London has the biggest proportion of migrants, with four in ten born abroad, and in some of the capital’s boroughs, more than half the residents are migrants.
The release of this information coincides with a new political storm over how Britain handles immigration, and, inevitably, the “surge” of migrants is seen as a failure to take back control of our borders.
We look at immigration in terms of housing shortages, overcrowded classrooms, oversubscribed health services and a lack of social cohesion.
In this context, “immigrant” is a loaded word, but while it obviously means different things to different immigrants, we all probably have a few things in common, including cause to celebrate.
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I say “we” because I am one of the ten million born overseas – in South Africa, which was tenth in the top non-UK countries of birth in 2021. Heading the list is India, with Poland and Pakistan at two and three, and Romanian arrivals leaping to fourth place.
There was nothing about my introduction to Britain that compares with the plight of today’s desperate refugees or illegal immigrants.
My family disembarked from a Union-Castle ocean liner at Southampton docks after an eleven-day voyage from Cape Town, and headed to a London hotel.
This was back in the Sixties and I was just three, so my memories are inexact, but I recall the incomer’s surprise at the little anomalies.
The ice cream, for instance, didn’t taste like ice cream as I knew it. And in England we had television, then still banned in South Africa because the Nationalist government feared it would “have to import films showing race mixing, and advertising would make (non-white) Africans dissatisfied with their lot”, as Albert Hertzog, the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, put it at the time.
And, of course, England was cold compared to South Africa, and a few months after we arrived and had settled into our first flat, it snowed, another first for us.
My father, born in what was then Northern Rhodesia, a British protectorate before independence, was eligible for British citizenship and was able to secure a job and (temporary) home for us before emigrating.
We had none of the worries of the migrants who flee in the night, or risk their lives to get to Britain, or land here with no belongings. While we had to pack up and sell much of what we owned, some crates of the family furniture, crockery, books and clothes eventually turned up in London.
But we shared with other waves of migration, both planned and unplanned, two fundamental goals: to escape our circumstances at home and to seek a better life in Britain.
In our case, it was the apartheid regime that laid the grounds for our departure. My father, who was chairman of the Cape Town Liberal Party, became the first Liberal to be banned under the infamous Suppression of Communism Act, devised to quell opposition to white minority rule, particularly by the African National Congress.
Although his banning orders didn’t stop him from living or working in South Africa, they severely curtailed his freedom.
He was effectively silenced as he couldn’t be quoted in the press, and social gatherings of more than two people were banned, as was travelling any distance, in an early, more sinister, precursor to lockdown.
Worse, our house was constantly watched and sometimes raided by the security police, who showed up in the small hours, hunting for subversive literature or incriminating documents.
The final straw was a bullet through a bedroom window that narrowly missed my brother’s cot, a warning shot from a Nationalist fanatic.
With his one-way exit permit and his British passport, my father, as a political exile, brought his young family to these shores for greater safety and a more stable future.
The mayor of an Albanian town, Has, that has seen most of its men emigrate to Britain, told the Daily Mail of his pride in this country and its institutions. The town organised an official day of mourning following the Queen’s death because “she gave them the opportunity to find work and build a new life from nothing”.
The mayor’s patriotism for another nation struck a chord and I had a flashback to my father dragging visitors around Windsor Castle, near where we lived, imparting his incredible knowledge of the history of his adopted country.
While the current migration crisis stirs voter fury, in some quarters at least, Britain remains largely hospitable towards outsiders.
We have had a recent reminder of the sanctuary we offer in relation to other European nations, with an Indian prime minister and three of the four great offices of state occupied by ethnic minorities. For good reason, the UK has been dubbed the world’s best melting pot.
Even though I was assimilated very young into British culture, and anyway was born into a half British family, I still can’t read the word “immigrant” without contemplating what could have been.
In leaving the land of my birth I missed what other migrants miss: grandparents and extended family; a wider network of contacts growing up; familial traditions that root you to a place.
But I gained so much more. Instead of being the product of a pariah state, my father an outlaw, my sister, brother and I were raised as British children, with all the prospects that brought. I am forever grateful in a way only an immigrant can be.
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