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Why I'm proud to be a "bad migrant"

Rhetoric about "good" and "bad" migrants is making us lose our empathy for people who are desperate to find a better, safer life.

Let me start by telling it straight: There are two types of migrants according to society: “good migrants” and “bad migrants.”

“Good migrants” are educated, have an expertise and with ease and possibly distinction, fit into the economy. They are probably even charming and funny as well.

Then there are so-called “bad migrants” – people like myself and my mother. She arrived, as a headscarf-wearing, illiterate, Muslim woman, with a little three-year-old boy, from Somalia in 1993, in an attempt to make a new life for herself in the post-industrial northern city of Sheffield.

Growing up was a daily challenge. Every road sign, instruction manual and bureaucratic letter was another mystery for us to solve as a team. We did homework together as we both needed to know what it was that the British called a tufaax (apple); or how to share amazement at the occasional Hilaac iyo onkod (thunder and lightning). We even put up with the casual racism that came our way together. I guess we thought it was to be expected, though I slowly began to realise that racism, no matter how casual, was like a grenade thrown at the foundations of your carefully constructed confidence.

On the staircase up to our fourth floor flat, sometimes there would be drug dealers and sometimes there would be drug users. But there would always be urine in the corner. This was too normal to be a problem or much of a distraction. This inner city area was home and because it was home I could hardly imagine a more beautiful place.

My mother and my stepfather, when he began to become part of my life, spent a good chunk of the little they had on buying me books. “Bad migrants tend to particularly emphasise the importance of education to their children.

My mother was what society would have called a "burden on the state", as she was on benefits for most of these years. But she had to be careful with money. We didn't waste it on coffees, restaurants and enticements from TV advertisments. We were living on the lowest amount society thought people could survive on, yet somehow my mother found a way to save up and send medical fees for distant relatives who otherwise might die, due to the poor medical infrastructure of where we had come from.

What my mother really invested in all these years, however, didn't have an obvious monetary value. It was us – her children – as she put all her energy into creating the best people that she could.

No, she couldn’t personally contribute like the “good migrants” and everyday citizens, but through her life experience and struggles she raised empathetic characters, filled with intellectual curiosity and a refined desire to contribute. A simple sense that it matters a lot to make sure we create systems and structures that make what was difficult for us easier for others. She did what she could to make good people. Ultimately, speaking of "good" and "bad" migrants – as with most labels – fails to distinguish between those who can love and those who can’t, those who build and those who destroy.

I am what I am today because of my mother, my stepfather, the people I met along the way who helped me and because we were supported by a multifaceted state that was the collective expression of humanity.

The same urge that created this infrastructure of humanity and gratitude – what we call the welfare state – is similar to the philanthropic urge that makes someone of humble beginnings use their success to create foundations, educational trusts, charities and scholarships. Acts like this are the physical expression of their gratitude for the good fortune that allowed them to succeed in ways that others less fortunate may not have.

Most of us are empathetic towards people like my mother, who can tell stories about a civil war with dead relatives, hunger and bullets raining down around them. We should not however allow our empathy to stop there. Brute luck affects even those outside of warzones. Who of us can be sure that we would not act like the economic migrants seeking to escape the slow burning frustration brought on by misery and despair in parts of the world impoverished by mere coincidence and often historic crimes?

As for me, I’m proud to be a “bad migrant. It’s taught me everything I know, and made me proud of those who attempted to ingrain compassion into the infrastructure of society’s bureaucracies. It’s filled me with a desire to make the world better. Finally, it taught me that history produces our present, privileges some and deprives others.

With the continuing Syrian refugee crisis, the purgatory in Calais, and the destitution of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, we would do well to remember this: fortune accounts for far too much of all our lives to close our hearts, our doors, and our countries to desperate victims of misfortune. And if you suspect we just don’t have enough space, then perhaps we need to create a world with less misfortune.

Abdi Aziz Sulieman, a graduate from the University of Sheffield and former Sheffield Students' Union President, who was also a refugee from Somalia.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game