Liz Needham, originally from Dublin, has lived in the U.K. for the past 27 years. On Monday she decided to shut her accountancy firm in the English town of St. Albans. While the firm is small, a three-person business, she was eager to join in 1daywithoutus, a day of action taking across the U.K. to celebrate the contribution made by immigrants, from outside and within the European Union (EU). “I felt it was very important to make the gesture,” she says. “I run my own company, so was able to do this. But there are many others working across the country in essential services such as the NHS who simply wouldn’t be able to stop working for a day, because the country cannot run without them.”
The Brexit effect
While anti-immigrant sentiment has been a long-standing aspect of British politics, it’s been on the increase since June 23 last year, when Britain voted to leave the EU, with hate being directed across communities, and not just at EU citizens. There’s been an upsurge of verbal attacks on the Indian community, particularly outside London, says Harsev Bains of the Indian Workers’ Association. According to data compiled by the news agency Press Association, published earlier this month, three-quarters of Britain’s 44 police forces reported a record number of hate crimes in the three months after the Brexit vote, with even cosmopolitan London recording 3,356 cases. The Independent reported that police forces across the country are preparing themselves for a rise in racially or religiously motivated crime after the government triggers talks to exit the EU next month. Even Ms. Needham says she’s faced abuse since the vote, being told to go back to Ireland and (more disturbingly to her) that she wasn’t the kind of immigrant that they were eager to get rid of (she is white). “I think it’s incredibly important, with the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. and everything happening in Europe, for us to stand up and say this has got to stop.”
The contribution of immigrants to the U.K. is hard to dispute: according to a report published earlier this week by the think-tank, the New Economics Foundation, British daily GDP would take a 4% hit if migrant workers stopped working for a day, costing the economy £328 million. While 26% of those working in the health-care sector were born abroad, in other sectors such as food and hospitality, the figure is even higher, according to the NEF. International students make up 20% of the student population in the U.K., according to the National Union of Students.
However, the contribution of migrants, from outside and within the E.U., became the focus of discussions in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, with many suggesting that better control of Britain’s borders would improve public services, health care and education. That debate has continue to persist, with the government insisting that the public’s hope of controlling immigration was a key takeaway from the referendum, and it has confirmed its willingness to sacrifice single market access to the EU in order to be able to control its borders. Britain has also tightened controls for non-EU migrants, raising salary thresholds for work visas, while there has been talk of further controls of the student visa system. The Health Secretary has even called for the NHS to be self-sufficient in doctors from within the U.K. by 2025. The government has steadfastly refused to guarantee the rights of EU nationals already in the U.K., insisting that it would not be able to do without guarantees from Europe on the rights of Britons there.
The tough rhetoric on immigration has not been confined to the Conservatives. In a speech earlier this year, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the party was “not wedded” to the principle of freedom of movement within the EU, while Deputy Leader Tom Watson recently told the BBC that the party was considering a number of options on post-Brexit immigration, including some form of regional immigration controls.
“We need to start a new positive narrative about the impact of immigration on this country, to celebrate the story of migration, instead of having a situation where immigrants are blamed for everything and scapegoated,” said Rachel Taylor-Beales, one of the organisers of 1daywithoutus, as she gathered with others outside Parliament on Monday afternoon, as part of the day of action. The event attempted to go beyond focussing on the economic contribution of migration to the huge impact it has on the country’s way of life, and events that took place up and down the country attempted to reflect that.
A holistic appraisal
While some such as Ms. Needham chose to close their offices, in other places rallies took place, or human chains were formed in town or city centres. Some chose to highlight the cultural impact of migrants: the Tate Britain in London conducted a tour of works done or influenced by migrants, while several universities held events focussing on migrant literature. Some took to social media: several university departments took pictures with and without their immigrant staff to highlight the huge role they play. Many shared a graphic showing the top 102 nationalities of NHS staff (Indians represent the largest group after the British, accounting for just over 17,000, followed by Filipinos and Irish).
The 1daywithoutus event follows close on the heels of the Day Without Immigrants protest in the U.S. With anti-immigrant tensions showing little sign of waning in the West, the call for such movements highlighting the role of immigrants is likely to grow.