As a Romanian immigrant and a Green Party member and activist, I am doubly proud to see that recently, the Romanian Cultural Institute hosted the Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, and that Natalie came out boldly against the UK’s attempts to scapegoat immigrants. I was particularly pleased as I cannot fail to notice how Romanians in London are increasingly alienated by the UK government’s attitude towards them in the last few years.
Recently I was in the audience at the Ratiu Foundation’s London Romanian Cultural Centre for a hard-hitting but very funny performance about how bad things have become for us. It was entitled ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You. Performative Reflections on Eastern Europeans’. A deceptively meek title, yet let me tell you, I have never seen my compatriots so enraged – and this is the privileged section of the Romanian community, middle class and up. Typically, we use humour to hide our anger (‘facem haz de necaz’ – an expression loosely translated as ‘we make fun of grief’), but my community is slowly getting fed up with this government’s policy that has excluded them and Bulgarians from the British job market for the past 7 years, since we joined the EU.
Rewind more than twenty years and I remember the sense of expectation that I had when I marched with my friends in what I still call the anti-communist ‘Romanian revolution’ of 1989. We genuinely believed that the ‘free world’ was waiting to embrace us back into its fold, and for a while, people from Western Europe did feel rather fascinated by our courage in throwing off a dictatorship and wanted to know us. But pretty soon, as Romania became yesterday’s story, those of us who ended up in the UK realised that our experiences and interests were entwined with the many other immigrants from different continents rather than with our fellow Europeans. We came to accept that living here would mean enduring ritual humiliation at the hands of the authorities and some of our new compatriots: whenever we wanted a relative to visit, we had to make complicated applications at British embassies; when those relatives wanted a job we had to lie, cheat and invent identities for them; we grieved as friendships and family relations were wrecked by the harshness of what I call ‘migrant oppression’ and an unthinking immigration system; and slowly learned that our no matter how deep our connections to ‘the locals’, they would never understand the complexities of Eastern European history and our place in Europe, while we knew everything there was to know about them and their empire.
Still, unlike other immigrants who have no full rights to look forward to in the UK, we Romanians kept hoping that the next phase of European integration would finally mean our full acceptance. A naïve assumption as it turns out. The UK anti-immigration trend is against us and in recent years, the discourse against Romanians and Bulgarians in particular has intensified, a little-known fact outside our two communities.
That is why it really grates when, in response to public championship (at last!) on my behalf by my own party leader, three fellow party members presume to speak in my name when they say that ‘many of her party’s supporters are as concerned as the rest of the public about a high level of net immigration’. Hang on, I don’t remember being consulted by the three writers on my opinion. Oh well, what’s new? I don’t usually get asked when the UK shapes its policies towards my country.
The letter then goes on to say that immigration ‘adds to the uphill task of protecting our environment and moving the economy to an ecologically sustainable one.’ [my emphasis]. I ask myself – whose environment are they talking about? And which economy? Here’s me thinking, based on Green Party policy, that when it comes to the environment, we humans rise or fall together and cannot create little insulated happy enclaves. But wait! I keep forgetting that I am only here on sufferance, and must choose sides between ‘our (read the UK’s) environment and economy’ and my own people. It is my family against whom protection is required.
I read on and discover that ‘most people know the vast majority of immigrants are here legally, intending only to be good citizens and neighbours, and most achieve it. We must distinguish between the rights of immigrants as individuals, and the issue of overall immigration.’ This is when, as an anthropologist, I finally get the point. The three letter-writers are talking about the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor, a Victorian invention if ever there was one. Immigrants as a whole are a danger to our green and pleasant land that must be protected by the environmental movement, even as some individual migrants, if well behaved, are to be allowed in (because they will cause less upheaval? Or less environmental degradation?). My personal problem is this: I am amongst the well-behaved and educated elite, and so is my (maternal) family – we are ‘welcome’ in the UK. But my father’s family are peasants and cannot speak English; even worse, my son’s father and his family are Romani (Gypsy) – the lowest of the low in Europe. All of them were given the message over the years that they are not amongst the ‘deserving’, so they prefer not to visit me.
Having come thus far, I was heartened to see that even before I had fully understood what the discussion was about, over 175 Green Party members (and counting) had signed a counter-petition that I could proudly add my name to.
So here’s my message to Chris Padley, Nicola Watson and Sandy Irvine: I am sure you are good people and I’m glad we can have this debate. But you owe me a personal apology before we can go on debating: for putting ‘bare mathematical facts’ above (my) human experience; for ignoring the complex issues around immigrants and immigration, but presuming to speak authoritatively on the matter. And I think you owe an apology to Natalie, for publicly undermining her position by intimating that many in her party opposed her point of view.