Images of ‘that’ poster depicting desperate refugees rambling to reach Europe, accompanied with the headline ‘Breaking Point’, designed to whip up a frenzy of pro-Brexit, anti-migrant prejudice, will be engrained on Britain’s consciousness for a very long time. As will the decision to leave the EU, driven in part through this widespread anti-immigration sentiment and fear that freedom of movement is responsible for taking the ‘great’ out of Great Britain.
The Windrush scandal has pushed Britain’s harsh immigration policies into the limelight, forcing one ministerial resignation and an apology from the government. But people who have lived and worked hard in Britain for many years are still losing their jobs, homes, being denied NHS treatment, and even being torn away from their families. Then there’s the relentless drive to make life as difficult as possible for illegal immigrants. Post EU referendum, the number of enforced removals and detentions of all foreign nationals, including EU citizens, has risen sharply. Government figures show 5,301 EU nationals were removed during the year ending 2017, a 20% increase on the previous year and the highest figure since records began. Equally distressing is the six-fold increase in the number of EU citizens being detained since 2009.
So this is Theresa May’s hostile environment.
And it is encouraging a wave of migrant-led activism. Pro-migrant individuals, groups and organisations are working tirelessly to counter the harsh consequences our intimidating Home Office, anti-immigrant policies, pro-Brexit propaganda, and purpose-built ‘hostile environment’, are creating.
The3million – challenging Brexit-based apprehension
One such individual and organisation is Katia Widlak and The3Million, the largest grassroots organisation of EU citizens living in the UK. The3million is a not-for-profit organisation, founded after the Brexit referendum to help protect the lives of EU citizens who call Britain their home.
The organisation’s name derives from the estimated number of EU citizens who have moved from another EU country to live and work in Britain.
Katia Widlak, a UNISON organiser and chair of the board of trustees of the3million, explained:
“We aim to help EU citizens, as well as British citizens living in other EU member states, retain as many rights as possible and to give them a voice. We don’t side with a particular political party, to enable us to speak to as broad a spectrum of people as possible. The3million offers a support network for EU citizens living in Britain and engages with public sector organisations and businesses to support the rights of EU workers.”
Katia’s organisation is concerned at how Brexit-based uncertainty and apprehension is overwhelming EU citizens living in the UK, as well as UK citizens living in other member states, who are equally uncertain and concerned about their future rights in their chosen EU country.
And even before Windrush confirmed it, ministers have shown how out of touch they were on immigration. The 3Million was notably unimpressed with the former Home Secretary’s Rudd’s comparison of the complex EU registration process to setting up an account with the luxury retailer, L.K. Bennett.
Referring to the Windrush scandal, Katia asked:
“How on earth is it possible that things like this are happening in the UK?”
With the uncertainty surrounding EU citizens’ rights after Brexit in March 2019, Katia fears the recent local elections might have been the last chance for EU citizens to vote in UK local elections, so one key activity The3million has been recently involved in was raising awareness of EU citizens voting rights. “The3million campaigners have been busy on Britain’s streets handing out leaflets, posters and flyers to make people aware that all EU citizens can vote, and how to register to vote if they have not yet registered,” said Katia.
The Racial Justice Network – “what we see now is UK neo-apartheid”
The Racial Justice Network is another organisation battling to counter the hostile political narrative escalating within Britain. The Racial Justice Network is aimed at promoting racial justice across Leeds and further afield.
The Network brings together more than 30 organisations and individuals from around the region of Leeds to help stamp out racial injustice and promote equality for all. It aims to proactively counter the hostile narrative through research, training and information on key legislation, strategy and policy, to “empower its members to challenge racial injustice and inequality.”
Penny Wangari-Jones is a race and social justice activist and campaigner for the Racial Justice Network. Penny, who is based in Bradford, spoke of people’s anger at the still hostile narrative around race in Britain:
“We are shocked and horrified when we think of the laws that existed with regards to slavery, colonisation and segregation in previous centuries, yet what we see now is UK neo-apartheid in the twenty-first century…the hostile environment segregates migrant communities from the rest of society in terms of rights, entitlements and compassion for their suffering.”
