Immigration and racism? I think so:
Let’s start this one with a story.
A few years ago, I visited Athens for about a week with another journalist, Abi Ramanan. Austerity had smacked the Greek infrastructure to rubble even then. We went to Greece to ask people how that felt. They said it didn’t feel too good.
While we were there, we interviewed three young guys – they were all in their 20s – who’d recently made the move to Europe. They were new-ish arrivals. We talked for a while about the reasons they’d made the trip to Greece. They gave the answers that you’d expect from young people on the move in any part of the world: they hoped to further their studies, learn new languages and to find good jobs (you can read transcripts from those conversations here).
“Everybody wants to be the best, to have a good life,” one of the young men said. “I’m here to learn, to know something, to get knowledge.”
“I came here for education. I was studying economics. I wanted to learn Greek and English. I wanted to finish my schooling,” said another.
This part of the conversation struck quite a chord with me. I’m an Antipodean by birth. We leave for other countries and for new starts all the time. You might even say that for some of us, leaving home is a sort of lifelong rite of passage. We never reach the end of it, or grow out of it, or manage to decide whether Here or There is best. The final decision is usually made for you when the money runs out. When we’re Home, we save up our money so that we can get Away, and on the double. When we’re Away, we dream about Home and then very quickly about getting Away again. If I understand anything, it is that desire to move and to keep moving. I left New Zealand for Europe and the UK myself for the second time over a decade ago for the same sorts of reasons that the three young men in Greece talked about – to see Europe, to learn and to push on and out in a part of the world that I’d always found enticing. I have an Irish passport (my mother’s family was/is Irish) and so have the right to live and work in Europe, but if I hadn’t, I would probably have tried to find sponsorship to stay. I grew up in the Antipodes. We leave for other countries all the time.
What we don’t do, though – the white Antipodean family and friends I know, at least – is find ourselves on the receiving end of the dreadful crap that the three guys I met in Greece had flung at them from the moment that they decided to move to Europe. The three men had come from Togo and Nigeria. They’d been violently attacked and abused in Greece. This was 2012, too, if you don’t mind. So much for civilised advance.
For a start, these guys had been ripped off. They had paid shifty agents a large amount of money (€3000 one of the men said) for transport and “help” to make the trip to Greece from Togo and Nigeria. These deals were supposed to include visas for studying and for part-time work. The visas never materialised and the agents disappeared. That left the men stranded in a city that was patrolled by an aggressive police force and the Golden Dawn. Things turned very nasty very fast.
“The police attack us every day,” said Koffi, 25. He’d been subject to a violent assault only a few days earlier. The police had thrown a gas bottle at his head. A large lump on one side of his forehead marked the place where the bottle had hit. “We don’t have [the chance] to work to get money. We don’t have [the chance] to get out to learn the language. They don’t like to see the black [sic]. Why?”
“They don’t like foreigners,” Saheed Aylula, 22, told us. “If I’m on the bus, I cannot get people to sit down with me. If there is two seats there, I cannot get people to sit next to me. You can go to any restaurant or any cafe here and you cannot see blacks working there.” He also told us that a friend of his had been attacked by someone with a machete. “They [the perpetrators] were wearing black. They macheted the guy around nine or 10pm. So, that’s the reason why I don’t feel like walking around at night.”
The violence was so bad and the threat to their lives so constant that two of the men had decided to leave Greece and go home. “I’m not going to stay. I’m waiting for the end of the year to go back to my country,” said Eden, 27.
Koffi wanted to stay in Europe. He still wanted to study. He also felt that he had something to prove – something he clearly never imagined that he’d need to prove when he left for Europe. “I want to fight and to let them know that the immigrants can contribute.”
This, as I say, was 2012 – a global, online era where you opened a browser 20 or more times a day and went to a place where no borders existed, and where a bright young graduate might click on a link about Athens, or Paris, or London and think – Hey. I’d like to check those places out. Somehow, though, 2012 was also a year where a bright young graduate could sit in an English language cafe in Athens and show a couple of journalists the place on his head where he’d been smacked by police for wanting to work and learn.
