Demolition of "The Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, October 2016.
In late October 2016, I packed my bags for a short trip abroad, leaving a region raw with struggle over the racial and colonial violence of infrastructure. In places like Standing Rock, Flint, Muskrat Falls, Toronto, and Baltimore, conflicts raged over the targeted violence of energy, water, border, and policing systems. Movements for Black lives, for migrants’ rights, for indigenous sovereignty, and for economic and environmental justice were increasingly mapping violent infrastructure systems with their direct actions and analyses. The water protectors’ camps at Standing Rock were large and growing, animated by spirit, ceremony, and unprecedented gathering as they halted the Dakota Access Pipeline. The largest prison strike in history, 45 years after the Attica uprising, was calling out the inhumanity of American carceral infrastructure. Black organizers were denouncing infrastructure crises like the one poisoning Flint, Michigan, suggesting these would be the defining struggles for Black communities to come. More than 50 Indigenous Nations from across Turtle Island had just signed the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, with the goal of protecting Indigenous lands and waters from all proposed pipeline, tanker, and rail projects. In my hometown of Toronto, Black Lives Matter members were making claims for the protection of “Black Infrastructure.” Blockades of damns, ports, highways, and rail infrastructure had become frequent news virtually everywhere, except for in the reporting of the mainstream media.
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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.