'One day without us' is a reminder that the UK is following a dangerous path
Picture a dystopian, not-so-distant future where the UK has left the EU and the Government has locked down the borders. Those who have consistently and ferociously blamed all of their problems on immigration will be in for a shock when they are still facing the same issues — and the deep-rooted failures of Government policy that actually cause them.
If we put aside for a second the human cost — the people who are directly affected, whose homes, lives and futures in the UK are currently up in the air — the economic impact on the UK would be astounding. The NHS is staffed by 57,000 EU nationals, to name just one of the sectors that would be hit hardest. In the tax year ending in April 2014, EU migrants made a net contribution of £2.5bn to the UK economy.
Already UK businesses are starting to feel the creep of post-referendum labour and skills shortages. In the lead up to the referendum, the increase in the number of EU workers was more than 60,000 a quarter. This halved to 30,000 following June’s Brexit vote. Shops, factories and hospitals are all struggling to find workers and Article 50 hasn’t even been triggered yet.
Today is One Day Without Us, a day of action to celebrate the contribution of migrants to the UK. Migrants from the EU and beyond will not attend or will take time out from work to join marches, concerts, rallies, culture sharing events, flash mobs, picnics and even a pub crawl.
It’s not the first One Day Without Us demo but it could be the most important yet. The Brexit vote unleashed an anti-migrant sentiment that has been bubbling away under the surface for some time. Hate crime surged after June’s referendum, with three quarters of police forces recording their highest ever levels in the three months afterwards.
Much of the fear-mongering and scapegoating we’ve witnessed in the last year relies on migrants being a nameless, faceless other. It’s easier to blame a homogenous mass for your problems than real people with real lives. But when it’s your colleague walking out of the workplace or your friend inviting you to a rally, it becomes hard to ignore how intertwined Britain is with its European neighbours.
But immigration is not the source of Britain’s woes, as much as Nigel Farage and the Sun would have you think so. The NHS is in crisis because of underinvestment, not health tourism. Workers are bearing the brunt of an insecure economy, caused by government policies. Migrants aren’t undercutting wages, it’s the government’s failure to enforce the minimum wage pushing families into financial distress.
No one is denying our current immigration system is flawed. Campaigners have long pushed for international students to be excluded from the net migration target to no avail, and various crackdowns and poor treatment means these students are abandoning the UK for countries like Canada and Australia where they know they’ll have a warmer welcome.
Meanwhile, the government slashes funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes and then points its finger at migrants who are ‘refusing to integrate’.
Post-Brexit Britain risks ending up just a sad echo of the US, where many poor Americans voted in their millions for Donald Trump in the futile belief he would bring back long gone manufacturing jobs and offer respite from poverty. Now they can only watch as he lines his cabinet with Wall Street elite and stages photo opps in front of his gold and diamond encrusted front door.
We must embrace diversity and all the benefits it brings, economic and otherwise. The Love Knows No Borders campaign is a welcome beacon of positivity in dark times, putting faces and stories to people caught up in the xenophobia and uncertainty of the current political turmoil.
And although the Brexit vote set off this whole chain of catastrophic events, it also proved the same point that One Day Without Us events are making today. A breakdown of voting patterns in the referendum revealed the areas most affected by immigration were the least concerned about it.
People fear the unknown, but the truth is that migrants contribute hugely to our society. They’re our friends, families and colleagues. Let’s hope today really is only one day without them and not a frightening indicator of the dystopian, insular future we’re heading towards.
Amelia Womack is deputy leader of the Green PartySign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.