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Being an immigrant in the UK in times of Brexit

Being an immigrant is not easy, even in one of the most multicultural countries in the world.


Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marín*


It is not because the customs, dreams, cultural traits, projects and history that shape their identity, are so different that it waged a daily struggle to not get lost in that welter of new codes. Neither is it because sometimes the host country stereotypes, rejects or discriminates against the stranger.

In this struggle, the immigrant seeks to adapt, integrate, acculturate; battling with the reasons that motivated their migration, with the absence of the emotional and affective legacy left in their country, and what it means to start from scratch.

Of course, there are nations where it is easier to be an immigrant, adapt, integrate and enrich the new environment with their own customs. Generally, they are those where there is a common history and language but, above all, similar customs and geography. Therefore, migration in the same region is easier, more sisterly and less traumatic. This is the case with the nations of Latin America, of Africa, of the East, of Europe.

In the case of the United Kingdom, the experience of immigrating is kinder to those who come from European countries, since immigrants have, say, different “status”.

In general, it is easier for the British to receive, live with and accept an immigrant from the European Union, especially if they come from countries such as Germany, France, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium, Finland or Sweden, for example.

But that ‘deferential’ treatment appears to fade when immigrants arrive from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland (more so since the economic crisis and now with Brexit on the horizon).  And this treatment becomes more distant, and even reticent, when they come from countries in South America and Central America, or from the Middle East or Africa.

This is because not being European increases the prejudices and stereotypes about the immigrant: the further the distance, the more or less savage, more or less happy, more or less intelligible and illegible, more or less colourful or funny, more or less intelligent, more or less skilled and suitable for certain jobs, more or less interesting at social gatherings…

Of course, with Brexit, with Theresa May and everything that is on the way, the situation is more complicated. Although you cannot blame only May. I remember clearly the campaign against immigrants advanced by David Cameron: his raids anywhere and at the most dissimilar hours, the trucks with the slogans ‘Go Home’, his statement that multiculturalism had failed, the speech in the media saying they came to steal the jobs of the British, to collapse the NHS and live on benefits. The cities were filled with fear and the detention centres were filled with immigrants held for years or deported with no regard as to whether they were killed in their countries.

That discourse began to take shape, a form of hatred, racism, xenophobia, and even going to the doctor became intimidating because if the name did not sound English they would ask for a passport or say, ‘one moment’ leaving the immigrant feeling like a criminal. In the Job Centre they began to be ever more fussy, even though behind the 10 immigrants would be 1,000 Englishmen hanging onto the system for the last 10 years. This is without mentioning the meticulous scrutiny of those who work with immigrants, the frequent stopping of anyone with an ‘immigrant face’.

With this panorama well fed, and that deeply penetrated into the psyche of many Britons who deposited all their hopes into Brexit to see the back of immigration, Theresa May received the country and the present and future of Brexit. Of course, May had already made “great contributions” to anti-immigrant policies.

Today, things cannot be worse for immigrants. It isn’t clear if it’s worse for those belonging to the EU or for all. Equally whether it’s worse for those who have been around a long time or for the new arrivals.

Many are victims of xenophobia, racism, intolerance and hate crimes, coming from a genuinely monocultural, arrogant, nationalist population, with a high imperialist and fascist spirit, that have made public their feelings and invade social networks, create anti-immigrant groups, enjoy the right-wing tabloids, hate the Muslims and the Poles and increasingly they become more intolerant and aggressive, physically or verbally.

These attitudes are suffered by immigrants on buses, the train, the streets, work, university, shops, churches, supermarkets – in any scenario where “that” British population has a voice.

To make things worse, the effects of these increasingly cold and strong anti-immigrant policies coming from the government are added, hindering their life and making the Kingdom their hell. Obviously, for those who ‘lack papers’ everything is more complicated.

It is easy, then, to understand the psychological impact on immigrants: the permanent uncertainty, the plans that must be undone, the forced return to their own countries, the fear of not finding work or being fired, studying with the almost certainty that they will not be able to stay, the multiple obstacles to live in peace.

Of course, it cannot be said that all immigrants live this, because many have been British nationalized or have indefinite residence and have never suffered discrimination or xenophobia. Nor can it be said that all Britons are anti-immigrant (the minimal difference between the Yes and NO vote to Brexit proves that, plus not everyone who voted to leave the EU is anti immigrant) and there is a strong anti-Brexit movement and pro-immigrants from that British community that know the importance and contributions of immigrants to the United Kingdom.

What one does not understand is how that Conservative or Far-Right class can be so hard on immigrants when, according to the Pew Research Center / 2016 “the United Kingdom is the tenth largest source of migrants for the rest of the world”. In fact, unifying statistics, some 4.5 million people born in Great Britain live in other countries, 1.3 million in EU countries. And they have property, good jobs, health services and no one who bothers their lives or demands that they speak the language of that country.

These anti-immigrant Britons should think about it, that they enter and live wherever they want, that they have received benefits from immigrants, that they live in other countries and are not discriminated against or treated as undesirable. And they should think that their history of invasions and colonies is what has created the conditions of poverty or violence in many countries, causing their inhabitants to emigrate.

Immigration is a necessity. And that is testimony of the United Kingdom, itself a product of it. A more humane view of immigrants and their reasons is much needed.

 *   –  (Photos: Pixabay)


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