The EU referendum result and ongoing Brexit negotiations have sparked debate about Britain's relationship with the world and uncertainty about migration. But Brexit is far from the first pivotal moment in Britain's migration story.
As a response, Migration Museum Project curated the exhibition 'No Turning Back: Seven Migration Moments that Changed Britain'. The seven turning points chosen range from the depths of Britain’s history to the present day, and each – whether historical or contemporary – speaks to some of the biggest themes in Britain’s migratory history. All had a profound effect on the individuals who lived through them, but what do these moments and the questions they raise mean to people today?
This series, commissioned by Migration Museum Project, answers this question.
How does it come to this?
I was born in Birmingham. I’m a woman; I identify as Pakistani; I have a British passport and I’m a Muslim. When I was younger, my parents both used to teach the Quran to others in the community. When I was six, I finished reading it in Arabic for the first time, and around that time I started wearing the hijab. When I got older, my mum asked me if it was something I still wanted to keep. I did, and I’ve not decided to take it off since. I have a paragraph now for when someone tells me that people who wear the hijab are oppressed or don’t understand why I would choose to wear it. I do, and I spent a long time questioning it, and am currently quite comfortable in it.
I question my religion and identity all the time, but I don’t want other people to do that for me. Having to defend the hijab and being a brown woman in an increasingly white space has made it really hard for me to question myself. It’s meant I’ve had to question whether I should exist rather than who I was and wanted to be.
There was a big change from 2001 onwards. I’m often scared – not just about what might happen to me, but to other people who aren’t as protected as me. I have a level of privilege: I speak English fluently. It’s my first language, and I know how to interact with people in a way that they don’t find threatening. But there are other people who don’t necessarily have that. It’s not only their identity that’s being questioned, but their existence too, and that’s terrifying. It has depoliticised a whole generation of Muslims. I know people who feel they can’t interact with politics and movements in their community anymore, and that’s horrific.
Was this the dawn of globalisation?
Suryakala and Ajit
Suryakala: I was born in Kenya and studied there and in Uganda. My father worked as an engineer on the railways and telephone lines, so we travelled a lot in East Africa. At the age of 18 I went to India and got married. We stayed there for about five years, and witnessed Independence and Partition. We returned to Kenya and lived there for 25 years before moving to London in 1976.
People are very bitter about Britain’s crimes in India. Those who lost their fathers and grandfathers are especially bitter. Others can often forget the things that happened, but those who have suffered and have seen it with their own eyes can never forget.
Ajit: Mum’s parents were both born in India, as was my father. He was active during the Independence struggle in the 1940s, and spent a short time in prison in 1942 for demonstrating against the British in Gujarat.
As a family, we are acutely aware of what happened. But I don’t think British society fully realises the effect Britain had in India. The media rarely portrays it and it isn’t taught in schools. I’m sure the politicians are aware that what happened was shameful, but I’ve never heard an apology.
I think the relationship the second and third generations have with Britain is fairly good, but for many there’s an underlying unhappiness about what took place. If you talk to some of the elders, they will always bring that up. But subsequent generations have accepted it – they’re British and have made their lives here. Over the years, for better or for worse, I think it will all be forgotten. Time is a good healer.
Are refugees welcome?
My Huguenot ancestors were weavers in Picardy in the 1500s and 1600s. There’s a record in 1694 of a young girl – Judith Hannoteaux, from a little village called Buiron Fosse – being arrested at the border with two other girls, for trying to escape. She was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. Two years later she pops up in Haarlem in the Netherlands, where she married Jean Lebeau. She next appears in London in 1702; how she got there I have no idea.
Judith and Jean lived in Monmouth Street in the East End and had a number of children, the youngest of whom – Pierre – was christened in 1712 at La Patente in Spitalfields. The church records list his father’s occupation as ‘master silk weaver’. Jean died in 1714 and Judith married another silk weaver a couple of years later, having three further children. She died on 25 August 1740 and was buried in Christ Church in Spitalfields.
They were undoubtedly refugees. The sheer number that fled is absolutely staggering. You hear a lot about the current refugee situation and, when I was growing up, refugees in East London were mostly Jewish. But now the history of the earlier Huguenot refugees is being appreciated. I would want people to know how industrious they were, how religious they were, and how deeply they have become absorbed into British society. I bet an awful lot of people with London ancestry have a Huguenot among them!
Who do we let in?
