Brexit made me realise that we in the migration sector should have done things differently. We need to reinvest our local areas, empowering migrant leaders to speak up, connecting with broader demands for equality and justice – without fear of being called “strident.”
by RITA CHADHA
When I left the migration sector in March 2017, I was burnt out and disillusioned. I was particularly frustrated that the approach I had taken would always be dwarfed by the slickness of strategic communications, in which a few national agencies defined a debate based on the principle of appeasement.
For me, Brexit was the last straw. Since 2010, as a small, front-line NGO, we had been told time and time again: “Don’t be too strident. Don’t be too militant. Don’t even think of mentioning ‘open borders’, because the ‘middle section of the population’ won’t like it.” We were told to “understand why people maybe aggrieved by immigration,” and work towards reassuring these aggrieved constituents that they were being heard.
I worked then, as I do now, in Barking & Dagenham. At the party’s height, Barking & Dagenham had 12 BNP (British National Party) councillors. It witnessed regular marches by the EDL (English Defence League). It was a place where migration was blamed for everything, from the lack of housing to the weather.
But things are changing, and it is time the migration sector work up to these changes.
In a recent public meeting in Barking & Dagenham, I saw a council officer try to quash a debate that could have had racist connotations. Seeing through the thinly veiled deflection, one man stood up and said: “We are not racist, we welcome them all. Don’t be saying this is about colour or migration, it is about mopeds, mate. I don’t care what the colour of the bloke riding the damn thing is, as long as he ain’t riding it up and down my street when I am trying to sleep.”
The same meeting also had an outpouring of concern and sympathy around FGM.
I used to avoid such meetings, because even as a relatively strong cockney Asian female, I often felt extremely uncomfortable. Yet in this recent event, and others like it, I have found residents and community organisations increasingly attuned to migration. They dare to talk about it – not as a threat, but as a fact of life.
I take this as an encouragement to argue that we, as migration sector advocates, need to re-examine the post Brexit context in which we work, and adapt the way we communicate. I see two main changes needed.
1- End the obsession with strategic communications
The migration sector spends far too much time lobbying to justify its own existence, rather than dealing with the issue of an unfair immigration system. As a result, we have adopted the language of the oppressor to talk about migration. We as a sector have allowed and in some cases encouraged discussions about “deserving” vs. “underserving” migrants, accepted as central categories of “integration” and “cohesion” thinking in the UK.
Yet as Professor Bridget Anderson pointed out during MRN’s Annual Migration Summit last week, there is no reason why we cannot rethink our language to talk about migration issues. She gave the example of a project in collaboration with front-line support organisations in which the word “migrant” itself was systematically changed to “friend.”
One cost of not challenging dominant frames in the migration debate is that we are being siloed off from other movements pushing for equality and justice. We need to promote an intersectional approach that shows the structural barriers that marginalise, control, scapegoat and define different communities. We need to talk about structural inequalities, rather than appease in the name of “cohesion.”
2- Return to the real local
If we want to win hearts and minds and offer real change, I argue we need to work at the local level.
This starts with an understanding of local government. Social services remain migrants’ main point of contact with local services. However with a heavy reliance on agency staff and difficulties in recruiting and retaining social workers, local government continues to have to learn again and again. Local government has lost its skills base in dealing with migration.
Which is why projects like MRN’s Outsider Project, funded by the Open Society Foundation, are so important.
The project has taken root in four areas of the country with high, pro-Brexit votes: Barking & Dagenham, Boston, Oldham and Wolverhampton. As the project draws to a close, a peer learning session was convened for the migrant leaders from each area to hear from one another. The project is enchanting because it is so simple. Recruit a team of migrant leaders and allies, train them on speaking out, research methodology, give them a small budget that they control, and ask them to go deep into their communities and make a difference.
It is rare to see such rich social action transform into on-the-ground change. The concerns of all four areas were broadly similar: a lack of localised advice and support services for migrants, a lack of ESOL provision, and a lack of opportunities to engage with non-migrant communities. The work of all four groups is now with policy and decision makers locally, and waiting to be translated into tangible action.
And there is hope: the Wolverhampton group, for example, had secured better living conditions for an asylum seeker by lobbying G4S – a small but significant victory.
This example stands in sharp contrast to a migration sector that has reverted back to a crude “steel bands and samosas” dichotomy. Strangled by austerity, cash-poor local governments are only too happy to tinker around the edges of the issue of inequality, dressing up everything as “cohesion.”
We cannot let this happen. In the post-Brexit context, migrant communities have no choice but to be strident and more demanding, creatively re-investing their local area.
Rita Chadha was formerly CEO of RAMFEL. She is currently Chair of Barking & Dagenham CVS, Migration Hub and member of the London Strategic Migration Partnership.
This article is written as an independent commentator.