How a small migrants’ rights charity is using their lived experience to tackle division

The Migrants’ Rights Network is a UK charity which stands in solidarity with migrants in their fights for rights and justice. We believe that words form the foundation of everything. They dictate the structures of the world around us, how we view others and make sense of our own identities. Long before the already infamous comments by Home Secretary Suella Braverman about the so-called invasion of migrants in the UK or revelations about the conditions at Manston detention centre, we were campaigning against the damaging rhetoric used by politicians, media and even other charities through our innovative Words Matter campaign.

Migration and refugee issues are often looked at as siloed, separate issues. At MRN, we feel this approach does not get to the root of migration push and pull factors. Instead, we examine the role that identity and history play in contemporary migration. As a diverse team with intersecting identities and experiences, we campaign on migration by raising awareness of how race, religion, sexuality, gender, nationality or class intersect to create immigration discourse. When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, it highlighted a truth that was well known to us at MRN. That Europe’s immigration regimes are inherently racist. The way that Ukrainian refugees were perceived and welcomed by Europeans stood in stark contrast to how people fleeing Syria or Afghanistan are treated. In this article, we share some of the words we are tackling through our Words Matter campaign and share some of the lived experiences within our charity. 

Fizza Qureshi, CEO of the Migrants’ Rights Network, Second Generation Pakistani and Muslim | "Shared British Values"

Growing up as a second-generation migrant from Pakistan in leafy Surrey meant being exposed to racism frequently. Navigating being called 'p**** and told to "go back home" was a really confusing experience. I was born in the UK and had never known another home than the one I lived in. What hurts now is knowing that there were few allies ready to stand with me. It has made me very conscious that being an ally to migrants and refugees who have the lived experience of migrating is more important than ever. You can see racism when the word 'integration' is used to discuss new communities arriving in the UK. This is because the integration measures used by the government seem to fit into the rhetoric of ‘Britishness’ and the degree to which migrants have been assimilated into its characteristics. The main measure they use for integration is being able to speak English. While English is definitely a key tool for better participation, they fail to deal with the systemic and structural issues that migrants and refugees face such as racism, discrimination, and the UK's 'hostile environment' policies. Until these systemic causes of discrimination are addressed, please stop forcing new communities to 'integrate' into a society that does not see them as equals. When they throw the word 'integration' around they also revel in the language of 'shared British values'. While we are not completely clear on what these values are, we assume they mean the ones they teach our children of "democracy, rule of law, respect and tolerance, and individual liberty". The issue is that none of us have ever been consulted on what our 'shared values' might be, especially in a shifting environment. However, this language also insinuates that these shared values are fundamentally British and therefore, migrants and refugees do not possess or understand them. They've also used these 'shared values' as a foundations for Islamophobic policies like the Prevent programme which takes a not-so-subtle aim at British Muslim communities. Being a Muslim myself, I am vilified and characterised as threat, if I do not share these values.

Anastasia Gavalas, Digital Marketing Assistant, Cypriot Diaspora Community | "Just Like Us"

When my community was turned into refugees as a result of British colonialism and a decades-long plot by NATO powers for Turkey to invade, no one cared. I’m sceptical that British people are even aware this happened. My country is still divided to this day and so much of our population is internally displaced. So many people still possess their keys in the hope that they may one day be able to return to their home. Western plotting led to my country transforming into a land of refugees and internally displaced people. The language of ‘just like us’ is particularly poignant to me. It is hurtful because it just emphasises that despite my community’s attempts to assimilate into the UK and how we have sacrificed many essential aspects of our culture, we are still perceived in the same way that the colonisers perceived us. If my community was perceived as ‘just like’ the West, then people would care. I also get frustrated by the rhetoric of who is considered to be ‘civilised’. As someone whose community was colonised, I know that the West continue to use the idea that it was necessary to ‘civilise’ us as a means of justifying their occupation. There is a blatant double standard when Britain talks about being ‘civilised’ when their own invasions or colonisation are in no way ‘civilised’.

Katia Widlak, Community Projects Manager,  French and Polish Diaspora Community | “if you don't like it here, you can go home”

You carry words and stereotypes around with you, and they are used as a way to constantly remind you that you’re different. As a migrant from France with Polish heritage, British people often refer to me as the ideal migrant. They share their anti-migrant views with me openly because they think I am complicit with their thoughts and values. In both my professional and personal context, British people constantly refer to some kind of ideal migration policies, especially post-Brexit, specifically the emphasis on attracting "the brightest and the best". I find it really offensive as people should never be welcomed because of their "perceived values" and how this contrasts with so-called British "standards" and society. Another phrase that has been said to me countless times is “if you don't like it here, you can go home”. Whenever I am critical of British institutions like the government or health system, I am candidly told that if I want to change things, then I should go back to my “own country”. My experience as a migrant in the UK shows me that people want migrants to be voiceless and have no agency at all in changing their conditions within the community.

Visit the Migrants' Rights Network for more information on the Words Matter campaign

Follow the Migrants' Rights Network on InstagramFacebookTikTok and Twitter


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