I arrived in the United Kingdom on 24 July 2016. It’s hard here. I had imagined something different. When I first got here I went straight to the police station to claim asylum. I was put in a detention centre for two weeks – a prison actually, not just a detention centre. After that, they said I could start the asylum process. They sent me to a hostel in Cardiff. Usually people are there for one month maximum before they get transferred to accommodation and receive support. I was forgotten there for four months, eating just once a day. The doors closed every night at 10pm. It was a bit like a prison. That was a bad time for me.
When I applied to some universities and jobs I was rejected. I found that difficult. You can find work washing dishes in a restaurant, but not everyone came here to wash dishes. I have studied before; I used to fix laptops and phones, and I ran my family’s shops. I brought some qualifications from Syria and a Lebanese university, but it’s not enough – I have to do more and more. I went to a college to apply for GCSE English and maths, which is what they asked for, but even they said no – they wouldn’t let me start the course.
I used to hear that in Europe it’s difficult to make friends because of culture and language differences. But it depends on the person – I now have lots of English friends, more than Syrian and Arab friends. British people have helped me a lot. They treat my problems as their problems and they want to fix them. London life is very hard, but it’s the best place at the same time.
Does mass travel make the world a smaller place?
I don’t actually remember many of the specific dates because we used to move around the world so frequently. I’m constantly finding out new things about the first nine years of my life because we just moved so much. I ended up at nine different schools, and by the time I was twelve I’d lived in fourteen different houses. We settled in the UK in 2001 and I’m now a British citizen.
After my Masters I wanted to go back to Australia for a while. I wanted to see the country I’d come from because we had never explored our own backyard. Each time we left Australia, we were always coming back, so we ended up exploring other countries but never our own. I got sick of gap-year kids realising I was Australian and saying ‘Oh my god, have you been to …’, and I could cut them off right there and say ‘No, I haven’t’.
I find anyone who hasn’t flown a bit weird because so many of my formative memories involve flying. I remember when my sister took her first steps on a layover in Auckland Airport on the way back from America. I remember it being my mum’s birthday, us flying over the date line and it not being her birthday, and then a bit later it being her birthday again. It’s just what we’ve always done.
I fly to Australia almost every year, but as the older people in my family continue to pass away I don’t know how important it’ll be in the future. There’s no option to communicate with them in any other way – you just need to be there and sit with them in the house for a few days.
Can grassroots movements make a difference?
Xenophobia for me was something that was really foreign; I didn’t really understand it. My mum was French and as a kid I went to school with French flags painted on my cheeks after France won the 1998 World Cup. I had all my stuff nicked and my stationery hidden. I guess I just thought it was mean, but I never understood the idea of not accepting people because they’re not the same as you.
Musicians, artists, social role models – they have a duty to use their power to reach people and stand for social change. Every example of people coming together to stand against racism is a positive example of what humanity can be. With the refugee ‘crisis’, I know people who weren’t deeply racist but also didn’t have any real interest in what was happening. Then they chose to go and visit Calais and have a look, and became really engaged. I think it has mobilised and connected a lot of people and made them understand the problems of racism. When you’re not affected by it and you grow up in a white middle-class market town you don’t really see its effects.
People power works. I think people are a bit defeatist when they dismiss it, saying it won’t change anything. It’s a way of getting the ball rolling. It’s just people desperate to say ‘I don’t agree with what’s going on’. Without the power of people, I don’t know what would have happened in Calais and elsewhere, without people stepping up and filling holes left by governments. It’s important that society doesn’t just sit around waiting for their governments to fix problems. Society is a collection of people, and people have the power and the responsibility to improve the way everyone is treated.
Who do we think we are?
Nat, Jonney and Rae
For us, interracial relationships and mixed-race people are absolutely normal. Rae has grown up surrounded by diversity. Her school and friends are extremely mixed, and we’re open to anyone and everyone. There’s a richness that you wouldn’t get in a homogenous area and we love that and support it.
Where in the past mixed-race children were seen as a social problem, now it’s very clear that they’re not. What it means to be British is changing. Britishness is not based exclusively on whiteness. You can be from anywhere in the world but, if you’re born here and hold a British passport, you are British and you’re entitled to all the privileges that allows. And for mixed-race young people, they have the right to identify as mixed – not as mono-racially white or black, or whatever society has told them they are.
