On the street where I grew up, there was an Iranian handyman whose daughters used to babysit me, a Russian lab technician who worked at my school, lots of Japanese families who had incredibly exciting garage sales, young backpacking Australians, Syrian labourers, a New Zealander opera singer and English pianist, an elderly Indian couple who would walk around the block at the same time every evening and say hello, an Irish gardener who cycled up and down the street with a rake on his back, and other Armenian families (yes, plural) like ours.
It sounds idyllic, and it pretty much was. I know now that not everywhere works like this, but in my corner of Acton – in the country’s third most ethnically-diverse borough – it was what I grew up with.
I went to Armenian school every Sunday morning, my “English” school was essentially an ethnic cross-section of that part of the capital, my GP was Polish, and the number of languages spoken on my street alone outnumbered what any one person could feasibly learn in a lifetime.
It was the Britain I knew, and which my dad built his life in. After fleeing the Lebanese civil war at the age of 21 – smuggling himself onto a boat carrying watermelons to Cyprus, as his parents had fled the Armenian genocide to Beirut before him – he eventually ended up in that nice leafy west London street. He was surrounded by neighbours with hundreds of versions of his story, and probably hundreds of recipes, memories and weird proverbs like his. (“Hunger is the tastiest sauce” was always my peak-Armenian favourite.)
Now I work in political journalism, and every time net migration figures come out and the press release lands in my inbox, I notice this image of my childhood change slightly. Another quarter, another chunk of my family’s experience – and that of millions of others – falls away.
Newcomers are going. The number of EU migrants leaving the UK is now at a record high, according to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory. Net migration to the UK from the EU has fallen by more than 60 per cent since the 2016 referendum.
Experts also question the government’s silver lining that non-EU net migration is at its highest since 2004, running at three times the level of EU net migration, and therefore making up for the loss of Europeans.
The Migration Observatory’s director Madeleine Sumption has commented that “these data come at a time of uncertainty for UK migration statistics… Significant issues have been identified with the measurement of non-EU emigration. We have doubts about the accuracy of the non-EU net migration figures. Other data sources do not support the idea that non-EU citizens are currently contributing so much to net migration.”
So the UK’s immigration picture seems to be: fewer Europeans, and probably not enough others to “make up for it”. Putting off newcomers is now the norm in this country. Lowering numbers is such a trend that it barely sparks commentary anymore. Even the press no longer fixates on it:
Fascinating stuff from @robfordmancs. The obsession with net migration in the five years before the referendum has cooled off during the Brexit negotiations. Back then we couldn’t leave our desks on stats day for all the calls from hacks, now it’s a pretty normal day… https://t.co/5Pu4WIT6MI
— MigrationObservatory (@MigObs) November 29, 2018
If we do talk about it, it’s in the context of Brexit’s financial hit, the skills gap, and job shortages, particularly in the NHS. Those things are crucial, and if the UK doesn’t come up with a vastly more liberal immigration policy than its “tens of thousands” target and “no more skipping the queue” rhetoric suggest, then the UK’s economy and labour market have a grim future.
But this is also about the fabric of British society. Unlike my childhood street in Acton, Britain was never a utopia for migrants – far from it – but now the pattern looks bleaker: multiculturalism is openly under attack from mainstream political voices, and hate crimes are at a record high. It’s normal for both parties to talk about immigration falling as a positive thing.
Rather than being on the losing side, the people who used to gripe about England for the English are having their way. And the rest of us who now shrug at migration figures – or merely use them as a stick to beat Brexiteers with every few months – overlook what this country is becoming.