- Refugee solidarity in the everyday
Brexit means Brexit means go home. That seems to be the dominant message of the new conservative government under Theresa May, which is reinforcing this interpretation with a stream of proposed polices that range from the requirement that employers list foreign workers, to passport checks on pregnant women in maternity hospitals, and changes to the school census that require the collection of data on pupils’ country of birth and nationality. None of this should really come as a surprise: Theresa May as Home Secretary focused on creating a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular immigration, as characterised by the dog-whistling politics of campaigns such as the notorious Go Home vans. A rampant xenophobia in both pre- and post-Brexit UK has focused on immigration as the main social, cultural and economic threat to all aspects of British life. There has been an increase in post-Brexit racism, hate crimes and street hostility, particularly against Eastern European nationals but also against BME people, especially in England. People are being targeted for looking and sounding ‘foreign’ (a side effect of which is that notions of whiteness are becoming unsettled by processes of racialisation not seen in the UK for decades).
The ‘immigration question’ plays out quite differently north and south of the border. In the independence referendum of 2014 immigrants in Scotland had the right to vote, and played a role as ‘privileged stakeholders’ (unlike in the Europe referendum, or general election). And immigration simply did not feature in the independence debates: the dominant story was about the sovereignty of the pound and the economy. Moreover, in Scotland the cataclysmic concerns around immigration that were such a feature of the Euroreferendum in England failed to garner support; instead the need for immigration was recognised and emphasised, as [End Page 57] a way of shoring up the Scottish economy and boosting skills, especially in the north east and remote rural areas. This is a tale of two referendums: the independence referendum in Scotland was empowering, and immigrants were active participants, while the Brexit referendum south of the border was vilifying, and turned immigrants into passive ‘bystanders’ and objects of political debate. The UKIP-led anti-immigration turn that has been co-opted by Westminster politics was nowhere near as intense in Scotland; the issue simply failed to have the same salience with the Scottish electorate, where every region returned a remain majority.
Brexit did not occur in a political vacuum. In May, at the height of the referendum campaign, the UK government passed into law the Immigration Act 2016, arguably the UK’s most regressive and punitive legislation on immigration to date, but there was very little public protest at its draconian measures. At the same time, paradoxically, a groundswell of support for refugees was growing across the UK and Europe, in response to the humanitarian crisis along the ‘migrant trail’ from the Middle East to Calais. This mainly took the form of a DIY ‘refugees welcome’ solidarity movement, which has centred on various forms of direct action: hundreds of people loaded cars and vans with supplies for makeshift refugee camps, to help for a few days or even months; there were many fundraising activities for people on this trail; and there were lobbies and public demonstrations of support. Curiously, this movement remains for the large part disconnected from the conditions of asylum seekers and refugees already ‘here’ in the UK. This disconnect is an interesting anomaly and raises, to my mind, the issue of hierarchies of ‘refugeeness’, framed around which refugee (and for that matter asylum seeker and migrant) lives matter most. In order to effect meaningful structural change the ‘refugees welcome’ solidarity must extend to people already seeking asylum in the UK, and take into account the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers who have been racialised as undeserving ‘economic migrants’. Recent solidarity actions in Glasgow suggest a way of thinking through this.
Glasgow has a long tradition of asylum advocacy and mobilisation, particularly after 2000, when the government instituted its policy of distributing asylum seekers across the country, and the city became the largest dispersal site in the UK. Examples of powerful DIY...