This is an edited version of the speech I gave at the final event of my Welcome Blanket project, last night.
This evening is the moment for me to say farewell to the blanket. I am handing it over to A Thousand for a Thousand, an amazing local community-based charity. I understand it will be used to welcome and comfort a refugee family who are struggling to find a new home here in Brighton.
The Welcome Blanket has been a large part of my life for the last 10 months. I want to say a couple of things about that experience.
The blanket was made by many hands – everyone who contributed squares, everyone who donated money, everyone who sewed names, everyone who talked to their friends about it.
Thank you to all those people. It’s been a lovely experience. I’ve enjoyed seeing the variety of styles and bringing everything together. I’ve loved working with the fabric and taking care of each person’s contribution. I’ve made new friends.
But it’s also been an unsettling experience. I’ve been reading and learning about the reality of migration in the UK, and thinking about the meaning of the words on the blanket, as I worked on them.
One thing that has become clear to me is that living in the UK as a migrant is often a conditional existence.
People make their lives in temporary spaces that can be snatched away by one ‘if’ after another. If they renew the visa, if they accept the asylum application, if they believe we are really married, if we can raise the money for the fees and so on.
The verse on the blanket – which stands at the entrance to our city – is lovely. But I’ve noticed that the people who respond most positively to it are white people like me, who have indeed found that Brighton accepts us without asking us to justify ourselves.
Yet for many people in our community, there is a positive epidemic of asking, and the reality for them is nowhere near as welcoming as we may fondly believe it to be.
Many people have said to me that this blanket should be hanging in Brighton Museum or somewhere like that. I understand the sentiment. But I think having produced this beautiful object is not the thing that needs to be remembered and marked.
What would be worth putting in the museum would be a story about how the people of Brighton took action – at this time of crisis – to live up to their image of themselves. It’s all very well having these fine words, but what matters is how we act.
The Welcome Blanket project is above all a call to action. Action is required from all of us to help bring these words to life.
For most of 2017, I have been working on my Brighton Welcome Blanket project, a large scale, collaborative piece, which incorporates the verse carved on one of the Patcham Pylons at the entrance to Brighton:
Hail Guest. We ask not what thou art
If friend, we greet thee, hand & heart
If stranger, such no longer be
If foe, our love shall conquer thee
This verse appeals to progressive white Brightonians, like me, because it encapsulates something we feel is distinctive and characteristic about our city – its openness and acceptance of diversity, its willingness to provide sanctuary to those who don’t belong in the places they come from.
As I worked on this blanket, I photographed each crocheted word, sharing my progress on Facebook in order to encourage other people to take part by contributing their own textile squares. The slowness of working by hand with yarn means that there is time to develop an intimate relationship with a piece of work. I tried to reflect on the significance of each word and phrase as I went along.
For instance, when I had finished the word hand, I posted this on the Facebook group:
In Sophie NL Besse’s show, Borderline, there is a scene in which a young refugee is told, after travelling across Europe to Calais, that because his fingerprints had been taken in Italy, he must return there. His response is to take a lighter and try to burn away his fingerprints. For others, stranded in camps and sleeping rough across Europe and beyond, a photo of their hand sent to the grassroots Facebook group Phone Credit For Refugees brings in return the precious gift of a chance to talk with loved ones or summon help in an emergency. But this word is simply about a greeting, human to human, hand to hand.
As I read and learned more about the situation of refugees and migrants in Europe and the UK specifically, I began to feel differently about the verse. Two thoughts have crystallised for me, as the blanket reaches its final stage.
1. ‘We ask not’ is the key phrase
Not asking means starting from the basic assumption that all humans are equal, and equally worthy of respect. It is a risky stance – as explained in the verse. There’s always a chance that you are unknowingly welcoming a foe into your home. But it is the only way to maintain your own humanity.
