The Brexit debate was littered with bland and ill-thought out statements regarding people who migrate. The whole debate was two-dimensional. There were those who criticised self-serving migrants for stealing jobs and placing pressure on services. More positive narratives praised migrants as “net contributors to the economy”, reducing them down to instruments in their economic calculations. This limited discourse has continued to shape the views expressed about migrants and has contributed to the lack of empathy shown in government policies.
Last month the government finally published details of its settled status scheme, having left citizens wondering about their future in the UK for two years. The scheme will allow European migrants currently living in the UK to apply to stay. If the applicant is able to prove they have lived in the UK for five years they will be granted settled status. If they have not yet resided that long in the UK, they will be granted pre-settled status until they have met the five-year threshold.
Campaign groups advocating on behalf of EU citizens living in the UK have met the details with scepticism. The organisation The 3million, for instance, has been critical of the government’s treatment of European citizens since the Brexit vote. It has highlighted the degrading use of migrants as bargaining chips in the negotiations as well as the lack of concrete assurances given to those seeking to stay in the UK. It has criticised the settled status scheme for the lack of legal assurances offered and the way these plans may penalise migrants who are in precarious or vulnerable positions.
The hurt and upset expressed by groups such as The 3million surely lies in their understanding of people who migrate. When those who campaign talk about migration, they are not thinking about statistics or economic contributors – they picture real people with ambition, dreams and emotions. They know that those who migrate are seeking better lives for themselves or their families, the ability to study and develop skills, life chances that may not be available in their own countries. They want policies that respect the human lives and feelings that will be affected.
I have worked closely with homeless EU migrants in the past. Not a single person came to the UK to “steal” work or claim benefits, and each had a unique and often moving story for their decision to migrate. Often, they had no work in their home countries, or the work they had was exhausting. Some left behind families and friends to come the UK. Many had sought work to support families in their home countries and were emotionally affected by the separation. For many, there were just more opportunities in the UK and the chance to sell their labour for a better price. The calculation for some was: why work more hours for less in my home country, when you get better abroad. A basic inequality between countries made some people aspire to get more.
This brings me to my point. If we could talk more about the human stories, and really understand the needs of people forced to migrate, perhaps our views and policies would be more empathetic. Rather than policies such as the settled status scheme, focusing on regulating migrants who are already settled here, we would look more outwardly and understand the emotions that drive people to migrate. Perhaps we could develop more international policies that challenge the economic inequalities between countries. Perhaps we would even start to consider that really radical point: that people should have the same chances in life no matter where they are born.
Joe Barson is a political caseworker in Manchester (firstname.lastname@example.org)