Fourteen years ago I came from Syria to study in Edinburgh, and because of the war there, Scotland is now home. As I watch the latest wave of desperate refugees try to make for the British coastline, I witness with a heavy heart how they are demonised in a now-familiar narrative by both the UK government and some parts of the media.
In a talk I gave last year, I discussed what Brexit means for Britain’s cultural and national identity and what its alienating stance means for immigrants like me. As I shared my reflections as an academic and a new British citizen on how Brexit was not only a political issue but also a social challenge requiring urgent debate, a woman in the audience protested, saying she could not understand why Brexit mattered to me.
My critique of British politics was clearly not welcome. The woman’s dismissal of my Britishness was also a dismissal of my views as illegitimate. Was it my accent? My skin tone? Or was it my inescapable association with the “dangerous migrant” discourse that has permeated British politics over the past ten years?
Did I cross a line because I dared to say Britain, my country, was wrong about Brexit, just like it was about the Iraq war and Windrush and the handling of the Syrian refugee crisis?
I explained how politics does not escape people like me: every Syrian person is political. I explained how I was unable to distance myself from the social and political responsibility I feel towards Britain and its people, now my country and my people. I talked about the belongingness I feel to Britain, which I discussed in a previous Conversation article. I said it mattered to me because as an academic, I am paid to think and be critical. She might not have said “why do you stay in this country?”, but I heard it.
During the recent Black Lives Matter protests, one debate that particularly resonated with me was the writer Afua Hirsch’s calling out of Britain’s racism on the Sky News discussion show The Pledge and LBC’s Nick Ferrari demanding: “Why do you stay in this country?”
Hirsch was born to a British father and raised in London and yet Ferrari felt entitled to say what he said. What does that mean for me, an immigrant-turned-citizen? What happened to Hirsch was appalling not just because of what was said but the casualness of it, as if it was a white man’s right to say it and be heard.
This is not new and that is the problem. This issue has become pervasively cultural: an ingrained culture of impunity where some people feel entitled to use language to inflict emotional damage and derail a person’s sense of belongingness to this country.
If the Pledge incident says anything, it is that systemic racism is an issue that touches the lives of all those “plagued” by otherness in Britain. Hirsch raises these issues in her book, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, that debates, with courage and elegance, identity and belonging in 21st-century Britain. The significance of Hirsch’s book, to me, is about her trying to establish a sense of belongingness in spite of the racism and bigotry that exist in British society, and what these things can do to a person’s sense of who they are.
I know that as someone who has ideals drawn from multiple cultures and whose identity and belonging are disrupted every time I proudly proclaim my Britishness, I always think that my Mediterranean looks might be overlooked, and then someone demands: “No, where are you really from?”
Let down by government
Questions like that become even more problematic when linked to harmful narratives such as deserving versus undeserving immigrants and the government’s hostile immigration policy. Or home secretary Priti Patel’s intention to use the British navy to stop migrant crossings. Or a photo-opp-ready Nigel Farage sitting on a cliff-top, looking out for migrants in the Channel.
In addition to being a violation of the UN Refugee Convention, Patel’s calls for navy intervention add to the rhetoric that presents migrants and refugees as a threat to Britain. But these refugees and migrants in dinghies, people looking for a better life, are not the only group affected.
Such harmful narratives affect the rest of us, once refugees and migrants and now citizens contributing to building this country, as we watch these people demonised by right-wing scaremongering and callously left in distress at sea. These narratives become a threat to our sense of humanity and belonging, and provoke feelings of not being accepted by a country we now call home.
But perhaps offering sanctuary to those fleeing persecution is too much to ask of a morally bankrupt government whose politics have been consistently disappointing in recent times. A government that was slow to engage with the BLM movement, has let down the Windrush generation, watched as Grenfell happened and dealt with COVID-19 with such incompetence, does not appear to be one that can protect those who are British, let alone those who are not.
Hirsch’s face during that exchange with Ferrari is a look I never want to see on my son’s face. In a future Britain, I imagine him, a boy born and raised in Scotland, being asked, “Where are you from?” but never “Where are you really from?”. I hear him uttering an unapologetic “I am British” without being made to question his identity or having to parse reasons for being a brown-skinned, brown-eyed British man. Or worse, being told to leave.
A future Britain would give all of us immigrants a chance, just like it has given singers Freddie Mercury and Rita Ora, architect Zaha Hadid, novelists Dina Nayeri and Judith Kerr, artists Mona Hatoum and Lucien Freud and filmmaker Hassan Akkad – individuals who have shown what a creative force refugees and migrants can be. A future Britain would be a safe home for us all and stable ground beneath our feet – not a Grenfell tower, not a refugee camp, not a patched-up dinghy sinking slowly within sight of the English coast.