One London night, a few weeks after Brexit, something happened as I was walking to a bus stop that had never happened in the 9 years since I’d moved to the UK: a man (white, young, Londoner by his accent) shouted abuse at me and followed up with ‘Go back where you came from’.
He seemed more ridiculous than threatening but even so I wasn’t about to get into any kind of exchange with him, so I didn’t ask the question I wanted to ask: ‘And where do you think that is?’
In London, I’m almost never recognized as Pakistani. Spain or Italy or Greece are the countries I’m more often asked if I’m from.
And so I couldn’t help wondering, as I walked away from the man, whether the racism I’d just had hurled at me was the old-fashioned ‘Paki-bashing’ that has so long been a part of UK life or if it were a more recent form of anti-European sentiment — that didn’t confine itself only to Eastern Europeans as it used to.
More likely, I decided, it was both. The man didn’t know where exactly my origins lay, or even if I had ever lived anywhere other than the UK — but he knew I wasn’t an Anglo-Saxon.
And that was enough to make me the unwanted outsider. Welcome to Brexit Britain.
Brexit Britain isn’t, of course, an island unto itself. Rising anti-migrant feeling is part of Trump’s America and the many nations of Europe, such as France, Austria and the Netherlands, where far-right parties have recently seen a surge in popularity.
There are many reasons for this wide-spread lurch towards xenophobic nationalism — Pankaj Mishra’s new book The Age of Anger is a particular fascinating analysis of how modernity/neo-liberalism has failed a large percentage of the people who expected to have their lives improved by it — but despite all the common factors, the malaise plays out differently in every nation.
And living in Britain the last decade has meant watching the disease advance, bit by bit, and both seeing and not seeing where it could lead us.
I can’t say that I knew the Brexit vote would win — but in the weeks leading up to the referendum I thought the chances were 50/50. There’s nothing like being a recent migrant to be attuned to shifting attitudes towards migrants in your new nation.
When I entered the UK in 2007 it was on a ‘writers, artists and composers’ visa — one of the many visa routes that could lead towards settlement and citizenship.
Within a year of my arrival a new ‘points-based’ visa system was introduced by the Labour government — ostensibly to streamline the work of the Home Office.
But from the start it seemed a way to make far fewer non-EU citizens eligible for settlement, and to allow the government a mechanism to make the rules even more stringent with relative ease.
I was only able to stay on when my visa expired because that particular year I had earned enough from my writing to switch into another visa category.
And within a couple of years the category I had switched to became impossible for someone with my income level to qualify for, and then it was erased entirely.
It was clear what was going on — first the Labour, then the Tory-Liberal government, was responding to the increased anti-migrant feeling (stoked by the right-wing press) by making it more difficult for non-EU citizens to migrate to the UK.
In doing that, the parties accepted the cries of the far-right which said migration levels were too high and damaging the UK — migrants were taking jobs, committing crime, changing the cultural fabric of the UK.
Where there should have been a space for reasoned conversation — which, for instance, stressed the contribution of migrants to the economy and to the cultural life of Britain while also looking at the costs of migration — there was instead a capitulation to hysteria.
And so, increasingly, we saw the far-right dictate the terms of the conversation on migrants — the Tories were the most enthusiastic about falling in line, but Labour really didn’t do much better.
Watching all of this, listening to all the campaign promises about reducing net migration, I often thought the politicians were painting themselves into a corner.
They could make it near-impossible for non-EU migrants to enter the UK — going so far as linking to income levels the right to bring in a non-EU spouse to the UK, as though the well-off had a greater right than the poor to live with their spouses in their nation of citizenship — but since freedom of movement was enshrined in EU law there would come a point when the press, the politicians, and the electorate would simply have to face the reality of porous European borders.
Perhaps then, I naively thought, the political parties would get round to talking about the benefits of being part of the EU rather than allowing ‘the Poles are coming and they’re taking our jobs’ to be just about the only kind of rhetoric you ever heard about the EU.
I thought, that is, that the migrant hysteria was a cry of defeat that preceded adjusting to a new reality.
And then David Cameron promised a referendum on Europe in order to placate his Euro-skeptic back-benchers, never imagining — if all the pundits and Westminster insiders are to be believed — that such a vote could be lost.