To say in advance that you will extend a hand of friendship to every visitor, without first questioning their status or motives, means that you relinquish your power to pick and choose who may enter. It means you opt not to see people from outside as a resource to be exploited or as victims to be rescued.
On the other side of the coin, not being asked is an experience that many progressive white Brightonians like me take for granted. It feels great, to be accepted at your word. We want to celebrate that feeling and that freedom, and share it with everyone.
But unfortunately, it is a lie.
2. We ask all the time
The unpalatable truth is that the welcome we offer to people who turn up in Brighton, the UK or Europe is very far from the open acceptance suggested by the words on my blanket.
In reality, the experience of arriving in Europe or the UK is one of being asked repeatedly what your value is, and whether you can prove you meet the (arbitrary) standards we set for people to settle here.
We ask at the border, and we keep on asking. The UK’s hostile environment for “illegal” migrants is a system that is designed to bring the border into every aspect of day-to-day life.
We ask at hospital
From 23rd October 2017, hospitals and other providers of secondary health care will be legally obliged to ask people about their immigration status and to charge overseas visitors in advance for the treatment they need.
We ask at school
Schools carry out a pupil census every term. Campaigners revealed last year that since December 2015, the Home Office has had an arrangement in place to regularly request access to the data gathered for immigration purposes.
In September 2016, new questions about nationality and country of birth were added to the Schools Census. The purpose of gathering this data is nothing to do with ensuring adequate funding for schools or support for pupils with additional language needs. It is directly related to the hostile environment programme, as Against Borders for Children explain:
In 2015 then-Home Secretary Theresa May outlined proposals to be included in the Immigration Bill that would bring schools under the government’s agenda to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. According to the BBC, those plans included schools withdrawing places offered to children of irregular migrant families and checking immigration status before accepting new pupils. After the then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan expressed ‘profound concerns’, they reached a compromise, and the DfE agreed instead to collect nationality, COB and and expanded language data through schools “to improve [the DfE’s] understanding of the scale and impact of pupil migration on the education sector.” The new data collection is explicitly linked to the government’s policy to create a hostile environment for migrants, and is part of an attempt to make schools a proxy for immigration enforcement.
We ask at the letting agency
Since February 2016, private landlords have been required to check the immigration status of all adults they are letting property to. Landlords must check up every year and report tenants to the Home Office if they find they no longer have the required documents
Deeds not words
If you were not aware of this epidemic of asking, you are probably white, with a British-sounding name. Many of us will most likely never experience the impact of Theresa May’s hostile environment, but that doesn’t mean we can continue to assume we live in an accepting, welcoming country. We do not.
If we want to make our idea of ourselves a reality, we have to take action. Take a risk. Make a stand.
Here are some groups of people who are doing that. If you like the idea of the Welcome Blanket, you can help to make it less of a lie by joining and supporting them.
Thousand 4 1000
You can sponsor a square of the Welcome Blanket by making a donation to Thousand 4 1000, Brighton’s community response to enforced homelessness of forced migrants.
Prints and cards of the blanket are also on sale, with all profits going to Thousand 4 1000.
Docs not Cops
This campaign brings together healthcare providers and patients to resist the introduction of charging into the NHS. Download their toolkit and take action in your local area.
Against Borders for Children
Their September 2017 update has a list of clear actions you can take to disrupt the use of the school census to enforce immigration controls, whether you are a parent, teacher or anyone else.
Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, is a hard-hitting illustration of the cruel chaos our social security system has been reduced to. If you’ve had to deal with this system in the last few years, or if you’ve simply been paying attention to the voices of disabled activists over that time, you won’t be surprised by the events of the film. But Loach’s presentation of them through the fresh eyes of Daniel, a skilled carpenter rendered unable to work by a heart attack, deliberately highlights the shocking fact that our safety net is truly in tatters.
