London is a city of migration and this is not only because the person you walk past in the street, or who is standing at the bus stop, has journeyed here from somewhere else. It is much more than both this and the superficial idea that the capital has breached a particular threshold, or measure, of cultural diversity. The language of ‘diversity’ – be it in academic circles or economic city branding or political slogans – renders the experiences we are concerned with in this book into a succession of surface clichés or flat travesties. Rather, we argue, migrant experiences – if you really listen to them – tell us something defining about the global co-ordinates and historical composition of the city itself. In the biographies of the lives described in this book the traces can be found of the relationship between London and the wider world, historically, economically and politically. We have not only tried to portray London through the eyes and ears of young migrants, we contend that their story – migrant’s stories – are themselves London’s story.
Vlad, who came to Britain from Albania as a child refugee and crossed the channel smuggled underneath a lorry, watched the reporting of the ‘migration crisis’ during the summer of 2015 with dismay. Sitting in a pub in Barking he commented: “I am not very happy with the way the media treats refugees because I can promise you one thing, if all these refugees… if you sent all the foreigners ‘back home’ London would be a graveyard because there are so many refugees and foreigners which keep London moving forward. And when I hear it on the news say ‘oh refugees this and foreigners that’ I think ‘you bloody bastards’. I am sorry to say [it] but that’s how I feel because all these people here have struggled for many years.”
By contrast the terms of the public debate about immigration are shaped by the self-interested terms of the ‘host society’, where national selfishness shapes its parameters. Hard working ‘ordinary people’ are counter posed with migrants as though migrants are not hard working. This divides the ‘them’ and the ‘us’. The presumption being that our hard work means we are more deserving of for example welfare or NHS care. These notes of national selfishness can be equally true on the Left and Right of the political spectrum; it is particularly evident in the aftermath of the referendum result and the decision to leave the European Union. Across the political spectrum getting the ‘best deal for Britain,’ means limiting migrant privilege in favour of ours.
We argue for a re-scaling of the migration debate, to show that the co-ordinates of the relationship between here and there have shifted. In many respects Vlad’s life shows us the importance of understanding how he moves all the time between different geographical scales, from Barking to Has in Albania and back again. It is also true that the map of London’s migrant city is infinitely connected on a global scale.
So, whose crisis is being referred to in the headlines that Vlad mentions about the ‘migration crisis’? The circumstances where Syrian refugees are being forced out of their homes under conditions of civil war are only one dimension of this. We argue that to answer this question requires an understanding of the continued power of racism in the age of human mobility. Racism is a lens through which the world can be comprehended: it filters what is visible and amplifies what is heard. It is not a sober sense but an intoxicated one. The ‘migrant crisis’ provides a single cause for every political problem within the toxic culture of blame. Someone, it seemed, needed to be liable for all that is wrong and the migrant is so often a convenient container for all the blame, the bearers of all society’s bad news. There are not enough houses because there are too many of them, that why there are not enough jobs too. Too many migrants means there isn’t a bed for my relative in the hospital; because the nurses are not like us we don’t get the ‘right kind’ of care on the wards. Here the itinerant stranger absorbs all the blame for these real or exaggerated, yet intensely felt, woes. From this point of view the migrant is both a symptom of the crisis and the cause of all its multiple associated problems.
In the aftermath of Brexit a widely proliferating sense of uncertainty has taken hold. Brexit has made almost every mobile citizen – from university lecturers to workers in Costa coffee bars – think twice about their future in the UK and whether or not a life here is imaginable. Les met Charlynne in Westfield shopping centre to catch up and, whilst they avoided the topic initially, the conversation turned inevitably to the EU referendum. With her usual good-natured irreverence Charlynne commented: “I was wondering when you was going to mention Brexit?” Her personal life has seen many changes through the duration of the project. She travelled to London from Dominica to study but has made a home and life in London. What did she think the vote meant for her? “Well actually I am part of the EU… If you were part of the EU you weren’t eligible to vote, if you were part of the Commonwealth you could. Guess what – I don’t know where my Dominican passport is! So I couldn’t vote. I have a French passport through my Dad. It was a tough time and it is still an uncertain time for me because here I am in the UK!”
In many respects Charlynne’s biography reveals the complex interconnection between European integration and London’s colonial past and current postcolonial reality. She continued: “I came here because it was part of the EU and it was a safe place for me to come to and obviously I wasn’t an asylum seeker because there was nothing happening at home, where I was being killed or any of those things. I don’t want it to seem graver than it was. But Britain was a safe haven for me because it was better than what I had left behind at the time, and a place where I could build and make something better for myself.” Charlynne did a degree, trained as a teacher and now she’s working as teacher educating the children of Plaistow. This contribution is not recognized in the way the debate unfolded about the EU referendum and the issue of immigration.
For Charlynne this comes back to the legacy of empire. “I mean everything comes back down to the fact that Britain went out and colonized everybody and now they are trying to shut everybody out” she said. “You know it feels so unfair, that’s what it is and I have been thinking that for the last… how long and actually we didn’t asked to be colonized. We didn’t asked to be asked to come here but now that we are you are telling us that, even though you took over what was ours and you gave us something else that you wanted us to aspire to, now that we are aspiring you are saying: ‘well, no we can’t’? It’s like you are stealing a dream that you’ve tried to implant in us in the first place. I am sure lots of people might be feeling that way. It’s just really hard to voice it into words.” What Charlynne gives us is a deep insight into the paradox of what we call a world of divided connectedness in which divisions and hierarchies coexist with linkages across time and place. What she names so eloquently is the dream of modernity itself and its promise of economic, experiential and technological progress. While that dream is dangled in a variety of forms – be it educational opportunity or a possibility of lucrative work – the limits, borders and controls of an increasingly severe and exclusionary immigration system place it beyond reach.
While the geopolitical hinterlands of London remain shaped by its history as an Imperial metropolis, other contemporary economic and political links extend beyond this. In this sense the late Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s postcolonial slogan “we are here because you were there” needs to be updated. It is perhaps better to say that migrants are here because Britain’s geopolitical and economic interests remain active in the world. Jessielyn from the Philippines told us how mining by the Australian-UK company Billiton had ruined the land where she was from as well as causing her father who was a miner to contract bronchial pneumonia. She said, “you can’t work on that land anymore, you don’t know, there’s a hole”. This pre-empted her being here. The great conceit of the contemporary migration debate is the predominant atmosphere of national selfishness, historical amnesia and disavowal of any responsibility for Britain’s external economic and political involvements.
This piece is extracted from Les Back and Shamser Sinha’s new book Migrant City, available now from Routledge.