Diversity Makes Glasgow: Contextualising migration in the wake of Brexit
The 1 Day Without Us campaign reacts to the latest wave of rhetoric fuelled by Brexit, and there’s an unavoidable sense of déjà vu.
It was an unusually mild and blustery February afternoon in the heart of Glasgow. Nestled in a pocket of the city’s George Square, where the statue of William Gladstone presides, a small, solitary tree rocked gently in the wind. In place of leaves stripped away by winter, small, white tags etched with messages of hope and solidarity clung and flailed mercilessly on each branch. A collective of demonstrators assembled in a semi-circle around the modest tree of goodwill, armed with placards and banners emblazoned with pro-immigration slogans. They listened intently to an internationally eclectic range of speakers who talked passionately about life in their adoptive city.
This demonstration was part of the UK-wide 1 Day Without Us movement, founded last October, in response to what the campaign describes as a “rising tide of post-Brexit racism and xenophobia and the divisive and stridently anti-migrant rhetoric emanating from too many politicians that has accompanied it”. According to a report by the Home Office, there had been a sharp increase of racially or religiously aggravated crimes throughout the UK from the immediate aftermath of Brexit. In the run-up to the referendum on the country’s membership in the European Union, “immigration” had been a prominent and emotive buzzword, often uttered from the mouths of politicians on the far-right of the political spectrum.
Simon Telford of the Centre for European Reform has posited that Britain’s departure from the European Union is the result of a “disillusionment of EU membership that has become synonymous in many voters’ minds with uncontrolled immigration”. There is a populist perception which entails that the decrease in UK working wages correlates with EU migrants’ freedoms to live and work in member states, often for a lower salary than the national average. This sentiment, especially prominent since the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, has been repudiated by the London School of Economics, which has attributed lowering wages to the country’s recession.
1 Day Without Us had organised nationwide demonstrations for 20 February 2017 as a challenge to negative discourse, highlighting the importance of migration and cultural diversity to the UK. The event sought to invoke a collective sense of solidarity in the hope of allaying the fears of our foreign-born residents, despite prejudiced rhetoric and a lack of clarity on their occupational and residential future. The toxicity of racism has seeped into a societal wound inflicted by invidious legislation, emboldening those who feel that the EU referendum result has granted carte blanche to act with overt prejudice.
The attendance at Glasgow’s gathering was relatively modest, given that this politically engaged city’s demonstrations tend to draw sizeable crowds. George Square itself was busy, although most of its population comprised of workers ambling through the area to fetch lunch from the local culinary titans. Caught up in the fervour of my immediate surroundings, I began to ponder over the backgrounds and identities of those who traversed through the square at that moment. From tourists taking pictures by the Cenotaph, to the campus-bound international students who acknowledge this place as home. We all shared this time and space by chance and circumstance.
I reflected on whether I’d be standing in George Square at that precise moment, had my German ancestors not travelled to England, or if my Irish ancestors lacked a necessity to travel to Scotland without the Great Famine.
Immigration has played a significant part in shaping the cultural and working landscape of Glasgow over the last three centuries. The population grew exponentially because of the industrial revolution, rising from 32,000 to over 147,000 between 1750 and 1821. The city has seen a significant population intake through Irish immigration, most notably in the mid-nineteenth century, as a direct result of the famine. By the end of that century, the population took on a greater element of eclecticism, with the arrival of Russian Jews fleeing poverty and pogroms, predominantly working in the tailoring and tobacco industries, and Lithuanians who worked in agriculture that were forced from their country because of destitution. Initially, Scotland’s newer arrivals were not emphatically well-received, particularly by the native working class, due to the settlers’ proletarian occupational status and willingness to work for lower pay, which has stark contemporary parallels.
Ostensibly, it appears that Scotland is more open to immigration than the rest of the UK, although that notion has been subject to scrutiny. The Scottish National Party have bucked the trend from the general political discourse of migrant ‘control’, by championing a more relaxed policy toward immigration. Prior to the 2014 referendum for Scottish independence, the White Paper sought to increase numbers, aiding the country’s growth, as Scotland’s population has gradually been on the decline since the nineteenth century, due to a combination of economic and social factors. The country’s international student population plays a key role in alleviating this, as the Migrants Rights’ Network reports that they “make up a larger body of migrants in Scotland, with universities keen to attract the funding that international students bring”.
A report by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory found that between 2001 and 2011, Scotland’s foreign-born population rose from 191,571 to 369,284, a 93% increase.