I’ve been volunteering in the computer room at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project for a couple of months now. I’ve met several real-life Daniels. One thing the film doesn’t show is the soul-destroying effect of the grotesque merry-go-round of ESA rejection/JSA application/appeal tribunal when it is followed almost immediately by another assessment and another rejection, starting the whole ridiculous business again. I met a man recently who reckoned he could easily end up living on the streets because of this kind of instability. He didn’t think he’d survive it again.
It also didn’t show the knock-on effect of sanctions on people’s housing. Both Daniel and his friend Katie were sanctioned in the film, leaving them without income for four weeks. We weren’t shown whether they contacted the local council to ensure their housing benefit was not automatically stopped – despite belated DWP guidance to the contrary, many people in real life have gone into rent arrears because of this delightful bureaucratic hiccup.
Some of the most upsetting sequences in the film showed single parent Katie struggling to keep her head above water, alone in an unfamiliar town, dependent on the kindness of strangers and the charity of the foodbank. The latest survey of foodbanks in Brighton & Hove was published just this month by Brighton & Hove Food Partnership. As you might expect, the city’s 15 foodbanks are dealing with increasing demand, due to benefit changes and delays, and high housing and transport costs. In 2016, local foodbanks are supplying 298 food parcels in an average week.
But real-life Katie is unlikely to be able to stay in Brighton for much longer, even with the help of her local foodbank. Right now, the weekly benefit entitlement for a single parent with two children of opposite sexes is a total of £455.18. That’s £73.10 in JSA, £117.40 in Child Tax Credits, £34.40 in Child Benefit and £230.28 in local housing allowance.
Brighton & Hove Council reports that there are currently no 3-bedroom properties available in the city that are affordable for a family on this level of housing benefit. If Katie were living in Brighton & Hove, she would already be paying at least £100 of her weekly rent out of her remaining income, as well as around £4 a week in council tax, leaving her and her children with less than £120 a week to live on. No wonder she needs the foodbank.
But next month – from 7th November 2016 – the new benefit cap will come into force. That will reduce Katie’s housing benefit to £159 a week, and her remaining income – after rent and council tax – to £50 a week.
£50 a week to feed and clothe a family, and pay the bills? It’s clearly impossible.
Some of my fellow students at the welfare benefits training course I attended earlier this month were council staff from the Housing Options team. Their job is to advise people about what to do if they are in danger of homelessness. Based on these facts, they are making it clear to people now that if you have children, your only options are to get a job or leave town.
To put it another way, there is no longer a safety net in our city for people with children.
I’m not telling you anything you haven’t been told before. Groups like Boycott Workfare, Disabled People against Cuts and Black Triangle have been campaigning about this stuff for years. Bloggers like Joe Halewood, Johnny Void, and Kate Belgrave have been valiantly trying to get the word out.
They’ve had to fight a battle to be heard, because benefit claimants were being relentlessly demonised by the press and broadcast media. Even the Labour Party’s former shadow secretary of state for work & pensions ended up joining in.
Jeremy Corbyn is one of the few politicians who was listening all along. Debbie Abrahams’ announcement at this year’s party conference that Labour would abolish the Work Capability Assessment has already made a difference, with the government immediately announcing that people with chronic disabilities and terminal illnesses would not have to be endlessly reassessed for ESA. Why they are still insisting on the same people being regularly reassessed for Personal Independence Payment remains a mystery.
If you haven’t yet raised your voice to support those who are campaigning on these issues, please take some action, however small. Write to your MP, pledge a ticket on this Facebook group to enable someone else to see I, Daniel Blake – or find someone who has pledged one so you can afford to see it, organise a community screening in January, when the DVD comes out, start a discussion in your own social network about the film, or how the benefit cap is forcing families out of our local communities, volunteer at a food bank or join a political party. I don’t think there’s one right thing to do – we need to build a diverse and broad social movement that changes the public mood, not just swap one lot of managerial politicians for another.
After all, if there’s no safety net for some of us, there’ll soon be no safety net for any of us.
