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'We all bring something to the table' Young migrants in the UK

At an event in London, young migrants explored the interweaving narratives of Britain and their own lives.

Kiri Kankhwende, Owen Jones, Marc Kidson (picture Jason Wen & Migrants Rights Network)

Almost a year after becoming a British citizen, I still haven’t applied for my first passport. I’m surprised at my hesitation; after all, not all passports are equal, and the British passport, like those of other first world countries, makes travelling the world a simpler, more dignified affair. It means markedly fewer visas, and in some cases, being issued a visa on arrival in a country instead of having to go through the laborious and intrusive visa application process in advance. You are seen as a tourist rather than a potential immigrant, especially in Europe.

'Immigrant' is a loaded term at the moment — and has been for some time. It bears the weight of suspicion that you’re here to take something — jobs, welfare (apparently at the same time), and that you’re an outsider. But it’s a label that I claim consciously and with more eagerness than ever before.

Last week I participated in a meet-up organised by Open Generation, a project by Migrant Rights Network that aims to amplify the voices of the younger generation in the UK immigration debate ahead of the European Elections. Around 60 people, mostly under-35 years old, gathered at the UNISON centre in Central London to participate in a discussion exploring young people’s attitudes, concerns and opinions on immigration and free movement.

At student unions in Glasgow, Sheffield and Bournemouth participants in fringe events watched the online live stream and tweeted their views and questions for panellists including event host and author Owen Jones, Marc Kidson of the British Youth Council, Eliza Galos, a researcher on East European communities, Dan Goodwin, a member of the National Executive of UNISON, and Rachel Wenstone, Vice President of the National Union of Students.

The immigration issue is “more pressing and urgent than ever”, said Owen Jones. “We don’t really have a debate about immigration in this country, unless you call lots of toxic rhetoric crowding out the facts and reality a debate."

Immigrants, he said, are often blamed for problems such as lower wages, housing and jobs shortages, while issues such weaker unions and race-to-the-bottom globalisation are ignored.

He described the deportation of Yashika Bageerathi as an example “of just how toxic this whole so-called debate about asylum and immigration has become.”

Rachel Wenstone, of the National Union of Students, said that NUS aims to help Yashika go to university in the UK. She said that the immigration debate is dominated by a narrow range of voices, and that students and young people are more open-minded than others about immigration and diversity:

“To study is to explore, to challenge and go where that pursuit takes you. Education has no nationality,” she said.

The event featured four short commissioned films by young filmmakers. Nicholas Nazari’s film Romanians 101 offered a satirical take on the anti-Romanian rhetoric in the media. The animation Just Blame the Immigrants by Maryam Tafakory tackled myths surrounding youth unemployment and immigration through the conversation between an international student and her British friend, and their shared frustration at unemployment and visa challenges.

(picture Jason Wen & Migrants Rights Network)

During the Q&A, a member of the audience pointed out that in Britain, people migrate around the country and further afield and that most of us are migrants in one sense or another.

A young Kenyan featured in the film The Unfamiliar, by Cortex & Duck Productions, said:

“It always takes time to assimilate in a new country...you’re always under this parallel tension of ensuring that you try and make a living and you try and make a go of this life in the United Kingdom, but also at the same time ensure that you don’t lose the connection with your heritage, your country of origin, your peoples." 

He went on: "It’s so hard to get a visa. It’s so hard to get any type of residency in this country, it’s so hard for anybody to be able to settle here for any period of time, but you wouldn’t think that if you read some of the newspapers. They make it sound as though everyone is coming here and the country is just being flooded. And it’s simply not true.”

Everyone wants to belong and I’m no different. I am proud to be an immigrant and wear the label with pride because I don’t think it should be a negative word; it points to some of the most positive and formative experiences of my life. I have the home I was born with, in Malawi in East Africa; and the home I have chosen, London in the UK; and like so many others, I carry them both in my heart at the same time.

The journey to citizenship has been long. The process of settling into my life here, becoming part of my community and a network of friends, family and colleagues, has been a happy one. The administrative journey has also been long, expensive, and fraught with anxiety as the rules constantly change, without warning rendering you eligible or ineligible to stay.

I received my letter welcoming me as a citizen with joy, relief and a profound sense of unease

At the time, the Go Home van was on the streets of London as part of the government’s hostile environment campaign, supposedly aimed at making Britain an intolerable place to live as an undocumented migrant. It was a ridiculous scheme that in one stroke made sweeping assumptions about why someone might be an undocumented migrant  — criminalised them — and then offered a deceptively simple solution: drop us a text, we’ll get you on the first flight home. 

Home. It’s a fluid concept. The UK is home to many people; citizens, immigrants, documented and undocumented alike. We live alongside one another; we are colleagues, neighbours, friends, lovers. The Immigration Bill, another key part of the hostile environment campaign, would make immigration officers out of ordinary citizens. Health professionals and landlords, among others, will be required to check on people’s immigration status, a situation that the UN Refugee Agency has warned could further stigmatise foreigners, result in the denial of services to those in real need and create a climate of ethnic profiling.

Citizenship is the official stamp confirming that Britain is indeed my home but it also offers the privilege of being less visible and more secure. A British passport opens up a world of possibilities for study and work at home as well as abroad, even as I expect to be asked to prove that I belong here even more so now than before. It feels strange to be offered this security at time when so many of my friends are still buffeted by the vagaries of a flawed system. The privilege sits uneasily with me, but it also means that I can speak more freely than before about issues that some migrants in less secure positions may be unwilling or unable to address publicly.

Politicians like to try to define and pigeonhole national identity but these islands have always been incredibly diverse. Cassie Robinson, a participant in Artur Conka’s film My London, also shown at last week's event, said:  “British identity is special...because it’s so diverse culturally. There is less of one solid definition of identity, especially in London.” Other interviewees talked about wearing several identities: “We all bring something to the table. And we’re equal in what we bring.”

Listening recently to Professor Linda Colley's BBC Radio 4 series Acts of Union and Disunion , about how the United Kingdom has come together and moved apart at different times in history, and how national identity is constructed and has changed over time, helped me to gain a sense of perspective on how these islands have historically always been in flux. This was summed up for me last summer at the show in Covent Garden marking the 50th anniversary of London's Africa Centre. Praising the contribution of African culture to Britain, the artist Yinka Shonibare observed that in the process, it becomes part of Britain’s story now too. 


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