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If I am to believe the reports on television and newspaper these past few days – never a good idea, I know – UKIP is now a force to be reckoned with. Of course, these are local elections, observers quip, and they will never make it to power at a national level, but, to many on the left as well as the right, it is a worrying development. I am worried too. In fact, I have been worried these past few years, as an immigrant, as someone who wants to remain in Britain, as an ethnic minority, and as a gay man. So, it is high time, I thought, I put my cards on the table.
I arrived in this country more than seven years ago. I was a medical student in India before then, and a respected medical journal thought it fit to bring me to London for an internship. I worked there for a year, received an offer from Cambridge, where I did my undergraduate degree, then a master’s at St Andrews, and now, I’m doing my doctorate degree at Oxford. With the exception of my parents, who still remain in India, my entire life is now based in Britain, and has been for a while. I don’t merely have friends in England, but surrogate families, networks of friends, and even an ex-lover or two, none of which I thought I’d have when I arrived with just £40 in my wallet, and not knowing a single soul in this country.
I am not saying any of this to vaunt my apparent success. On the contrary, I feel grateful to this country for giving me so much. Britain made me, gave me opportunities, nourished me, in a way no other country did. So, first of all, thank you.
But, a lot has changed since I first arrived. Back then, my visa application was four pages, cost me roughly £50, and a decision on the application took less than 48 hours. Now, the application form is roughly 64 pages, the visa fees up to £1,000, and a decision on application can take months, if not years. The number of documents I have to submit to prove my credentials have multiplied, and even then, the rates of rejection have shot up significantly.
Too right too, I hear some of you say. In fact, for the past five years, all I’ve ever heard air in the media, in the newspapers and on online forums, is that immigration is a ‘problem,’ the greatest one at that. Even liberal newspapers, which on the whole support immigration, feel obliged to begin with an acknowledgement that there is a problem. It is not merely a question of numbers. It cannot be. Were it so, the uniformity of the negative coverage would not be so blatant. Nor would there be so much blatant xenophobia, yes, often bordering on racism, in the pages of tabloid newspapers, and comment pages of even liberal websites such as The Huffington Post and The Guardian.
Don’t take it personally, some of you tell me. We want highly skilled immigrants, who contribute greatly to the country, and are not a burden on the state. But, how can I not take it personally? Just as every gay man would be offended by a homophobic sentiment, when all major election parties think of immigration as a ‘problem,’ it is hard not to take it personally. I feel insulted, ignored, often vilified.
It is a greater disappointment for me to see all debates about immigration being reduced to diseased economic terms. Those who acknowledge benefits at all only do so in terms of the economy, and many think of immigrants as benefit scroungers. For the record, I have never taken a single penny from the state. My scholarship comes from abroad, which alone has contributed more than £150,000 so far to the universities here, and when I did work, I paid my taxes fully. But, is that what you call ‘contribution’? If so, is that enough?
I, and many others like me, are here for reasons entirely different from the economy. I am here because I wanted to be in a country where being gay is accepted, and sexual minorities are afforded equal rights as straight people. I am here because, it meant something to me when Britain protected Salman Rushdie, after he wrote The Satanic Verses, whereas India was the first country to proscribe it altogether. I am here because my talents, such as they be, were recognised first by people in this country rather than that of my birth and childhood. I am here, most importantly, due to the cultural affinities that bind me to this country and to Western Europe as a whole.
It is indeed silly to use imperialism and colonialism as trumpet-cards in any argument, as even academics are wont to these days. But, it is important to remember that of all the remnants it leaves behind, one is inerasible. Language. It is the basis of thought, culture, science, and human relationship. Language is also what brings many people to this country, and takes them to the United States, Canada or Australia. We are all delighted to be able to get away with speaking English in countries where it is not the normal language, but we forget that it is one of the strongest cultural forces driving immigration.
Such individual stories as mine, bound as they are with their own emotions and complexities, become quickly lost, of course. I am an invisible point on a political graph, a statistical tool. When politicians listen to populist rhetoric and base their policies on that, the people who are affected are often not the people they want out of the country. The occasional cheat, and the rare religious fanatic still manages to get through, but thousands of valuable, worthwhile visitors, students, workers, and, dare I say it, future citizens, become lost.
Now, many of you have voted UKIP, maybe as a protest vote, or maybe, like them, you believe that Britain should basically close its borders altogether. Let’s face it, some of you want it to remain a white-majority country too. That’s why some think-tanks insist on restricting non-European migration alone. In response, all the parties would doubtless turn up their rhetoric against immigration, and a new wave of anti-immigration measures would be instituted. This government has already, more than any other, made it nearly impossible to come to this country as a student or a worker. One wonders what more it could possibly do in the upcoming Queen’s Speech.
Naturally, I worry. I feel rejected, unwanted, often like a third-class subject. Labels, when used pejoratively, tend to do that. But, having made my whole life here, how could I possibly leave? Why should I?
So, the next time you read a vicious diatribe in the Daily Mail, or feel inclined to vote for UKIP, remember that immigration often has little to do with the economy. Remember that most of what you take for granted is a privilege, a luxury for the rest of the world, and even then, not everyone wants to come here and settle down permanently. Remember that the choices you make affect the lives of thousands of others like me. Most of all, ask yourself if you’d rather live in a country of cultural monotony and uniformity, or one which welcomed, among others, Handel, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, TS Eliot, Mitsuko Uchida and VS Naipaul, and have made this the most culturally exciting country in Europe.
– Balaji Ravichandran [Huffington Post]