These Are Real People, Living Real Lives: Brexit and European Migration

One of the hardest things to witness as the fallout from Thursday’s Brexit vote spews on  is the backlash of racism and violence targeted at ‘foreigners’, immigrants, and in particular European workers in this country. I have researched European migration to the UK for the last 17 years, and I cannot stay silent as this unfolds. POSK, the Polish Cultural Centre in London has been daubed with racist graffiti; racist anti-Polish cards have been sent to children in a primary school; and stories are circulating of how some Polish children in schools have become fearful of being deported.

We are perhaps now relatively familiar with the imperial history of the UK. We can now talk about Britain’s role in the slave trade with some openness; students can protest about statues of imperial figures on campus and ask why their curriculum is so white; some colonial atrocities, although far from all, have been acknowledged.  We certainly boast of our culinary openness in having curry as a national dish, and invoke the imperial card when looking for evidence of historical greatness. The conversation is in its early stages, but it is there, in fragments.  But we also need a conversation about Britain and Europe. Britain is a European country. The UK’s history is just as entwined with mainland Europe as with empire – through trade, religious ties, royal marriages, wars. During the Second World War European governments in exile were based in London. And the population of the UK has been made up from migrations from so many people from European parts, for so long, that we forget the significance of this. We don’t seem to remember fully  the Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans, the Spanish Jews, the French Huguenots, the German merchants, the Italian organ grinders, the Irish mill workers, the Scandinavian sailors, those fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, WW1 refugees from Belgium, from Franco’s Spain, from Hitler’s Germany, post-war refugees from Poland and the Baltic countries, commonwealth migration from Malta and Cyprus, new economic migrations from Portugal and Italy – all before people migrated after 2004 from Poland and other EU accession countries, before the renewed migrations of young people from France, Spain, Greece and Italy. Perhaps we don’t see, or recognise, the Italian stucco, the Dutch gables, the Danish place names, embedded in the landscapes around us. Perhaps we don’t realise the European roots of our food beyond pizza, pasta and ice cream – fish and chips, as my former colleague revealed, kebabs, even scouse, the Liverpool local dish. All this matters, because just as there has been a collective amnesia about the realities of empire, there is a collective amnesia about the extent of the European fabric of this country, and the contribution different Europeans have been  making here for centuries.

One thing I have learnt over the last 17 years, having interviewed over 100 migrants, is that migrating is not the soft option. It isn’t easy to leave behind friends and family, a familiar language and culture, and then have to rebuild some semblance of home in what can be an inhospitable environment. The Italians I interviewed for my PhD were escaping grinding poverty in Southern Italy to survive, or were joining nursing programmes, building up the NHS in the postwar years. Many of the Greek Cypriots I talked to left as refugees after 1974, setting up small fish and chip and souvlaki shop businesses, working night and day and very often exposed to the worst ravages of a drunken customer base. Most of the Poles I interviewed had ended up here after being deported to Siberia by the Soviet forces in 1940, some of whom had been orphaned by war, some of whom fought in the Battle of Britain and the Battle of Monte Casino as Allied forces, and all of whom still bore the physical and psychological scars of war and exile decades later. And then I interviewed people who had left communist Poland, joining family here, Solidarity activists fleeing Martial Law, doctors and scientists coming to share their expertise. And then people who left Poland in the 1990s, working here as doctors and academics, alongside the many East Europeans working in the agricultural sector then. What these interviews also showed me was how closely entwined European and British pasts, and presents, are.

And then when 2004 happened, I carried on interviewing Polish people here. I found out why they had left Poland;  the prolonged trauma of the transition years, the impossibility of the labour situation in Poland for many, the difficulty in leaving people behind, but also for some the excitement of embracing  a new life, the desire to learn English more fluently, to soak up British culture and learn new skills. Poland, like Ireland, Italy, Greece, Germany, has a culture of mobility. If there is no work you move to find it. If there is a life to live, you live it. There are costs and this move can be painful – even in the hyper mobile 21st century – but it is normal, for those who can, to do so. This is why this post-Brexit fallout is so devastating to watch. You can be angry at the system, but these are real people, living real lives, doing something, like those fleeing war and terror elsewhere, to find security and to live a different life.

There are clearly deep rooted tensions about migration across this country, but in other research I have done about population change in an inner city area what I also found was that, as Jo Cox so movingly proclaimed, there is far more which unites people than divides, if we only take the time to ask, to listen and be open to this. I found that the migrants and non-migrants I interviewed, living in the same place, wanted the same things. They all wanted security and stability for their family. They all wanted to build a home and feel a sense of belonging, to invest emotionally in the area.  They were all struggling with a rampant buy-to let market which was making housing precarious and eroding the built environment.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Brexit vote, we need to remember these two things, whether in or out – we need to remember the European heritage of this country and nurture our ties with our closest neighbours, and we need to stop and think about the real lives we damage when we create a climate which allows such scapegoating and hatred.