Are you there, European voters? It’s me, an immigrant

d2f3fbb254a014713f9220e39f5f7710Have you ever been talked about in a room while you were stood there in front of the people who were doing it? I can’t say I’ve had much experience of it, apart from the early days when I was still learning Greek and people didn’t know i could understand what they were saying. Not so long ago, it happened at a gathering of Pakistani women where a couple of the other women assumed I was Greek (I can’t win) and began talking about me in Urdu.

Now and then it happens on Greek twitter when trolls think that as a foreigner in Greece I couldn’t possibly have any working knowledge of Greek. Sometimes, I get nice Twitter messages in Greek too.

But if you combine being an immigrant with European elections and Twitter, prepare to be talked about as if you’re not there. A lot. 

The latest such election was that of Italy, where again, us immigrants got nice, thick lashings of why we’re to blame for everything.

Watching Twitter activity on the day of the election, I was not surprised to see nationalists from the UK and America jump on the Italian election bandwagon and urge Italians, who they’ve never met, and whose politically dynamics they are completely ignorant of, to “take back your country”. Let’s all take a short moment to remember how well nationalistic voting worked out for both those countries.

Even that well-known mutated offshoot of Trump, Katie Hopkins, grabbed the chance for a trip to Italy for some dolce vita and racism.

Us immigrants in Europe get talked about a lot. We are the go-to group of people to blame. Twitter trolls talk about us. Outright neonazis talk about us. Genuine concerned citizens worried about the direction of their country talk about us.

And political commentators talk about us, along with journalists, columnists and pretty much everyone else. By and large, except for a few notable exceptions, none of the people who like to talk about us and write about us are actually representative of our group.

In a political sphere, where immigrants have become the number one scapegoat, and where we’re apparently such a huge problem and a threat to everyone’s economy and existence, for some reason we rarely get asked to talk about it.

In the wake of the #Metoo movement, it has largely been women who have been writing and commenting about the everyday sexism which blights our lives. If the majority of editors allowed 80% of the coverage on this movement to originate from men, it would be nonsensical.

Not so when it comes to immigration.

What goes into the thought process of editors repeatedly commissioning pieces on immigrants in Europe to be written by non-immigrants in Europe? I’m not for a second suggesting that many of my peers don’t do an excellent job covering this issue, because they absolutely do. But, it would also be nice to get the chance to say “You’re all talking about me as if I’m not here. I come from this body of people you’re so terrified of. Do you want to perhaps hear what I have to say?” If you did, it might shock you that the economy, terrorism and integration issues are also topics that immigrants worry about as well.

It is the cheapest, nastiest type of populism that takes a minority group of people and marks it as responsible for the country’s ills. Our voices are not heard when we start to see this happening, and they are not heard when it is in full swing. We are not listened to when we see the growing danger, alter our way of talking or dressing to avoid confrontation and see people voicing a very dangerous rhetoric become ratified and established within parliaments as if their violence and bile was completely normal and valid. It is the normalisation of the abnormal, which began a few years ago in Europe and was given the seal of approval through the anomaly of the Trump presidency.

Taking the example of Golden Dawn, I and other observers were worried about them long before they gained any sort of real power. But immigrants were repeatedly told that they were no big deal, in a country where we around us could feel the hostility rising, and felt powerless because we don’t enjoy the right to vote. And since we can’t influence the vote, in Greece at least, political parties practically fell over each other to court the far-right voting pool into their own parties in their never-ending race to the very bottom. In doing so, they normalised racism to a degree that I had not seen before. “Yes, but” became standard fare in conversations with people who I knew, who knew me, and who still yes butted their way through discussions on immigration with me.  

Violence and the populism in Greece escalated hand in hand, and we know what happened next. With a neonazi group safely established in parliament, people still don’t believe us immigrants when we tell them about the racism we’ve experienced. I have been asked to list incidences of violence when talking about racism, as if being kicked, beaten, knifed or spat at is the only type of racism that counts.

One thing I’ve been told again and again is that racism is rising because “Greeks are tired of foreigners telling us what to do and bringing our country to its knees.”

There is no way to win that argument, and I’ve tried, because no matter how many times I point out that 30 years of bad governance by Greek politicians, not foreigners, destroyed the country’s economy, it will still circle back to the argument of the honourable Greek being humiliated by the rest of Europe.

In the case of Greece, the advent of the economic crisis brought about an escalation in nationalistic and plain old racist rhetoric. Politicians and the media talked about us all the time as if we couldn’t possibly follow their arguments or understand what they were saying. We were, and are, considered invisible to the point that all this can be said about us as if we’re too ignorant to understand the conversation.

I’ll admit that belonging to a group of people that gets demonised all the time is starting to get wearing. I now dread being asked where I’m from, because that once innocent question has become so loaded in the last few years. I’m tired of the elaborate process of constantly trying to reassure the other person that yes, I come from a country that Greeks lately throw around as shorthand for something grubby and unwanted, but don’t worry! Look! I fit in! I am a contributing member of society! Now please feel free to tell me your expert opinion on what my home country and its people are like, since I’m trapped in your taxi so it’s not like I would dare to contradict you anyway!

There will now be much commentary on the rise of populism in Europe, the danger that this type of nationalism poses and what can be done. To that I’ll say, us immigrants saw it all coming years ago, and we did raise our voices. We did try to warn about the danger, but we weren’t listened to or our fears were played down: it’s a non-party, Greeks/Brits/Americans/Italians are just angry, it’ll blow over, no one takes this seriously.

As immigrants, we have to be exceptionally good (doctors, scientists, token Muslim who saves someone during terrorist attack) or exceptionally bad (terrorists, criminals) for our narrative to ever make it into the press.

Beyond these two narrow frames, we are talked about very often, but hardly ever listened to. Economies and tax revenues to a degree function off the back of our labour contributions, and elections are fought and won on rhetorics that demonise us, but we as a group are otherwise ignored. And as long as we are working and contributing, all is well. Should we dare to claim something back (as if our right as taxpayers), we must again quietly listen to the hysteria about “immigrants claiming benefits”. It happened not so long ago in Greece, when it emerged that one in 10 of those who received a special payout from the government was a foreigner, sparking outrage, screaming TV debates and vicious online coverage. How very dare we work and pay our taxes fair and square, and then claim a benefit that we’re fully entitled to.

This will all be recycled and reproduced for the next round of elections. It’s happening already in Greece with the main opposition party, New Democracy, not feeling at all ashamed to court the extreme right, with the result that their position in the polls did not go up, but that of Golden Dawn did.


Too bad for New Democracy, and even worse for us immigrants.

It’s easy to buy into this simple explanation of immigrants being to blame for everything, of us being the reason for you being priced out of the market (rather than unscrupulous employers who won’t pay a reasonable wage), because it makes the native population feel safe, and seeking safety is a natural human instinct.

That too is a trap, because if anything the pattern of how the far right and populism in general operates has taught us is that their narratives work inwards from the outside, moving in circles and increasingly giving the people in the centre new groups of the population to be scared of or to dislike – the unemployed, the homeless, the disabled, LGBTQ individuals, women, single mothers, the list is literally endless.

So you might think you’re securing your own future by voting for such groups, but it’s very likely that you’re not. And the next time this all swings around again, remember that you too could probably benefit from talking to immigrants rather than talking about immigrants.

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