Britain sometimes feels like a very different place since the EU referendum. While the country struggles to work out what it voted for on the 23rd of June, anti-immigrant rhetoric is on the rise and there’s been a spike in the number of hate crimes.
That said, xenophobic attitudes are as likely to be found in the corridors of Westminster as they are on the streets. Government ministers have taken to describing EU citizens living in the UK as bargaining chips. Companies have been warned they will be asked to produce lists of foreign workers.
Matthew Carr has had enough. He’s one of the organisers of One Day Without Us – a day of action aimed at reminding the public and politicians of the positive impacts of immigration on British society.
On the 20th of February, 2017, migrants and their supporters are being invited to walk out of work and universities, to shut down restaurants and to make clear their contribution to British society through their absence. I caught up with Carr to find out more.
VICE: Hi Matthew. What made you decide to do something about this?
Matthew: For more than two decades there’s been this degenerative debate about immigration, in which it’s only treated by much of the media as a negative problem – as a burden. This was bad enough before the Brexit referendum. I don’t accuse those who voted for Brexit as wanting this to happen, but it has legitimised xenophobia and other racist attitudes that were once out on the fringe.
What happened at the Tory party conference was pretty much the worst and most toxic manifestation of xenophobia I think I’ve ever seen. Government ministers saying employers would be named and shamed for employing foreign workers? You had minister after minister demeaning and insulting people who have done nothing more than come and work here. So the Tory party conference made me think something needs to happen.
What do you hope will happen?
We’ve called it a national boycott. We recognise we are a group forming day-by-day, hour-by-hour. It’s not for us to call a strike. We’re inviting people to take the day off work. There are other people who will be unable or unwilling to do that because they might risk losing their jobs. We have talked about people staging demonstrations on their lunch breaks. People can have a rolling protest in which people in a particular company take part in shifts. We would also like businesses to close. We’re inviting people to pull their kids out of school. But people may choose to do something within schools. Some people may choose to throw a party in their area. The more creatively people can interpret this and bring what they want to bring to it, the better.
What’s the inspiration behind this?
I was familiar with these one-day protests in Italy and the US. The one in the States took place in 2006 and that was the largest mobilisation of undocumented immigrant workers in US history. It had more than one million people participate in various forms of boycott. That was done specifically in response to a proposed law to make it easier to deport migrant workers. You had people who risked deportation by stepping out of their jobs for that day.
The one in Italy was inspired by that protest and was started by a handful of people on Facebook. It mobilised some 350,000 people at a time when the Berlusconi government was cracking down hard on undocumented immigration.
With any form of protest it’s difficult to identify the impact these events actually had. But we’re talking about an event that is part of an ongoing attempt to the change the narrative about immigration and challenge the xenophobic politics of previous years, and particularly this year. We hope this will give people who have not had the chance to speak, and their supporters, a day in which they can express these sentiments, and we hope it will lift people out of the despair that many have been lost in for the past year.
Who do you think is responsible for misperceptions about immigration?
Three-quarters of the British media is quite shockingly hostile to immigrants and immigration. “Immigrant” has become an insult in this country. I have travelled to lots of countries and have never seen anything like the British press and the way it talks about immigrants and immigration.
How have politicians responded to this? Not well. Not well at all. It suits some of them to have this group of outsiders they can blame. Sometimes it’s been deliberate and other times it’s been cowardice. Politicians see people saying things about immigration and they don’t challenge it. They think it is a vote loser.
What do you hope this day of action will achieve?
I don’t think either myself nor anybody else involved in this project believes a single day is going to turn all this around by itself. We hope that it will remind the British public of the positive contribution that immigrants have made and are making to British society. That it will remind the public that immigrants have a past, a present and a future in British society.
We hope there will be an element of celebration in this as well. We would like it to be a demonstration of solidarity and celebration that will inspire people to resist the kind of politics that is driving us towards a very bad outcome.
Where do you think we’re heading?
They are taking us towards a situation that is reminiscent of 1930s Germany. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but what we’re seeing now is the legitimisation of this “othering” of foreigners we have seen in the past, that we thought we had got over. We made some quite genuine steps towards becoming a different kind of society; now we’re taking this massive step back.
How optimistic are you that you’ll be able to change people’s minds about immigration?
One can’t be optimistic in the current climate. But one has to remember that until a few decades ago we had been making progress. If we can slip back, hopefully it’s also possible to get out of this ditch and go forwards. But, also, one has to do something.