The vote to leave the European Union has thrown politics into a massive period of uncertainty. It is clear that deep public concern about immigration has been one of the most important factors encouraging 52% of voters to take the drastic action of the probable severing of the connection with the largest economic market in the world. The perceived need to ‘regain control of our borders’ has been a potent message which summed up the feeling that many people have about a country that has changed so much in recent decades. Immigration, as many have said, has functioned as a proxy for the misgivings about living in a world where markets have taken the place of democracy in determining the quality of public life.
Today is UN World Refugee Day and in Britain it marks the start of our annual Refugee Week. As the UNHCR reminds us, it kicks off this year with a record high level of displacement of vulnerable and persecuted people. One in every 122 human across the face of the planet is now believed to be a refugee shockingly half of them being children.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi’s judgment of the tone of the referendum debate this morning is worth quoting at length. She said: “This kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink xenophobic racist campaign may be politically savvy or politically useful in the short term, but it causes long-term damage to communities. “The vision that me and other Brexiters who have been involved right from the outset, who had a positive outward-looking vision of what a Brexit vote might mean, unfortunately those voices have now been stifled and what we see is the divisive campaign which has resulted in people like me and others who are deeply Euro sceptic and want to see a reformed relationship feel that they now have to leave.”
The EU referendum campaign hit yet another low with claims by one politician that seven more prisons will be needed by 2030 to house all the new criminals that will arrive if the UK votes to stay in Europe. While another long-term Brexiter found himself facing criticism for suggesting the risks of sex attacks on women would rise if voters decide to stay.
Right throughout the current debate on around the in/out referendum there is one question that is being asked incessantly by the millions who are trying to decide how to cast their vote, and it is perhaps the one that the supporters of a positive case from immigration have found hardest to answer: just how did we manage to become a country of large-scale inward migration anyway? The answer most frequently touted is that is has come about as the result of incompetence and poor judgement on the part of national politicians. According to this version of events at some point in the 1990s or thereabouts, someone in some ministry or another decided that that immigration was the simplest and most direct way to continue to grow the economy and went for it hell for leather.
You’d think a group of workers that came to this country bringing along extra rights we can all enjoy would be welcomed with open arms wouldn’t you? Thanks to the free movement of labour rules in the EU we can all share in the right to a minimum paid annual leave entitlement; more rights for agency workers and temps; maternity leave rights and parental leave; equal pay and anti-discrimination rights Front-and-centre of debate The fact of EU workers coming to the UK in increasingly larger numbers is front-and-centre of political debate right now and the outcome could have fundamental implications for the free movement we all enjoy.
The Open Generation platform seeks to celebrate this diversity, and to prove that the best future for a cohesive and inclusive society is to become a cosmopolitan one; a society open to and appreciative of the changing face of British identity.
In the end it turned out to be something of a comfortable victory for the Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan, in the race to be Mayor of London. Over one million people voting for a candidate, who is the son of a Pakistani immigrant to the UK who worked as a bus driver. During the course of the election campaign Mr Khan was subjected to a barrage of criticism from his Conservative opponent with regard to his work as a human rights lawyer who has defended individuals accused of religious extremism in the past. His own convictions as a Muslim where equated with his professional work with the intention of creating the impression that his role as Mayor would present the capital city with security threats.
The government’s February deal with the EU introduced a ‘four-year ban’ on new migrants from the EU claiming in-work benefits. This is meant to counter the perceived problem of EU nationals relying on the benefits system and seeing it as an attraction to moving to Britain. But is this what’s really happening?
We never expected to win the battle against the Immigration Bill. In fact, we expected to lose it sooner. In November last year, MRN brought together activists, campaigners and NGOs to discuss joint strategies for defending the rights of migrants in preparation for the impact of a new Immigration Act. Energy and determination Though many of the participants then shared our pessimism, the energy and determination to fight the government’s plans to ‘crack down’ on migrants by further reinforcing a ‘hostile environment’, was palpable.
There are two things to say about concerns registered on behalf of migrants. The first is, yes, there are very good grounds for believing that many of them are exposed to a high risk of abusive, exploitative work conditions. The second is, don’t get carried away: migrants are working hard to turn their disadvantages around, and there are things to learn from those who are registering a degree of success in doing this. Migrant workers are not necessarily vulnerable workers The facts are a good place to start this discussion. And here the empirical evidence for the disproportionate presence of migrants in work situations which are clearly exploitative is not as clear-cut as many suppose.
A lot has been said, for and against, free movement within the EU. Most people think it means that any EU national can travel to another EU country and live there, work there or look for work. That’s true for the first three months. But after that it becomes murkier. One has to ‘access one’s freedom of movement rights’ which means being in employment, being self-employed, being a student with finance for the duration of the course, or having funds to sustain oneself and family. Freedom of movement is one of the founding principles of the EU, designed to support the economies of EU countries by providing a mobile work force. However, did you know that the UK government is forcibly deporting hundreds of EU nationals, many of them illegally?
It is getting on to ten years since MRN was launched as a project that aimed to improve the capacity of organisations concerned with the rights of migrants of all kinds to network with one another. Back in 2006 it had become clear that the UK, along with other developed market economies across the world, was in the middle of a new ‘Age of Migration’. Driven in by the globalisation of labour markets the trend for countries like the UK in the years since has been to acquire stocks of migration which are typically in the range of 10 to 15% of their total populations.
The announcement of the Immigration Bill 2015-2016 in September last year was heartbreaking and a source of great anxiety for many asylum seekers and migrants that live in the UK. Glimmers of hope As the Bill has been making its way through parliament, there have been some glimmers of hope. In the House of Commons, while most of the crucial amendments tabled by the opposition were unsuccessful, the Bill was exposed as unfair, ill-conceived and promoting discrimination. The debate also prepared the ground for some of the challenges made to the Bill in the House of Lords. These have resulted in a series of amendments that have been hailed by campaigners as a victory for justice and human rights. They include new clauses that would, if they became law: