I’m writing this piece from a tiny room that I’m staying in at a friend’s place. I look around me and see bags of clothes, boxes of shoes and packets of odds and sods strewn around the small space. There are bits and pieces lying on the floor, piles of paper on the desk and sundry items scattered around. The last items of my life in the UK , all waiting to be packed away or disposed of.
After twelve years of living in London, I have called it a day. I will be leaving the UK in just a few days. I know I will be back eventually. I have to, because I still have properties here. But when I do come back, it will be as a tourist, not a resident.
My decision to leave the UK has not been an easy one to make; I deliberated over it for well over a year. And even so, there were times when I doubted my decision and made gestures to renew my visa. However, my attempts never went beyond calling my lawyer and promising I would begin the preliminary paperwork. I never did.
If you had asked me, back in 2012, would I ever leave the UK, I would’ve laughed. “No way! I love it here! This is my home!”, I would’ve said. And at the time, that’s exactly how I felt. I had fallen in love with London from the moment I stepped out of the train station at Kings Cross for the very first time. I still remember the moment I thought London was the most beautiful city on the planet. It was a warm, summer ‘s night and I was on the Hungerford Bridge. I looked out over the Thames and saw the city lit up by lights of various colours, shapes and sizes. It was truly breathtaking. And for a long, long time, every time I crossed one of the bridges over the Thames and looked out to see the iconic London skyline, I would think the same thought: “Girl, just look where you are now! You’re in London”. For me, London was a place I dreamed of coming to since I was in my early teens, back in the 80’s. I saw video clips on TV, I read about its music and fashion in magazines, the cool places to go, the even cooler people who lived here. Of course, not arriving here until 2005, I missed all that but still, London was an amazingly cool place and there was always so much going on, any time of the day or night, any day of the week. It was impossible to get bored here.
I was lucky in that I arrived here with a job waiting for me. I had applied from overseas, came for the interview, and was given the job straight away. I had time to go back to Italy, where I was living at the time, pack up my things, the dog and the cat, and anything else my husband and I could fit into our VW Westfalia van. We then took about 4 days driving from Italy, through France to Calais and into Dover. At the time, Calais meant nothing to me. As far as I was concerned, it was the port where we had to have our animals’ documents checked, as well as our own, and where we got the ferry across to the UK. I don’t remember anything else about the place, except that the port was grim.
The next day, we drove our van onto the ferry and settled in. Some time later, we arrived at Dover and drove off. We were asked by the immigration officers for our passports, which we gave. We also gave the immigration officer our wedding certificate. That was it. My husband was Italian and under Freedom of Movement he was allowed to enter the UK, and as his wife, I was allowed to enter with him. “Welcome to the UK”, said the immigration officer.
Settling in wasn’t easy, I have to admit but eventually, we got there. My husband and I rented a house, I bought a car, and started work – all within 5 days of arriving. Six months later, I obtained my 5 year visa and we put a deposit on our own home with the money we brought with us.
While things went well for me, things didn’t go so well for my husband. He hated it here. He was used to being known where he lived; he was used to people saying hello to each other in the street and in the shops; he was used to the sense of security and belonging that living in a community gave. But here, he felt anonymous, a nobody, “just one more immigrant”. I, on the other hand, loved the anonymity of living here. I loved the fact that I could go into London and wear a teapot on my head if I wanted to, and nobody would say anything (not that I ever did that, mind you). But that was the great joy of living in London – nobody cared what you looked like, nobody cared where you were from. You were just one more of millions of others.
Eventually, in 2007, my husband couldn’t take it anymore. The anonymity, coupled with my success at work, was just too much for him and he returned to Italy. I was shocked, yes. I was devastated, yes. But I also bounced back quickly. I had a full life – I had a job that I enjoyed working for the NHS in a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, I was making reasonable money, I was making friends, I had developed interests again, and I had London to explore and make my own.
For the next five years, I was really happy. I had made a group of friends with whom I’d go to the theatre; I had begun dancing again, eventually learning how to swing dance; I was out dating again after years of marriage; I travelled around the UK and Europe; I had disposal income for the first time in my life. Life couldn’t have been better.
