Framing the Brexit narrative: immigration, myths and public perception

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The Brexit vote was, to many, a vote on immigration. Throughout the campaign, the public were exposed to myths and misinformation – on buses, billboards and via micro-targeted ads on Facebook – the positive contributions of immigration withdrawn from Brexit literature. The thematic essence centred on manipulating public opinion – using immigrants as a convenient scapegoat for governmental failures, detracting attention from the realities of its brutal austerity regime. The public were sold images of migrants 'invading' Britain, while the media and senior politicians peddled a false narrative steeped in anti-immigration rhetoric, facilitated by Britain's hostile environment policy. For many industries – including the writing industry – which thrive on diversity and easy access to Europe, the cultural repercussions of Brexit will prove damaging far beyond economic forecast.


Divide and conquer

The 2016 referendum took place at a time when headlines were dominated by Europe's 'migrant crisis'. Images such as Britain at 'Breaking Point', depicting a long queue of migrants – in reality, refugees in Slovenia who had just crossed the border from Croatia, many fleeing war and persecution – helped to propagate anti-immigration sentiment. Language such as former Prime Minister David Cameron's description of migrants and refugees attempting to cross into Britain as a 'swarm' of people helped to legitimise it. The public zeitgeist captured by xenophobia, migrants were targeted and dehumanised – leading Britons to believe a quarter of the population to be made up of immigrants (the actual figure being half of that).

Within this atmosphere of anti-immigration rhetoric and propaganda, the way for Brexit was carved – public perception warped by media coverage and leading politicians, the cultural benefits of immigration ignored. It is what allowed the Leave campaign to utilise Turkey joining the EU as a threat, summoning images of 80 million Turks coming to the UK if we remained in the EU – warnings echoed at the time by current (at time of writing) Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It is why nearly three-quarters of those worried about immigration voted Leave in 2016; why 81% of people who viewed multiculturalism as a force for ill voted the same way.

Best and brightest

This mass dehumanisation of immigrants as a collective drain on Britain’s resources has travelled through Brexit's door into governmental policy. While Britain was being sold internationally as a cultural hub for diversity and talent, post-Brexit Britain is being imagined as a land where immigrants are assessed by their economic value. The government's immigration policy is set to specifically prioritise high-skilled best and brightest (high-earning) immigrants over those in 'lower-skilled' roles – with access to the UK toughened for EU nationals beyond British citizenship. For Britain's creative industries, like many others, it is a system that will only serve to dilute talent and gentrify opportunity.

Ending free movement

Firstly, the government's policy proposes a £30,000 minimum salary threshold for those looking to live and work in the UK long term. Designed to reduce 'unskilled' migration, it is a ludicrous benchmark that is not only above the national average UK salary, but which also disvalues the writing profession. Authors in the UK earn an average of just £10,500 per year. No exemptions have yet been specified for writers and creative industry workers however – an industry which accounts for 1 in 11 jobs and generates £87 billion a year for the UK economy.

Ending free movement will also prove restrictive for the writers who rely on travel for research. Already a number of authors from outside the EEA were refused entry to this year's Edinburgh international book festival – designed to bring people from across the world together – due to complications in the visa application process. When the same policies become applicable to EU nationals, European authors and artists will be discouraged by a restrictive system; literary and cultural festivals face being deprived of the vital diversity of voice they rely on to expose audiences to new cultures and landscapes. As novelist Linda Grant notes, The free movement of ideas and of individuals are essential for the creative life – severing ties with the EU will damage an industry that endeavours to bring people together, from all walks of life.

Barrier to trade

With exports of published material currently worth £2.9bn to the UK economy, writers including Neil Gaiman, Marina Lewycka and Philip Pullman have warned against the dangers that Brexit poses to the book industry. Being part of the EU means that books printed in the UK can be sold into Europe as easily as in Britain, a benefit to trade that will be lost for the writers and creatives who rely on easy access to European markets – with 36% of exports going to Europe, the unrelenting uncertainties surrounding Brexit present a barrier to their livelihood. The government needs to certify sustainable customs arrangements that will make it easy to trade with Europe and the rest of the world.

Beyond economic value

While Brexit has been analysed through the economic lens, immigration has a bigger role within society, beyond impacts on national fiscal statistics. From Kamila Shamsie to Salman Rushdie, migrants and/or those belonging to diaspora communities have added invaluable perspective to British literature, diversifying the traditional literary canon. There have been countless warnings of how the economy will suffer from Brexit, but the unquantifiable wealth of talent and innovation that immigrants bring to Britain's industries – including the writing industry – will prove the country's biggest loss.

It is for these reasons that the Society of Authors have argued fervently against the government's proposed immigration policy, stressing the value of culture beyond economic terms.

An alternate ending

The pro-Brexit debate was set against a nationalistic ideology that exhorted anti-immigration sentiment – in citing the death of national identity, images of Britain subject to control by foreign powers, chants of 'I want my country back', merely revive arguments for racial segregation. As the Brexit narrative has shown, language is powerful; images help to frame a narrative. Sadly, it takes the image of a young boy washed up on a beach, or a little girl tucked up inside the shirt of her father, washed up on a river bank, for migrants to be given their due of humanity – those fleeing situations beyond our faculties to imagine.

For Britain to retain its image as a world leader in culture and creativity, the government's immigration policy is in need of urgent reform – one that does not assess immigration in terms of economic input. First, more must be done to erode the xenophobic myths that have peddled the mass dehumanisation of immigrants worldwide and to celebrate the benefits of immigration across a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism and diversity.

Lubnaa Joomun is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers that provides Legal Aid support for asylum-seekers and refugees.

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