At first, it was simply so bizarre that my brain failed to really register what was at stake. But once it became clear that the Brexit vote would be, at heart, a vote on freedom of movement in the EU I began to have a very bad feeling.
Even so, I didn’t understand how much the UK had changed until the day the anti-Brexit MP Jo Cox was shot dead.
‘Stronger together’ had been her passionate plea for a UK that embraces migrants; against that was the ‘Britain First’ cry of the man who killed her.
The day she died, rather than the day Brexit was voted in, was when I realised how dark the world around me had become.
No more was it possible to think of the UK as a place where people could express unpopular views without the fear of being killed in the street for it.
I watched news reports of Jo Cox’s death and I thought of Salman Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, Parween Rahman and my childhood friend, Sabeen Mahmud. ‘This is how it starts’ I remember thinking.
But politicians and pundits gathered round and declared that to link Jo Cox’s death to the referendum would be ‘playing politics’ with a woman’s death.
She should have been the face of the ‘Remain’ campaign, she should have been the warning of the road we were walking on. Instead, she faded away from the conversation as though ‘Stronger Together’ vs’ Britain First’ had no real relevance to the referendum.
The bitterest part of the Brexit vote was learning that Jo Cox’s constituency had voted to leave the EU. The only word for it was ‘indecent’.
So Brexit won. And while it would be unfair and wrong to imply that everyone who voted for it did so for racist reasons, it is also true that when Brexit won the racists won.
But the morning after the referendum we woke up in a Britain where to suggest that an anti-EU vote had anything to do with racism meant you were part of a London elite.
Brexit was re-configured as the triumph of the Overlooked, the democratic roar of the Ones Who Were Left Behind. Now the London liberal elite would be forced to hear the pain of the white working class. The key word there, of course, is ‘white’.
The black and Asian working class have been removed from the analysis entirely because their far more pro-migrant political stance complicates that line that this is about those on the margins standing up to those at the centre of power.
Now, people who a few years ago were rightly derided as peddling racist notions about the danger of migrants are being called ‘prescient’; rather than treating the lies and hysteria of the Brexit campaign and the assassination of Jo Cox as reason for standing up to the anti-migrant rhetoric, the pundits and politicians are telling us we must listen to the ‘genuine grievances’ of alienated Britons.
Here’s the funny thing though. Research has shown — repeatedly — that the highest anti-migrant feeling exists in parts of Britain where there are the lowest rates of migration.
It’s the idea of The Migrant that people hate and fear more than the reality of it. If there is any hope, it’s in that.
And that’s why, through all of this, and despite the isolated incident of the ridiculous young man telling me to go home, I’ve never felt happier to be in London, with its Muslim mayor, its pro-EU sentiment, its ability to know how people should live together. This is not an elite bubble; it’s what hope looks like.
I’ve been thinking a lot in the months since Brexit of a greengrocer I was talking to in Brent, which is London’s most racially-mixed borough.
He grew up in a mostly white neighborhood; now his neighbors are Pakistani, Indian, Albanian, Caribbean.
When I asked him about changing demographics he said, “There are really only two kinds of people from my point of view. Those who eat fresh produce and those who don’t. And if they do, I find out what kind of vegetables they need for their kitchen, and then I stock them, and they buy them.” That simple.
As the wave of populism jolts established democracies in the West, questions are being asked about the fate of Muslim immigrants living in the United States (US) and Europe.
Will a Western leader like President Donald Trump, who twice attempted to ban visitors from certain Muslim countries from entering the US, deport Muslims involved in terrorism or serious crimes on the back of strong anti-Muslim propaganda carried out by the alt-right media?
What if such Muslims were born in the country or were long-time naturalised citizens? Is it legally possible to deport them?
The Conservative government in the UK appears to lead the way with its implementation of a controversial plan to strip Muslims of their British nationalities citing national security and serious crimes.
British media report that up to 50 people have so far been stripped of their British nationalities and similar cases of dozens of people are in the pipeline.
Most of the orders to deprive such individuals of their British nationalities were issued by then UK Home Secretary Theresa May, who held the post from 2010 to 2016 before becoming the prime minister.
The orders were issued under Section 40 of the British Nationality Act 1981 which allows the authorities to deny a person their British citizenship if the Home Secretary is satisfied that “it would be conducive to the public good to deprive the person of their British citizenship status and to do so would not render them stateless”.