Anyway. You see where I am going here. I’m a relatively recent arrival in Europe, but no copper ever threw a gas bottle at my face just because I existed. I never expected one to try. I’m simply not from a group that politics wants to target. It is obvious that everybody in authority thinks I’m perfectly entitled to go about my day, if they think about me at all. It is clear that they don’t think about me at all. I don’t believe that I’ve ever been harassed by the police (certainly not by the UKBA) as I’ve walked around my neighbourhood – not in an Identify Yourself way. You could, if you wanted, argue that the authorities have reason to stop me if they are looking for reasons to stop people from Elsewhere: I have a “foreign” accent and people with my sort of accent (Australians and New Zealanders) don’t have an automatic right to live and work in Europe. It never happens, though. I have never been challenged, or harassed, or pursued and asked to prove that I have the right to live in the UK and Europe – even at political protests, when I’ve brought myself and my accent to the attention of the police by arguing with them:
We live in a time of extraordinary political hostility towards people who want to migrate to Europe, but I really wouldn’t know it.
I suppose some will say that is because I have the right papers. I’m saying that I’m barely asked to show those papers. Nobody asks me much about myself at all. I show my passport at Customs, of course, and to some employers (it’s worth noting that not all the people I’ve worked for over the years have asked to see my passport). Outside of that, I’m good. No Go Home van has ever turned up at my various places of work and discharged itself of officers who’ve demanded to see my papers. I just wander about as and when. Perhaps that’ll change as we move towards the In-Out referendum, or if the answer is Out and Get Out Now, or as hostility towards anyone from anywhere else increases, or even if this blog is read, but at the time of writing, the political vibe was fine. Antipodeans still go down a treat in a lot of circles. There even seems to be a growing political and media love affair with Australia – one that I can’t always get my head around in the sense that the choice seems… random. Perhaps movers and shakers hope that if they are nice enough about Australia, they can move there when they’ve wrecked this part of the world. Only a couple of years ago, Boris Johnson wrote that Australians should have the same rights to work in the UK as EU citizens. Only a few weeks ago, Nigel Farage indicated a preference that way as well. In the meantime, on I go and wherever. Nobody cares. Nobody in Athens looked at me twice. Nobody in Paris gave me a glance. Nobody in Spain cared that I was there. Nobody in Italy stared and frowned as I went by. I suspect that a lot of this is about the way that you sound and look.
I said I’d start this post with a story. That’s the story. It’s just an anecdote about some young guys I met in Greece, but I think about it from time to time. I do think about it when I see people trying desperately to find a way across the Mediterranean to Europe. I certainly think about it when the press and MPs around the world talk and write ad infinitum about What It Means To Be English, or Scottish, or Australian, or a New Zealander, or whoever. I tend to think that all that Being From A Country means is that you were born there, which in itself is no great achievement, but I suppose I’m out of step there. Politicians have been rattling on about People Like Us and People We Want and People We Don’t Want since I can remember and I can remember back as far as the 1970s. Hating newcomers is by no means limited to this part of the world. Acquaint yourself with Tony Abbott’s back catalogue on detention if you feel like taking a look at a southern hemisphere version. Google the names Winston Peters and Pauline Hanson, and the word Immigration, for more on the debates on the subject that part of the world has fielded over the years. The southern hemisphere doesn’t limit itself to targeting newcomers, either. Governments there have long run a spectacular line in rampant aggression and antagonism towards indigenous people, too. Violent, opportunistic politicians push as many groups into frame as they can. On and on it goes.
And on it goes again. As I say, I’ve been aware of political rot on immigration for most of my life – a period of time that sometimes feels about a thousand years long. One of my earliest political memories is of people from Vietnam drowning as they tried to make their way from Vietnam on rickety boats (and of older members of my family delivering themselves of humanitarian gems such as They Needn’t Think That They Can Come To Live Here). These days, I read about people drowning as they try to get across the Mediterranean. Things haven’t advanced at all.
The targets change a bit, I suppose. We’re given new groups to hate. We’re even given the chance to hate groups that we may once have been part of. It’s interesting how things come around. My own family members originally left Europe for the Antipodes to engage in an activity that is euphemistically described as “building a new life.” I think that activity’s actual name is “starting again where nobody knows you/going places where you can pretend you’re someone else.” My mother’s family, as I say, was Irish. My father’s grandfather, as I understand it, was an Eastern European Jew who left Europe at the turn of the 19th century for reasons that probably don’t much explaining. When great-grandad got to New Zealand, he refashioned himself as a good Christian churchgoer called Maurice Belgrave. (He started out as Moshe Bigoraj, but decided to leave that at the door. My father’s cousin wrote a book about Maurice’s quiet transformation to gentile). Great-grandad was from Eastern Europe – but Farage and Cameron and May and the gang haven’t called descendants such as myself out on that yet. Funny how a name change and a few decades in the Antipodes wipes the slate – and your face, I guess – clear.
In the last few years, I’ve recorded a lot of interviews with people who’ve had to struggle very hard for housing and income. They often talk about immigration. I’ll start to roll some of those interviews out soon.