I’m a very lucky woman. Despite the occasional unorthodox lifestyle choice (no marriage, no car, no school), I’m generally treated respectfully by people I meet. My right to exist is not usually questioned or challenged.
I’ve never had to cope with moving into a new area, to be greeted by something like this:
— Sharon McDaid (@sharonf) June 19, 2014
I’ve never been homeless, never come up against the myriad architectural features that exist to make urban spaces unwelcoming for people with nowhere else to go.
It’s much more than spikes – click the picture for an article about the whole range of hostile architecture.
As I say, I’m lucky. What I don’t understand is why other people, also blessed with stable homes in a country not currently riven by war, feel the need to drive the unlucky ones so far out of sight.
Is this happening more? Maybe it’s always been like this and I’ve just noticed it more this year. In the last five weeks alone, 28% of voters supported a party whose main policy was opposition to immigration, refugees have had their makeshift shelters bulldozed in Calais, there’s been an outcry about spikes to prevent rough sleepers bedding down in the ‘wrong’ places, and the annual round of traveller evictions has begun again in Brighton.
Here are the lyrics, for those who prefer or need to read, rather than listen.
Despite my luckiness in life, I do have some small insight into being one of the unwanted ones, thanks to my obstinate choice to get around by bike. Like gypsies and travellers, “cyclists” are an acceptable target for violently expressed hatred.
I’ve often wondered if, in both cases, this is born of envy. Watching someone whizz past the traffic jam on a bike must be a bit galling, I suppose. A travelling life doesn’t appeal to me, but I guess it might look like an easy option for people who work in jobs they don’t enjoy to pay sky-high rents, while the travellers seem to come and go as they please. There’s a feeling that the outsider group is somehow getting away with something and should be made to knuckle under like the rest of us.
Even though it would make so much more sense to design cities, as they do in the Netherlands, in order to encourage and welcome cycling by people of all ages, for all kinds of journeys, riding a bike in the UK at the moment means negotiating an environment so hostile it might as well have been designed by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
Last week, I went to a consultation workshop on the proposed new road layout in North Street. A large part of the conversation focused on concerns (expressed mainly by the police and representatives of the Chapel Royal) that additional seating in North Street might inadvertently provide a refuge for the rough sleepers and street drinkers who are apparently soon to be driven out of New Road and Pavilion Gardens. The developers did their best to be reassuring, explaining that the new development will flatten the building fronts on North Street, removing all those enticing doorways.
When I said the street drinkers didn’t prevent me from enjoying New Road and Pavilion Gardens, I was told I must be very unusual. Am I? I don’t think so. Both areas are always busy and bustling when I go there. The street drinkers don’t dominate, because the space has been made welcoming for everyone.
It seems to me that these problems are not caused by the existence or presence of those unwanted people, but by our inability to share nicely. If we can make our cities and continents into places where there’s a bit of space for all kinds of people, then we might have a chance of working out how to actually help those among us who are down on their luck, instead of spending all our energy trying to sweep them away.
After all, as we are rapidly finding out to our cost, there is no “away” on a finite planet. There is no bottomless pit for our rubbish, no sink big enough for our carbon and no safe storage for our nuclear waste. And there is no “someplace else” for the refugees, the travellers, the street people and the cyclists to put themselves.
This Saturday, at the People’s Assembly Against Austerity demonstration in London, I heard a young woman speak simply and powerfully about the campaign by a group of young single mothers to be housed in London, after Newham council evicted them from their hostel.
The Focus E15 mums are an inspiration as they continue to fight for decent housing for everyone, not just themselves. Here in Brighton, housing is also a major issue. With 28% of local households living in private rented accommodation and house prices continuing to rise, tenants are facing increasing demands to pay more rent and higher agency fees or find “somewhere else” to live.
Brighton People’s Assembly Against Austerity and the new Living Rent Campaign have called a public meeting on July 10th, to talk about how we can begin to turn things around. I’ll be there and I hope it can be the start of a more hopeful conversation.