It all started with a single Facebook post.
The writer and journalist Matt Carr was worried about a rise in hate crime and xenophobic attacks in the wake of the vote for Brexit in June 2016, so placed a message on his own profile asking tentatively whether others would be interested in staging a national day of action highlighting the contribution made by migrants to UK society.
The response was swift, and highly enthusiastic. Matt set up an online group which attracted around 5,000 people within a week, and out of that came a national campaign called One Day Without Us.
“It wasn’t something I expected to be involved in, even then, and certainly not a year later,” says the lead organiser at his home in Meersbrook, Sheffield.
The first campaign day happened in February. Tens of thousands of people took part across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, holding more than 160 events including rallies and protests.
Trade unions, businesses, universities and other organisations supported the movement, believed to be the first-ever national day of solidarity with migrants in the UK.
A date has already been set for next year. The celebration, on February 17, will take place under the slogan ‘Proud to be a migrant, proud to stand with migrants’.
The latest call to action is timely, as statistics produced last month by the Migrants’ Rights Network suggest that most xenophobic abuse is verbal and happens in public places.
“The people who come here are not harmful,” says Matt. “The sooner we recognise that, we can drive forward to make this country a better place for all of us.”
Matt, 61, is originally from Cambridge, and grew up in Jamaica, where his father was a teacher and his mother a lawyer. His family returned to Britain in 1967, but he has lived abroad for lengthy spells since, including nine years in Spain.
He lives with wife Jane, a secondary school teacher, and daughter Lara, 21, and his writing mostly has a historic or political edge. His books include The Infernal Machine, a chronicle of terrorism, and My Father’s House, recounting his childhood in the West Indies.
“I wouldn’t want to compare my experience as a middle-class white person who’s lived abroad with that of migrants who come here and are often subjected to very different pressures,” says Matt.
“I’ve lived abroad for nine years, so I know what it’s like. I know the challenges and difficulties, as well as the pleasures.”
As an 11-year-old back in the UK in 1967 he was struck by an awareness, for the first time, that ‘racism actually existed’.
“I’d go to school and hear people using all kinds of language about West Indians - the people I’d been living with - and people from South Asia and so on.
“I was shocked by it, even as a kid, and it’s been a problem in British society ever since.”
The national tabloid press has kept up a ‘relentless barrage’ of hostile messages mostly directed at EU migrants, he says, arguing that even the word ‘migrant’ is now steeped in negativity.
“People say the numbers are unsustainable but sometimes they have a short memory. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher talked about being swamped by people from an alien culture. She was talking about people mostly from South Asia.”
The past eight years of social turmoil - rising inequality, austerity and the like - have created a fertile climate in which to treat immigrants as scapegoats, he argues.
“One of the most depressing things about the past 18 months was that UK society had made progress. We aren’t the society we were in the mid to late 60s when you were able to use openly racist language, even if you were an MP, and nobody really complained about it.
“All that has been threatened. I felt there was a real risk of a social reversion. That’s something we all have to stand up against.”
The Conservative Party conference of 2016 outlined, he thought, ‘a shocking swathe of openly xenophobic proposals’.
“That seemed to be going on at the same time as this rise in street-level hate crime. There was a sense of entitlement. Our campaign takes a neutral position on the referendum and Brexit, but many people have felt emboldened because of the result - that they are now entitled to insult people in the street, to tell them to go home, to say ‘We voted for you to leave’.”
The Migrants’ Rights Network’s iStreetWatch project found that, of 578 incidents of hate crime reported in the past year, 68 per cent were verbal alone. Almost half of the reported abuse took place in streets and parks.
“A lot of the anti-migrant feeling is based on false information. A lot of people don’t know any migrants and yet they fear all kind of things.
“If we reduce migration to the tens of thousands, we’re likely to end up with an even worse crisis in social care and the NHS than we already have. We are implementing policies that threaten to stop nurses coming from the EU to work for us. It makes no sense whatsoever.”
One Day Without Us was inspired by similar events that have taken place in America and Italy. Italy’s was a rebuttal to the right-wing policies of Silvio Burlusconi’s government, and was quite disruptive, comprising a consumer boycott and strikes.
Britain’s day of action simply asks the public to imagine a day without migrants, with an ‘essentially celebratory’ aim.
“The experience of immigration has been broadly positive for the UK. It’s not a question of migrants being useful, it’s also the fact that they are part of us.”
Oxfam, the TUC and Unison have offered their support, and there are 30 regional campaign groups in towns and cities across the county. The Tate Modern and Tate Britain galleries joined in of their own volition this year, hosting a tour of migrant artists’ work.
“That was great - just having people come out of nowhere. We aren’t a formally constituted organisation. We don’t tell people what to do.”
At least 15 universities backed the campaign at chancellor level, and other student unions held rallies and walkouts.
“Next year we expect it to be bigger than last time,” says Matt.
Visit www.1daywithoutus.org for details or email email@example.com to help out in Sheffield.
Migrants’ crucial economic role
A society without immigrants would be ‘economically catastrophic’, says Matt Carr.
“Migrants play a vital role in the NHS, in food distribution and preparation. Maybe migrants do jobs that Brits don’t like to do nowadays.
“More broadly, migrants have brought all kinds of cultural changes to the country in terms of food, music, the books we read and the clothes we wear - they’ve brought us closer to the outside world.”
He accepts that migration is not ‘a pain-free process’, and that a common complaint was of pressure on doctors’ surgeries and schools. Matt thinks this could be solved with financial measures, such as investing in GP practices.
“We are a country of immigration and we always have been to some extent - we had black migrants living here in the 16th and 17th centuries.
“There is a difference between hardcore xenophobes and racists, who probably can’t be convinced, and the much larger group of people who are alarmed and frightened by certain things like the terrorist attacks we’ve seen.”