Media reports suggest individuals who had been subjected to such an action under the Act had dual nationalities which ruled out the possibility of rendering them stateless.
This strengthened the British Home Office’s case to sustain judicial scrutiny inside the country and in the European Court of Human Rights which holds the appeal jurisdiction over cases involving human rights.
One such case study under the implementation of Section 40 was traced to members of Pakistani-origin British family which was originally from Pakistan’s Sheikhupra district in central Punjab.
The British-born father, referred to as “S1” in proceedings in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac) and his three sons, referred to as “T1”, “U1” and “V1”, were deprived of their UK nationalities in 2011 while they were visiting Pakistan.
The father had been living in Pakistan for the last two years when the Home Secretary’s order to strip the four family members of their British citizenship was issued.
May says her decision was based on an assessment provided by British security service MI5 which said the four had links to banned terrorist organizations Lashkar-e-Taiba and al-Qaeda.
Letters signed by the then home secretary, under the title “deprivation of citizenship” dated March 2011, say that the four family members were stripped of their citizenship “because I am satisfied that it would be conducive to the public good” and that they would not be rendered “stateless” because they were eligible for Pakistani citizenship.
The father told UK’s Sunday Times newspaper that he and his children considered themselves to be British and did not speak Urdu.
He said while his wife and a fourth son, a disabled teenager, had not been stripped of their citizenship, they could not return to Britain because they wanted to remain with the rest of the family.
He further said his wife had diabetes and his 18-year-old son required medical care which was available in the UK but not in Pakistan.
The Siac judgment in December 2012 acknowledged the hardship faced by the family following the decision.
“The deprivation decision and order in the case of S1 has undoubtedly had an impact on the private and family life of his wife and youngest son, both of whom remain British citizens,” the judgment said.
It added because of the “threat to national security” posed by the father, “the unavoidable impact upon the rights of his wife and youngest son would be justifiable” under the European Convention of Human Rights as “an interference necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security.”
Although their appeal was funded by the UK tax payers’ money under legal aid, neither the father nor his sons were able to attend the Siac case or know the exact allegations against them.
It is common for Siac hearings and rulings not to be held in public to protect the secret testimony of security services.
The father, who was born in England’s Newcastle-upon-Tyne city, said that the terrorism-related allegations levelled against him and his children, who were also born in the UK, were “tearing our family apart”.
“We are British through and through … I grew up watching programmes like ‘On the Buses’ and ‘The Benny Hill Show’. Going to school in the 1960s and early 1970s, I learnt the best of British values and it’s that teaching from my childhood which I have tried to teach to my children.
The best of British values don’t contradict Islamic values. To this day, English is the only language we speak,” the British media quoted him as saying.
He further said opposed extremism but admitted that his 22-year-old daughter, who he has not seen since the start of the year, was married to an extremist whose father is a known Islamist cleric.
An Afghan national, referred to as M2, was also stripped of his British citizenship in 2014 after being tracked by MI5. The 27-year old managed to re-enter the UK just months later.
M2 had appealed the Home Secretary’s decision, strongly denying the claims that he is an extremist, but the Siac judges ruled that under the civil burden of proof, it is “very highly probable that [he] is an Islamist extremist” who has “engaged in terrorist-related activities” by acting as a courier for an “important” al-Qaeda commander in Afghanistan.
Despite the allegations, he has never been charged with any terror-related offence. He now intends to appeal the verdict, preparing for a process that could take years.
The judges not only agreed with the move to revoke his nationality, but also described his history as a child asylum seeker as “curious”.
The ruling depicts the journey of a man who arrived alone in Britain as a child, is said to have become a devout member of the Tablighi Jamaat, who was tried and acquitted for a serious sexual assault charge, and was trailed in the car park of a PC World store by a man named ‘Tom’ from MI5.
Some of the evidence against M2 was deemed sensitive and had to be heard by the judges in closed sessions, which means that neither he nor his lawyers or the public heard the full details of the allegations against him.
Born in 1989, M2 grew up with his relatively wealthy family outside Jalalabad, 150 km from Afghan capital Kabul.
He left Afghanistan when he was 14 and arrived in the UK in December 2003 when he claimed asylum. He was granted discretionary leave to remain in Britain for three years. No details about his asylum claim are contained in the Siac judgment.
