When I escaped Sarajevo under the siege at the end of 1993, there was no plan. I had no idea where I was going. I only knew what I was leaving behind. Violence, destruction and all my loved ones. I ended up in London through a strange set of circumstances. I was heartbroken, but finally safe, not only from sniper fire and shelling, but safe to start dreaming of a future.
Britain felt like the most democratic, free and fair country in the world, where reason and the law ruled and fascists never seized power. People were kind, supportive, welcoming and understanding. London quickly became home. That is still the case, even more so, after all these years. But, I am no longer sure how safe I feel outside my London bubble.
In our public conversation, migrants and refugees, like me, are shamelessly dehumanised. The debate is often referred to as ‘toxic’. After the EU referendum, this toxicity quickly turned into vitriol and hate attacks. As someone who survived genocidal war in my country, I know too well that there is no intellectual version of hate. Aside from making lives of minorities and immigrants unsafe and unpleasant, sooner or later someone gets hurt.
But this bleak picture is only half the story. Up and down the country there are people and communities resisting the rise of the right wing and standing up for justice and decency. We do this by talking about refugees forced to flee their homes, we tell of their suffering and resilience in spite of the unimaginable loss and we describe the contribution that migrant workers make to NHS, science and the arts. We tell stories of achievement and gratitude, despite the obstacles put in place by governments to reassure the anxious that borders are safe. We work hard to re-humanise immigrants.
However, we often neglect to mention that refugees and migrants are also political, and possessing the same agency to democratically determine their future. This agency is exercised despite migrants often being denied their rights, forced to endure prejudice and degrading treatment and being formally excluded from the democratic process.
We have been citizens somewhere and many are soon to be citizens here. In fact, many refugees ended up fleeing their countries because they risked their lives being citizens in pursuit of justice and democracy. For many refugees and migrants, politics, democracy, voting and civic participation is an essential part of our identity and, without exaggeration, a matter of life and death. Just before the war in Bosnia, I checked myself out of hospital in order to vote in the independence referendum. Not voting was just not an option for 24 year old me.
Refugees and migrants test Britain’s claim to be a representative democracy, a test which Britain is not passing. Generations of migrants and refugees – together with those already living here – built the democratic system we have today, through a collective, popular struggle of which we are all beneficiaries. But today, migrants and refugees are the least represented and most maligned group in society: appearing in party manifestos only as numbers, with no mention of the issues affecting their lives.
When the snap election was announced by the Prime Minister, migrant and refugee communities responded in the best way they knew – through a nationwide mobilisation. Communities seized the opportunity to make this election different by organising everybody to speak out, register to vote and ensure that their voice in heard. Even those who cannot vote were able to work together to ensure that their communities and their interests are not lost in this election. In a clear voice, migrants said that decisions about us should not be taken without us.
Within a week, groups and communities, arts and faith institutions, trade unions and universities as well as individuals around the country co-created more than 30 voter registration events. At mosques and churches, in community centres and on the high street, migrant and refugee communities came with phones, laptops and links to the official voter registration website. They also came with stories of courage, a passion for democracy and a willingness to reach out and connect with candidates, colleagues and neighbours. They came with a keen understanding of the intolerable burdens placed upon them by this country, and with plans for how they intended to change it.
What we at Migrants Organise heard in hundreds of conversations around the UK were powerful stories and legitimate concerns about the future shared by immigrants and citizens. We heard concerns about the state of British democracy, engaging in destructive wars and colonial practices in our countries whilst excluding us from representation in our new home.
Since April 18, more than 2 million people registered to vote. Many of these will be migrants looking to choose a Government that stands up for them and their communities.
We are proud to have joined this registration drive, and feel empowered to discover how much more we have in common once we start talking and listening to each other. But we cannot and should not just talk. We must be the best citizens we can be and act together to bring about fairness and justice for all those living in the UK
For the sake of your future and ours, let’s start by voting in the General Election on June 8.
For more information about the Promote the Migrant Vote initiative, please visit the website. If you are a migrant organisation and would like to learn how to get out the vote on June 8, see the Get Out the Vote Section of the website for ideas and information.