Sam Kriss is a UK writer who blogs at Idiot Joy Showland and has previously written about the post-Brexit Labour coup on the Verso blog. Here he unpicks ‘immigration’ as an empty signifier in which the totality of modern life's general miserableness is encapsulated and given false explanation — yet one that now threatens the end of freedom of movement, which argues the left must defend, without illusions.
“Our policy is to end free movement: people were unhappy about the drudgery and uselessness of social life, and the ruling classes encouraged them to call that miserable situation ‘immigration’; now, to fix the situation, the same ruling class is proposing to actually end immigration. The politicians have decided that Europe means immigration, but immigration only means itself. It’d be hard to imagine a more ridiculous outcome; it’s as if someone in a restaurant was unhappy with the food, and the manager tried to fix things by tearing up the menu.”
Britain is obsessed with immigration; nastily obsessed. The vote to leave the European Union was, it’s now solemnly agreed, really a vote on open borders and freedom of movement. Apocryphal tales of people voting Leave because they thought it meant that all the migrants would be made to leave; more concrete, more harrowing instances of bigotry that have nothing to do with European migration law: assaults and attacks on black Americans and British Muslims, people who weren’t covered by any of the referendum’s overt content, but who carried the physical marks that signal migration. What does it actually mean when people talk about free movement, about unrestricted mass migration, about all these foreigners coming in?
In the absolute furore that has followed Britain’s decision to leave the EU, there is one clear issue that has emerged as the central concern: immigration. Those from across Europe, who chose to build lives and lay down roots here in the UK, have now been sent a clear message of hostility from this country. Indeed, anyone who appears foreign to Britons is now a possible target for racial abuse and assault in public, whilst property owned by supposed foreigners, such as the Polish Social and Cultural Association and Kashmir Meat and Poultry, a halal butcher in Walsall, have also come under attack.
All the while, the referendum has triggered multiple stages of official discussion over the lives of immigrants. Throughout the campaign, people were used as political bargaining chips, and now, whilst also suffering from an increase in racist harassment, continue to be fodder for negotiations between both parties at home and state leaders across Europe. It is difficult not to think that this will be used as an opportunity to tighten the nets of our immigration system more widely, affecting all those who rely on a precarious right to be in the country.
Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is a journalist and writer-in-residence at Lacuna. Through interviews with Thamer, a Syrian refugee, and Mahalia, a survivor of domestic violence and migrant, Omonira-Oyekanmi demystifies two common narratives in the Brexit campaigns that play on anxieties around immigration and resources.
The official campaign to leave the European Union was based on two xenophobic myths, woven into public discussion. Subtlety was unnecessary because these ideas around immigration had been decades in the making: the media led the narrative, the public understood it and politicians whipped it out whenever things got tricky.
Myth One: Take Back Control
The first myth was that leaving the EU would shield Britain from the refugee crisis and stem the flow of people seeking sanctuary on these shores. This undertone was made explicit by Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, which pictured Middle Eastern refugees queuing at Europe’s borders. The subheading read: “We must break free of the EU and take back control.” There was little ambiguity. Taking back control was about keeping this particular group of people out. And this is what many voted for. This is regrettable. Because in reality Brexit will have no bearing on those seeking sanctuary from war and persecution.
Lara Pawson, author of In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre, examines complacency and complicity in the xenophobic and racist underpinnings of the EU referendum's Leave campaign.
A few hours before polling stations closed last Thursday, I travelled to west London to watch an extraordinary film about Syria. Silvered Water: Syria Self-Portrait (2014) is composed almost entirely of footage shot on mobile phones and uploaded, anonymously, onto YouTube. Some of it is also the remarkable work of Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a Kurdish woman surviving and filming tenaciously in the city of Homs. The film moves back and forth between Syria and France, to Paris where its Syrian director, Ossama Mohammed, lives in exile. The violence feels relentless: we see a young man being tortured, a truncheon thrust up his arse; another sitting upright in a plastic chair, his face blown off in shreds; we see the carefully wrapped bodies of dead children; the grief of weeping women; we see a kitten chewing the insides of a dog; and a pair of dead horses, starch stiff on a Homs street. It goes on and on and on.
Early in the film, however, I was confused, briefly, by some of the footage. Was I watching a scene in a Syrian city or in Paris? The narrow streets looked so familiar – the almost quaint blocks of flats complete with tiny balconies, blinds and plants in pots. But as the film rolled out, the physical destruction of Syria expanding, so the distinction between here and there and there and here became clear. On screen, at least. In my head, it was a different matter. A series of thoughts were scrambling. Here we were watching a film about the indescribable suffering of so many Syrians on the very day that millions of British voters were marking a cross to keep foreigners out. How many of us have even the vaguest clue of what it is to live with war? How many of us desire to truly understand? Mixing in with my anger and shame was another frightening thought, one that has gone round and round my head for months now: that our meanness, our arrogant notions of British exceptionalism, our racism, parochialism and narcissism are leading us ever closer to violent conflict here.
Akwugo Emejulu, Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, examines how white supremacy has operated before and after the UK’s EU referendum and argues that the visibility of racism following the Brexit vote must not obscure the conditions for its possibility. Her co-authored book, The Politics of Survival: Minority Women, Activism and Austerity in France and Britain is forthcoming with Policy Press.
Despite vociferous claims to the contrary, Brexit really is about race—but not in ways we might expect. In this seemingly ‘post-race’ era, Brexit shows us how whiteness, as a power relation, operates in ways to cast itself as both a ‘victim’ and an ‘innocent’ simultaneously.