Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
by Kye Askins
On Saturday 28th Feb. I stood in Newcastle, with tears in my eyes. I wasn’t the only one.
Upwards of 2000 people came together at the Chinatown arch, which is next to the Irish centre and opposite Newcastle United football ground – to demonstrate that ‘Newcastle Unites’. To show our unity across diverse communities. To send a message of solidarity, hope and strength around the city and beyond; a message that racism, Islamophobia and hatred have no place in our city, on our streets or in our hearts.
We rallied to challenge the divisive and xenophobic messages of Pegida, so-called ‘patriotic Europeans against the Islamification of the West’, who were demonstrating that same day in Newcastle. Pegida formed in Dresden, Germany in October 2014. It has been organising weekly demonstrations, calling for more restrictive immigration rules, particularly for Muslims. Its aim is to make German immigration legislation more restrictive, more in line with Australian immigration programmes and Canadian immigration categories. Growing weekly counter-protests all over the country have been outnumbering Pegida protesters since January 2015; while its founder Lutz Bachmann resigned that month, after xenophobic remarks and a photograph of him posing as Adolf Hitler surfaced, which led to criminal investigations.
Enough said, I think – that’s all the attention I want to give Pegida.
What I want to reflect on briefly here is how we are all positioned differently in this globalised world; the power inequities between the very rich and the rest of us, which many speakers at the Newcastle Unites rally highlighted; and how we need to continually challenge a global capitalist, neoliberal system that spreads fear, hate and anger to retain its own privilege by dividing communities. Immigrants are too often scapegoated for austerity – as happened to Jewish people and other minorities in 1930s Germany, lest we forget.
I’m an economic migrant. As a British citizen, in the past I have lived and worked overseas; I currently live in Newcastle, England and work in Glasgow, Scotland. I cross a border every week, albeit a ‘soft’ one (though that could have been different had a ‘YES’ vote been returned in September 2014 perhaps?!). But my skin is white, I speak with a ‘middle England’ accent, I have qualifications from UK universities. This makes me invisible and acceptable in a ‘normalised’ western world, while other/othered migrants – economic, forced, seeking asylum – are harassed, harangued and hated for simply being (here). At the least, they are often probed and provoked about ‘their’ belonging and position in local societies and communities, queries stemming from offensive value judgements embedded in exclusionary ‘us’ and ‘them’ social constructions.
Let us be clear: politicians, ‘leaders’, the British monarchy, wealthy bankers and others who should take responsibility for the current ‘economic crisis’ are – more often than not – of immigrant heritage or immigrants themselves. And they can move around the world with impunity. Yet dominant UK (and European) government and media rhetoric peddles the same old boring myths that ‘blame’ ‘incomers’ for the negative impacts of the failures of an internationally unjust system of trade and markets … the very system that enables, encourages and habitually compels people to migrate.
Suzanne Moore asks ‘Why are we questioning the loyalty of British Muslims? We never ask anyone else’. She points out that conflating a Muslim identity with fundamentalism is wrong, that after the Charlie Hebdo violence in Paris, the ‘lumping together of young men of Algerian descent with those of Pakistani descent has hardly helped’, and that Karim Miské has written at length about how secular much of the Muslim population of France is – but this is not heard. Instead, those who wish (need) to preserve power repeat and stress only how some (young) people draw on ‘Islam as a political identity’, unconcerned with how this is sometimes as a ‘protest against the foreign policy of the west, sometimes against their own parents, sometimes to signal their cultural and economic isolation’.
Dipu Ahad, a local Newcastle councillor and one of the organisers of the Newcastle Unites event, urged people to turn out to counter hatred and Islamophobia, but not in hate ourselves: not in aggression towards the racists, but rather to emphasise our solidarities and sidestep the ‘us’ / ‘them’ antagonistic face-offs that are central to exclusionary discourses in the first place. Dipu, in his short speech at the rally, went so far as to thank Pegida for bringing us together in unity across diversity – which received possibly the loudest cheer of the event!
And there was truly a diverse response and presence, with speakers and marchers from many different communities, backgrounds, faiths, ethnicities, ages and other social identifiers: LGBT groups, feminist groups, men, women, children, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, atheists, trade unionists, abled and dis-abled, black, white and all shades in between. Newcastle is not well-known for its diversity, and the north east of England is one of the least ethnically diverse parts of the UK. So on that Saturday, it was incredible to experience this rally, intended as a ‘celebration of communities’, in which we really did celebrate what we do have, as ‘us and us’, in an upbeat and positive atmosphere.
On Facebook, Shumel Everest Rahman summed it up well saying it was “Canny emotional … I’ve never been so proud to be a Geordie, to stand with my fellow sisters and brothers, from all different backgrounds, from all different organisations, from all different parts of the country, from all different parts of the world.” Certainly, the power of the event was visceral, you could feel it – even some police reported being moved and emotional.
The tears in my eyes were those of joy and happiness, mixed with (and I wasn’t expecting this) humility. Yes I also felt proud, but humbled that so many people came to make their voices heard, to say ‘not in our name’. Some estimates were of 3000 folk – though the actual number isn’t as important to me as how amazing we can be, as individuals and as communities. We cannot all agree on all things, but we can act together for justice, equality, for better society for all.
The organisers have since called on us to continue to build on the events of 28th Feb. Exclusions and hate cannot be defeated by one counter demonstration, and we each have a responsibility to be proactive in countering racism and Islamophobia, whatever form it takes and wherever it occurs. We should not be surprised that, in the 21st century, organisations such as Pegida are trying to migrate their xenophobic ideas and demonstrations. So we too need to remain vigilant to rally for unity, in our neighbourhoods and at a range of different scales.
On SATURDAY 21ST MARCH, there is an international day of demonstration against racism and facism, to coincide with UN ANTI-RACISM DAY. Newcastle Unites are organising a rally and event with speeches and entertainment, and hopefully thousands of us will again come together to celebrate our amazing communities. Major events are also being held in London and IN GLASGOW, and I’ll be thinking of all of those/you who meet in George Square, as I stand in Newcastle. All of us uniting to send a message of solidarity, hope and strength around our cities and beyond, a message that racism, Islamophobia and hatred have no place in our communities, on our streets or in our hearts.
 In the north east of England.
This article is part of GRAMNet’s personal reflections blog series, where contributors offer short reflections on their personal, day-to-day interactions with migration issues. If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch using the contact form below. We welcome all contributions, whether sharing positive or negative experiences.