Penny says it is important to channel such anger and energy constructively in order to make a difference.
“People are angry, and we need to use that energy by training people on how to run effective campaigns to challenge racism.”
The culture of racism and hostility that has been escalating in Britain since the EU referendum is impacting ethnic minorities, says Penny. She tells of how in Bradford, for example, women are taking their headscarves off when picking their children up from school, because of the racial antagonism brewing in their locality.
“Many individuals are fearful of asserting their own cultural identity on the UK’s streets,”, she comments. “The Windrush scandal, detention, deportations have woken a lot of people to what has been happening to often unheard and vulnerable individuals in isolation…apart from it toppling Amber Rudd who was a foster mum to Theresa May’s baby, we must not forget that [May] is still in power and the policy is still in action until we as humans put humans before monetary gains,” said Penny.
In her video titled ‘5 Ways to Disrupt Racism’, Penny Wangari-Jones’ speaks of the huge rise in racism after Brexit and what we can do about it. The video, which went viral, provides advice on what people should do if they witness a racist attack, including filming the incident if it is safe to do so and then reporting it to the police or hate crime reporting centres.
IWGB – Direct action works
Another organisation working tirelessly to improve the lives of migrants in the UK is the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). The IWGB is a fully independent trade union aimed at eradicating discriminatory working conditions for low paid migrant workers in London, predominantly from Latin America, who are being exploited by employers in industries like cleaning, driving and security.
Henry Chango Lopez is the President of IWGB. Henry moved to the UK from Ecuador in 2000. He became a member of the IWGB while working as a porter at the University of London and decided to join them alongside many of his colleagues who, at the time, were members of Unison.
“We left Unison and joined the IWGB to campaign for better terms and conditions for all the outsourced workers at the University of London. We left Unison because they were unhelpful and were putting barriers instead of helping us to campaign to improve things in our working place,” said Henry Chango Lopez.
The IWGB’s President believes that in many cases, unfair pay and working conditions in the UK is a racist attack on migrant workers.
“At the University of London, for instance, all the outsourced workers who are BME have worse pay and worse terms and conditions compared to direct employed staff who are mostly British white. That is also the case in many workplaces where we represent members and where we have been campaigning for better pay and better conditions of employment,” said Henry.
The IWGB organises protests, demonstrations, strikes and campaigns, devoted to challenging unfair working conditions among migrants, as well as employment law related to the gig economy in Britain.
Earlier this year, the organisation announced it was to hold the biggest ever strike of outsourced workers in the UK’s higher education history, with hundreds of outsourced workers of the University of London striking for higher pay and an end to outsourcing and to zero-hours.
According to Henry, the strikes, protests and social media campaigns the IWGB runs are having a positive impact in improving the rights of migrant workers in Britain.
“We have shown that direct action, social media help and pressure from the workers and supporters really works. In fact, we have good track record of winning campaigns and improving workers conditions and pay through using these tactics,” said Henry Chango Lopez.
So where now?
The government appears shamefully reluctant to ditch its absurd target to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands”. As for its objective to turn Britain into such a “hostile environment” that illegal immigrants have little choice but to be driven out, the new rebranding as a “compliant environment” so far has been accompanied by little real change.
Britain has become dependent on migrant-led, anti-xenophobia campaigns like those of the3Million, the Racial Justice Network and the IWGB to actively and urgently fight the racial intolerance plaguing the nation. To stop migrant workers being exploited by employers, and to ensure everyone who calls Britain home has the information, advice and support to provide them with the reassurance and security they need.
As Penny commented:
“Racial Justice Network and other migrant led activism will continue shouting from the rooftops about the injustices, but we need support from allies and communities at large to ensure these policies are abolished.”
This article was first published by openDemocracy.