We bring Rae up as Rae. Her realisation about her race will come and it’ll be a part of her journey, but we haven’t brought her up to pre-empt any of that. If she asks questions, and we’re sure she will, then we’ll answer those questions based on our experiences. Our heritage is her heritage; it’s who she is. It’s important to know historically who you are to be comfortable in who you are today. But knowing her origins doesn’t negate any of the life she’s living now – it just adds to it.
She’s not half–anything, except half–mummy and half–daddy. She’s Jewish and African and British. She’s all of these things, not half–black, half–white. She’s a whole person.
Who do we think we are?
The mixed-race point of view often gets lost. I think it’s because it forces people to acknowledge the complexity of race relations head on, and people aren’t very good at dealing with complexity. They want simple answers. It is easy to deal with defined racial blocks with ‘out-of-the-box’ narratives. But, when you get to people of mixed race, how do you apply them?
I look half–white, half–black, but in real life I’m slightly more white than black, with a dash of Native American. Then there are further complexities. My father, who looks black, is British and was born here. My grandfather came from the West Indies in 1954, but he didn’t emigrate: St Kitts and Nevis was a full part of imperial Britain at the time.
I’ve never identified as black; I’ve never identified as white. If you’re black or white, you get the luxury of choosing your label. I get told that I’m not allowed to call myself bi-racial, half-caste, mixed race, mixed ethnicity, because each of these terms can be interpreted negatively, usually by someone else.
If someone was to tell me that I ought to identify as black, I’d reject it. I can’t identify with the totality of the cultural narrative because much of it is defined in opposition to the white one. I can’t do that, because I’ve got half of each. That doesn’t mean I can’t understand; I can still take a view. But it’s not a narrative that works for me because every mixed-race person is a manifestation of the blurring of those lines, and in the long term we’re going to transcend those narratives.
Where do we go from here?
Harriet and Aras
I moved to Istanbul in September 2015, and Aras and I got together shortly after that. We had to leave Turkey because his passport was about to expire and the Syrian consulate in Istanbul refused to issue him with a new one. He was desperately looking at ways to go to Europe but did not want to use smugglers. That’s when we decided to get married. I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring him to the UK – because of the income requirement of £18,600 – and we didn’t have enough time for me to work up to that level, but I found a European law that allows EU citizens resident in other EU countries to reunite with a spouse.
Then the coup happened. We were lying in bed listening to F16s flying overhead; he said that as soon as the airport opened I had to go. I flew to Berlin four days later. Within 24 hours I had a residency notice, and with that Aras was able to apply for a visa. I flew back to Istanbul to travel with him, and we arrived in Berlin together in August 2016.
Aras was granted five years’ residency. Then Brexit happened. I’m British and his status relies on my EU residency and access to European law, and that may now be taken away. Now the only way for his residency in Europe to be secure is for us to get a spouse visa in the UK. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t know what we will do. He can’t go to Syria, he can’t go to Turkey. His only option would be to claim asylum in Germany, and then he would completely lose control over his situation.
Where do we go from here?
A lot of people think Brexit is about leaving something; we’re leaving the EU as an institution because it’s stopping us from trading freely with the world, but we’re not leaving Europe. Brexit is a vision of how the UK should be more open to the rest of the world. That’s where the world is going. We have to embrace it, and being part of the European club is stopping us from doing that.
Brexit was supposed to be about one very technical and frankly boring point: who makes our laws. But the media and politicians tried to make it more sexy in order to broaden its appeal, and the whole debate became dominated by immigration.
Leaving the EU is not about reducing immigration; it’s about who controls that decision. I’m a first-generation Iranian migrant – I came here with my mum, who was a political refugee and, despite the fact I voted for Brexit, I’m actually pro-migration. I want us to continue to have people coming here from both within the EU and beyond. But we need to have an honest debate about it. Some people complain that they’re losing their jobs to migrants when really they’re losing them to automation – to robots and machines. On the other side, lots of people say that immigration is perfect, when the reality is more complicated.
Right now Brexit is a hot topic, but in 100 years time people will see that everything is better and wonder why everyone was freaking out. Britain can lead the world by promoting the values of freedom, democracy and free trade.
'No Turning Back: Seven Migration Moments that Changed Britain' runs from September 2017 – February 2018 at Migration Museum at The Workshop, 26 Lambeth High Street, London SE1 7AG. Wednesday – Sunday, 11am – 5pm. Entry is free.