World Citizenship: Reclaim it now!
"IF YOU BELIEVE YOU ARE A CITIZEN of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere." Goodness knows what Theresa May learned in confirmation lessons from her father, but in my vicarage those words amount to a theological heresy, and to any socialist they are surely an affront to our internationalism. That we regard ourselves as citizens of the world is vital to our empathy and solidarity with those who are suffering and struggling at home and abroad, not least migrants in the UK and refugees across the Middle East and Europe.
But the Prime Minister’s remarks should not come as a surprise, for during her six years as Home Secretary Theresa May presided over a stark hardening of the immigration system under its flagship policy of wanting the UK, in the government’s own words, to be a “hostile environment for migrants”.
In her efforts to drive down net migration, May introduced a number of measures which indeed fostered hostility to migrants in the UK, and not just undocumented migrants who were the chief target of her actions. Examples include the 2013 changes to the spousal visa rules which set an £18,600 income threshold for those with settled status in the UK wanting to bring in their non-EU foreign spouses. There was also the 2014 Immigration Act which put restrictions on migrants obtaining driving licences, bank accounts, accessing healthcare, renting property and, I am bound to add, marrying in the Church of England.
Just when dogged campaigners for and with migrants thought that things could not get any worse, the 2015 Immigration Bill, which Parliament approved with relatively little media attention, introduced legislation which effectively criminalises undocumented migrants and those who seek to help them. Under the Act undocumented migrants found driving, working or renting in the UK will be committing a criminal offence. This means prison before transfer to a removal centre, and then deportation under the new ‘deport first, appeal later’ policy.
Those found employing or renting accommodation will also be liable to criminal prosecution, one of various means by which suspicion, caution and hostility towards migrants is being encouraged by this government. Remember, we also had the ‘Go Home’ vans and the increased use of stop-and-search at rail stations, including where I live in Walthamstow. It is easy to see how May moved from implementing these measures to her latest pronouncement that companies should list their foreign workers. Schools have been told they are now obliged by the government to collect data on the country of birth of their students. Where will it end? We are gaining a reputation, not least after the EU referendum vote and the disgusting racism it has unleashed, as a country hostile not only to our EU partners, but to all migrants and to anyone who threatens so-called ‘British values’ mentioned in the Extremism Act 2016.
The links with this other piece of regressive legislation should not be underestimated. Her government is seeking to redefine what it means to be a law-abiding citizen with a vision of society that views difference with suspicion. Goodbye multiculturalism and hello Brexit Britain.
At the same time the government is responding to a global humanitarian crisis by being painfully slow in welcoming migrants and refugees to the UK. Fewer than 3,000 of the 20,000 Syrians it promised to take from UN Refugee Camps; after long delays just a few of the 3,000 unaccompanied children Parliament voted to receive under the Dubs amendment; a hardened attitude to the Calais camp and its threatened demolition - all of this provokes outrage in UK citizens who want to show that we are a country that cares and is playing its part to respond to the crisis.
Last month I joined with thousands of others on the streets, with a broad coalition of individuals and organizations, demanding a different attitude to migrants and refugees, and to say No to Islamophobia, antisemitism and all forms of racism. It was a joyous occasion, full of hope that things could be different if more people in the UK raised their voices. This was the follow-up to the rally Jeremy Corbyn attended the year before, immediately following his initial election as leader of the Party.
The rallies and Corbyn’s re-election confirm that there is a strong movement for change in this country, for the reassertion of traditions of welcoming migrants and refugees and for the celebration of difference in a multicultural society. In Corbyn we have the potential Prime Minister who will stand up for migrants and not blame them, as we saw in his leadership speech to Labour Conference.
May’s vision of the UK and her track record of hostility to migrants is truly disturbing, and to my mind thoroughly anti-British. The UK desperately needs to reclaim its place in the world as a place where diversity is celebrated and where we are proud to regard