M2 lived in the Southall area of west London, attended school in Hanwell and then college in Uxbridge. When he was 17, he spent his 2006 summer holiday in Saudi Arabia and three years later, he was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
A year later he married his wife, who lives with his family in Afghanistan. She has never lived in the UK.
M2 was granted British citizenship in December 2011 and since then started working as a minicab driver in west London. Less than six months later he again left the UK for an overseas visit.
It was this visit that triggered a series of questions from the Siac judges. M2 said he first went to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and then to Afghanistan, where he visited his family.
But the Home Secretary said he had an ulterior motive. Bank statements presented to the court showed that before he left London, his Barclaycard was used to spend 560 pounds at Currys and PC World electronics store.
The UK authorities argued he had bought electronic items to take to Afghanistan “for the use of terrorist associates” — allegations which were denied by M2, who says the payments were made by a friend who used his card and that he did not take any equipment with him on that trip.
M2’s life took a dramatic turn in the months following his return to London at the end of 2012. By the end of 2013 and after spending another six weeks in Afghanistan, he was “on bail facing a significant criminal charge of sexual offending,” according to Siac.
In January 2014, with an impending trial, he booked a one-way flight to Saudi Arabia, from where he intended to fly to Afghanistan.
He says he was told his mother was seriously ill and that he was going home to visit her. He says it was her wish he should first go on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia to “say a special prayer for her good health”.
Shortly after booking his flight, he had his first brush with the MI5 in a car park of a PC World store in west London. The Siac judgment said “he was approached by a man who asked to speak to him… the man showed him a card indicating he was from MI5, and introduced himself as ‘Tom’.”
“They got in a car, which already had a man and a woman in it. Tom then asked M2 if he knew why he had been stopped. M2 said he did not. He was told there were ‘some people who they thought may be harmful to our country’.
“M2 says he was asked if he could help and was shown four photographs. He says he recognised one person from his mosque, but not the other photos.”
The judges said he was then asked if one of the photos was of a man called Mir Alam. M2 told Tom none of the photos was “noticeably” him.
The name Mir Alam was crucial to the Siac hearing. Alam is M2’s cousin and is married to his sister. The Home Secretary’s version says: “Mir Alam is a significant terrorist with whom [M2] is a sympathiser and co-operator”.
At the appeal hearing, Home Office lawyers argued that Alam is an “important associate” of “the important al-Qaeda leader” Faruq Al Qahtani. The Home Secretary’s case is that M2 “has at least indirect association” with Al Qahtani and other al-Qaeda extremists and “it was these apparent links that interested MI5.”
Another case centred upon a change in the British Nationality Act involved the conviction of Asian criminals allegedly involved in child prostitution in northwest England.
Shabir Ahmed, Adil Khan, Abdul Rauf and Abdul Aziz, all from Rochdale, were the first to be subjected to the new provisions. They unsuccessfully challenged the government move which paved the way for them to be deported to Pakistan.
Ahmed, 63, was convicted in 2012 of being the ringleader of a group of men who preyed on girls as young as 13 in Rochdale, luring them with drinks and drugs before passing them around for sex.
The three-times married father of four first came to Britain from Pakistan in 1967 when he was 14 years old. The case against him maintained that he is a British citizen but would not be rendered stateless if he was stripped of UK citizenship as he retains Pakistani nationality.
Khan, 42, a taxi driver, was found guilty of trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a child. He came to Rochdale from Pakistan-administered Kashmir with his wife in 1997 and had a sexual relationship with a young girl just a few weeks after the birth of his first child.
The court heard he made a 15-year-old girl pregnant, then passed another girl of same age on to other men for sex, threatening her with violence.
Aziz, 41, another taxi driver of Pakistani origin and father to three, was cleared of two counts of rape but convicted of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
Rauf, 43, father of five, was convicted of trafficking a child within the UK for sexual exploitation. The former religious studies teacher at a Rochdale mosque and of Pakistani origin said he was deeply religious.
The cases challenge the long-held perception amongst immigrants, especially Pakistanis, that naturalisation is the final stage in settling in Britain or that acquiring British citizenship through birth was as permanent as gold.
But in a clear sign of new thinking, the British Home Office has overturned such beliefs by broadening its use of anti-terrorism powers and stripping convicts of their British nationalities, stressing that citizenship is a privilege, not a birth right.