Data from the Working Registration Scheme elaborates that the working population of migrants in Scotland are dispersed across the following sectors: Hospitality and Catering 25%; Agriculture 19%; Administration, Business and Management Services 19%; Food, Fish and Meat Processing 12%; Manufacturing 7%; Construction and Land Services 7%; and Health and Medical Services at 4%. Despite the Health and Medical Services sector being at the lower end of distribution, immigration provides the National Health Service with a significant amount of its workforce. Throughout the United Kingdom, 10% of registered doctors and 4% of registered nurses are presently from fellow EU member states. There is an apparent ‘foreign backbone’ to the NHS, taking into consideration that from the collective of 267,150 doctors in both the private sector and NHS, nearly 100,000 (37%) were trained abroad.
The importance of this diverse cultural and working backbone was highlighted at the demonstration, and most of the speakers who addressed the audience within the confines of George Square were from the EU. There was no sense of bombastic discourse, as ordinary people were invited to share their perspective with a justified sense of post-Brexit concern and indignation. Some of the participants have stayed in the country for longer than I have been alive. Demonstrations of this kind are crucial in light of recent events, like the forcible deportation of Irene Clennell, and Jet Cooper’s right to live in the UK thrown into doubt, due to insurance and financial red tape incurred by the EU split.
As I hastily prepared my camera during the event’s opening, a Dutch speaker, who has lived and worked in the city for 27 years, imparted a comparable situation to Clennell and Cooper’s. She spoke of the media’s use of agenda-driven language and its ability to skew perception of foreign-born residents.
“It’s interesting to find myself described in the media as a “migrant”, as I really don’t associate with that word”
I could understand why, as it was hard not to be engrossed by the startlingly broad Glaswegian accent that addressed the crowd. The charity worker continued by listing her social identities: “I’m a wife; I’m a sister-in-law; I’m an auntie; I’m a neighbour; I’m a friend; I’m a colleague; I’m a choir member… I even consider myself an adopted Glaswegian!”
It was an interesting point. We do, after all, possess a variety of social identities. To tie an individual’s identity almost exclusively to where they were born serves only to ‘box in’ and perpetuate a one-dimensional perspective of diverse people.
Rachel Hamada, of the Scottish Refugee Council, expressed sorrow at the necessity for events like 1 Day Without Us and articulated a desire for social cohesion:
“I am actually quite sad to have to be here today, to say what should be obvious, which is that our home is your home. How you came to Scotland, and whatever you are labelled – migrant; immigrant; refugee; asylum seeker – you are welcome here. It is essential that we don’t let ourselves be divided. What we must keep doing is sustain a genuine connection with one other, which not only enriches all our lives, it makes us stronger and safer.
We at the Scottish Refugee Council are challenging discrimination in the media. Right-wing governments are picking on easy targets and taking from UKIP policies. Report, complain, and lobby. In losing you, we would lose ourselves too”.
Dr Alvaro Francisco Huertas-Rosero, coordinator of the Unity World Café and Food Project, had moved to Glasgow as a student from Colombia 10 years ago. He spoke of the government bureaucracy in applying for residency in another country and the “mountains of paperwork (it entails), especially for a South American”.
He added: “Governments aid to the demonisation of migration. You feel on the verge of being kicked out of the country. If you seek to make a new life, you’re not far from being thrown away by the authorities, and that shouldn’t be so”.
Panos Theodoropoulos, a Greek student who has lived in Glasgow for six months, initially arrived in the UK to study at Bradford. As he spoke, Theodoropoulos made it clear that he was conscious that the demonstration may appear to be EU-centric, but stressed otherwise, asserting that “we are here not just to support EU workers, there are non-EU workers that need our support, too”.
After his address, Theodoropoulos and I spoke at greater length. He’d been having difficulty in finding work, even with a degree, similar to many of today’s graduates. He remarked that he’d seen notable social divisions from the protests he had attended in the UK, which left me with food for thought. “The type of people you see at the protests are usually students, or from the West End (of the city).
Theodoropoulos commented that he found Scotland generally more welcoming than England, yet acknowledged that racism is still prevalent, particularly from pockets of the working-class.
Pragmatically, he regretted the lack of discourse between social classes and felt that justifiable concerns of the working-class were often ignored. “In Greece, protests are often larger and less divisive, with social differences being less obvious”.
Theodoropoulos had a point. From the protests that I’ve attended, they seemingly preach to the converted and often to an audience that he had described. The dissonance and lack of engagement between classes and a prejudiced dismissal of socio-political concern is counterproductive to an idealistic promotion of unity. This division also prevails in relation to the protests’ point of interest, even if they are singing from the same songbook. Later in the day, I attended an anti-Trump rally. Strikingly, the rhetoric was far more pointed and visceral. Trump’s presidency and the resulting hard-line stance on immigration draws parallels with Brexit, but the anger toward that administration left me with a sense of despondency, in contrast to the uplifting sincerity of the pro-immigration rally.
Later that evening, the poignancy of goodbye hug with my Portuguese friend, who had accompanied me throughout the day, was a stark reminder why events like 1 Day Without Us are so important.