out of thin air is only fuelling the ignorance that sustains this conversation. Theresa May knows full well that the lives of the angry and jobless will not be improved by the expulsion of foreign graduates. The same tactic was used on benefit fraud last year, when a law was created to cap benefits at £30 000 per year. The law may not be an issue, but the insinuation was, that there is a problem of people claiming benefits that needed to be addressed immediately. There wasn’t. Refer back to chart if doubtful.
              Continuing the immigration debate is the most transparent manipulation of divide of conquer politics visible today. Brits all over the country feel shortchanged as jobs are scarce, wages are low and everything is more expensive than it used to be. This isn’t the fault or the responsibility of the man or woman next to you, the problem is much, much higher up. The money that you feel is being held from you is not in the hand of the immigrant, he or she does not take your taxes nor cut your public services. The NHS is rife with problems at the moment, cuts to services have resulted in unprecedented shortages and a more urgent need than ever to import cheap labour, at the expense of huge brain drains on other countries. The big issue is not that your doctor’s English is a bit off-key.
               The fact remains that if the government spent more time taxing big businesses and mansions and took less from the National Health Service, the doctors of the NHS, home-grown or not, may have a better chance at doing their jobs to the best of their ability. Owen Jones said it best: “who has caused our country the most problems, the bankers who plunged us into economic disaster, the expenses milking politicians who have the cheek to lecture us on benefit fraud, the wealthy tax-dodgers keeping 25 billion a year from the Exchequer… or Indian nurses and Polish fruit pickers?”

I’ll admit, for me the immigration debate is personal for multiple reasons. As an emigrant who merrily waltzes around the world without facing too much hostility or visa drama, I am well aware of the fact that getting into Britain isn’t nearly as easy as it seems. Frankly, it would be downright hypocritical of me to condemn those with the intention of going to my country and making a better life for myself as I intend to continue doing the same wherever I please. Furthermore, there is so much ignorance around it, I feel frustrated constantly pointing out the obvious.  Britain had an empire. Britain spent centuries spreading the word of this wonderful country introducing its religion and education that every subject was forced to follow. It was so successful in its mission that dozens of countries that most Brits would not be able to locate on a map still learn the language, history and culture of the UK in school whilst worshipping images of Michaelangelo’s Jesus.

The English-speaking Caribbean would still be populated with Arawaks and other indigenous peoples had slavery not happened and Britain not relocated millions of people, who then went on to develop their own languages, customs and culture in their new land. Britain has been so influential in the historical development of so much of the world it makes sense that, in Britain, the rest of the world would have an influence too. You cannot spend centuries convincing millions of people that in Britain lies streets paved with gold and hope that with the advent of airplanes and cheap travel, they will not come and check it out for themselves.

Britain is a country built on the labour and riches of those abroad whether we like to talk about it or not. The luxurious lifestyle that we were so accustumed to and so outraged to have ripped from us, in an economic disaster that most of us had no control over, would never have been possible if it weren’t for its success in trade (aided by the gigantic empire) and cheap labour, whether Caribbean in in the 1960s or Polish in the ’00s. If you want to know what it looks like when immigrants come and take, take, take and give nothing back you should look at the land distribution statistics of Kenya, Zimbabwe or South Africa 50 years ago. A lot of countries are still trying to escape or recover from the crippling systems the bankrupted them and pushed them into poverty during the colonial period. Are we really so heartless as to turn away at the door the citizens of those countries who come only looking for what the UK has always claimed to offer?