Summertime in London. Sun. Smiles. And so – what the hell, everyone else is doing it – I’m going to jump on the Olympic bandwagon.
Except, of course, that this is the same Britain that continues to tighten its immigration laws, turning away students and skilled migrants. And, perhaps that’s why, among many of those who earn a living campaigning for refugees’ protection or migrants’ rights, these sudden conversions seem a little suspect.
Sure, it’s a feel-good story, multi-ethnic Britain painted glittering gold, but what happens next week? So in fact, many of the most passionate and committed defenders of migrants and refugees have been reluctant to join in with all the migration-focused merriment, preferring to focus on the shortfalls and prophesising a swift return to immigration-bashing-business-as-usual once the Olympic holiday ends next week.
But this creates a dilemma, familiar to any advocate who discovers their cause has suddenly (and probably only temporarily) gone mainstream. It was a dilemma I faced last week when I was asked at short notice to contribute to an ITV documentary on the contribution of the Ugandan Asians in the forty years since their arrival here
which was looking for an upbeat ending. I found myself in the unfamiliar situation of sounding the cautionary note against a relentlessly positive message. But do you continue to point out the wrongs still being suffered, or do you encourage your new allies’ change of heart?
Of course, the critics have a point. There’s a self-satisfied smugness in these column inches that demonstrates impressive doublethink on migration. Most seriously, Marvellous Britain’s governments sure haven’t been keen on letting in many more Somalis recently. Jessica Ennis’ dad arrived before the UK moved to close off Commonwealth migration. There are destitute asylum seekers who sleep in the streets and we resettle a grand total of 700 refugees a year
, while Pakistan hosts over 700 refugees for every dollar per capita GDP
. Let’s not fool ourselves that we are a generous nation now, or that we welcome migrants. Especially in the last two years, the UK’s done pretty much everything it can to make it crystal clear that very few are welcome here. And while Rupert Murdoch – like many on the business right – is actually more liberal about immigration than youmight imagine
– I’m sure it won’t be long before The Sun is complaining about the migrants receiving unfairly favourable treatment, or accusing them of eating Swans
But here’s the rub. Cynics may keep the moral high ground, but they win few friends. And over the past two years, I’ve been increasingly convinced that the key to securing refugees’ protection and migrants’ freedom lies in engaging with public opinion. Persuading people that migration can be an opportunity, not just for the migrants, but for the whole community. That it’s not migration, but entrenched inequalities, we should be angry about. As long as public opinion remains convinced that migration is a problem, all the well-reasoned, carefully-researched, economically sound arguments in the world won’t win the policy debate.
So I’ll take The Sun’s editorialwith a pinch of salt, but I’m also going to tell people about it, because it’s The Sunsaying something positive about immigration. I’ll drink to that. Not because that’s the battle won, but because it isa door opening. A public space to discuss immigration, and the contribution it’s made to the UK, in positive terms. The absence of which has been hugely damaging in the past few years. Now the job is to use that space to engage the public and to explain why that multi-cultural, multi-ethnic place is under threat from narrow-minded politicians hellbent on chasing made-up and meaningless net migration targets
. And to try and ensure that space doesn’t close down once the Olympic circus moves on.
I’d have laughed a month ago if you’d told me I’d be writing about Olympic legacy. But in fact, migration should always have been at the heart of an East End games
. And the London I know, the London I love, is that multicultural, multiethnic mix that is overdue a celebration. And that ITV documentary? Remarkably thoughtful and uplifting (not that’s not just cos I’m in it, honest!).
Yes, we must challenge the smug, complacent narrative that says “game over” on the back of a few individual achievements that fit with the news cycle, and glosses over continuing prejudice and exclusion. But just occasionally, I think it is worth pausing to recognise just how far we’ve come, and to realise just what we’ll come to lose if the intolerant push to restrict migration further and further continues. One brash, black-and-white Sun editorial doesn’t change anything. But it does give us a public place to start.