Return to site

Schrödinger's Immigrant

And why bridges are better than walls

As long as I can remember, there has been free movement of people in Europe. It's a freedom that I probably owe a lot of my own opportunity in life. Without it, my Polish grandfather would not have made it to the UK, escaping the ashes of WWII and the horrors he no doubt experienced there.

Contrary to the popular Daily Mail perception of immigrants, coming here to mooch off 'our' system, he made something of himself. Knowing little to no English when he arrived, he got his head down and took classes in the evenings. He then studied Engineering, going on to attend Durham University (my own alta mata many years later) as a mature student and ultimately become a Civil Engineering lecturer, inventor and director of several companies. 

This isn't fluke, it's the product of someone who had the courage to leave behind what they know and follow where opportunity took them. One of my close friends arrived in the UK only a few years ago from Spain with limited English.  She  got a pub job whilst she built up her knowledge, quickly improved her language skills and within a few years she was able to pursue her passion as a qualified teacher.  The same sort of stories are true of my Polish cousins who went in search of opportunity.  These may only be anecdotes, personal to me, but the plural of anecdote is data.   Overwhelmingly studies of immigration show that people who cross the arbitrarily defined lines that define our identity, prospects and opportunities put more into our economy than they take out.

I currently find myself on the other side of this divide, as a passionate world traveller and soon to be migrant myself, moving across borders for a job in the Netherlands.  I do so in just the same way; opportunity has knocked and I see a chance to pursue something new and exciting that will make a difference in the world. I am fortunate that I have the freedom to do so, without the restrictions an equally qualified individual would face if they were born behind a different arbitrary border.  I intentionally used  migrant above as I find it a curious double standard when the media talk about Brits working abroad and choose to use the term 'expat' yet when referring to others coming to the UK the more politically loaded word 'immigrant' is used.

History has demonstrated such freedoms can change overnight. I returned not long ago from a visit to Berlin, so the crumbling remains of the East Side Gallery - pretty much all that remains of the Berlin Wall - are fresh in my mind. Overnight, on the 13th of August 1961, the German Democratic Republic of East Germany cut off the Soviet East from the Allied West, in an attempt to stem the droves defecting. It worked, for a time, but the resentment and disillusionment that resulted from it eventually led to the collapse of the wall, and ultimately the USSR. I see similar themes in the rhetoric of the EU Vote Leave camp; the 'us' and 'them' mentality. Trump and friends paint the picture of a paradoxical "Schrödinger's immigrant"; somehow simultaneously here to live off our benefits and steal our jobs.  

Donald Trump

In the States, presumptive Republican nominee Trump seems to have similar aims for the Mexican border and backs the UK to slam the doors shut also. Living in Belfast, I worry to think what a Leave Vote would do to the border between the north and south of Ireland, the political rift that might open up once again if a border were reimposed. We quite simply must find a way of allowing people from a wide range of cultures, religions, customs and practices can live together.  To me the way to do that is clearly not to build walls, but to build bridges.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that"​ - Martin Luthor King

Travel teaches tolerance, it allows us to immerse ourselves in other cultures and to experience often very different perspectives on life.  It's easy to be fearful of a world seen through the lens of the media.  I think this goes some way to explain the somewhat paradoxical evidence that areas with high levels of migrants are far less concerned about immigration than those that do not. 

I'm even guilty of this sort of thinking myself.  When visiting Russia last year, I went with excitement but also some trepidation that it would be some kind of GDR Stasi state, my every move watched and my papers checked at every corner by suspicious Officials.  It couldn't have been further from the case, but my expectations were shaped by my upbringing, experiences and the way Russia is presented in the media.  

To me, freedom of movement is a thing to be celebrated. There will always be those that try to abuse the system, and that is unavoidable.  However, the economic, social and cultural value of allowing us to travel, mix and understand each other that little bit better is huge. As Sadiq Khan recently pointed out, the politics of fear and innuendo that turn different groups against each other come straight out of the Donald Trump playbook; one the represents some our worst qualities.  Overcoming those attitudes, my friends, is how we slowly change the world for the better.