I was also politically unaware. I was too absorbed with creating a life for myself. The first time I heard any grumblings about immigrants was around 2009. I was at work and overheard two of the admin staff complaining that “immigrants were coming here taking our jobs and our homes”. As I stood there in front of them, listening to their conversation, one of them complained that her son couldn’t get a job or a council house “because those immigrants just come here and the next day, they’re given everything.” I couldn’t help myself.I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. After all, I was an immigrant. “What do you mean? Have I taken your son’s job? Have I taken your son’s council house? How do these immigrants do it? Please tell me, so that I, too, can get a council house instead of paying a mortgage on a one bedroom box”.
That was the first time I heard “Oh no, not you. We didn’t mean you. You’re one of the good immigrants”. Since then, though, I have heard that hundreds of times. And every other foreigner I know will probably also say that they’ve heard that same response endless times, too.
By 2012, the Coalition government was well and truly in power and they began responding to the increasingly loud voices of UKIP and others who couldn’t accept the changes that inherently came with immigration. That was also when the government, with Theresa May as Home Secretary, proposed the new Immigration Bill and started talking about making the UK a “hostile environment” for immigrants, bringing with it a change in the political and social atmosphere in the UK, a change that would get more and more noticeable with time. 2012 was also the year my 5 year visa expired and I had to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain. Never did I imagine, when I handed over to my lawyers all the documents necessary for my application (two large boxes worth), my passport and a big wad of money, that 2012 would be a pivotal year, where everything changed for me and my world would begin to fall apart.
From that point on, I couldn’t leave the UK – Home Office had my passport. I prayed and I prayed that my mum, who was 78 at the time, stayed well. As an only child, and living far away, being able to travel at a drop of a hat was paramount. I had learnt that when my dad died. The months passed and still no response from Home Office. After 6 months, my lawyers sent them a letter asking for an update. No reply. At 8 or 9 months, they sent another letter. Eventually, a letter came back saying my application was being processed and that we just had to wait. In the meantime, there was a documentary on TV about the shambles the UKVI was in. I remember seeing the reporter saying that UKVI (known as UKBA back then) had got the employees to work overtime to get ahead with the backlog, but what they filmed were mainly empty chairs, piles and piles of boxes overflowing with files all mixed up and falling on to the floor, and the few employees present swinging around on wheelie chairs doing very little. I remember thinking at the time, “my application is somewhere in that mess”.
A year later, just before my birthday, I got the response from UKVI – they had refused my application. I couldn’t believe it! They said that I was in the country illegally and, therefore, I had no right to appeal the decision. (You can read more about my story here, here, here and here). There was no way I was here illegally. My visa was valid when I made the application and the law states that if you have a valid visa when you make the application, your legal status remains as it was. We sent in further evidence, more money was paid to lawyers and barristers, and more time was spent waiting. Then in November, it was final – they had refused and no right to appeal. I was instantly dismissed from my job, and my only options were to either leave in 28 days or overstay to force an appeal.
During the time I campaigned for my case (with the help of many good people), I became far more politically aware. I was contacted by newspapers both here and in Australia, I went on radio programmes in the UK, Australia and other countries, I was interviewed for documentaries and asked to participate on panels at workshops on immigration. I even featured in two books. A few things stand out in my mind about that time.
Firstly, this was the time that the “Go Home” vans came out and the “Stop & Search” policy was implemented. As someone who no longer had valid documentation, I was both horrified and terrified. I remember tweeting how it reminded me so much of the early days of Nazi Germany, when anti-Semitic posters and vans were distributed, and Jews had to carry special papers (before they had to wear yellow stars). Someone tweeted back saying I was being hysterical, that the UK was an open and tolerant country. But my experience was a far cry from that. For me, the UK was indeed becoming the “hostile environment” that Theresa May had promised, reflected in the newspapers like The Sun, The Daily Express and The Daily Mail and echoed by increasing numbers of the population. After all, few would deny that the Brexit referendum was largely fought on the issue of immigration and that after the Brexit vote, race hate crime increased dramatically.
Another thing that stands out in my mind were the comments people made below the articles written about me. Many were supportive and found the whole debacle shocking. But for every person who supported me, there was someone else who said something truly appalling. But there was also a whole lot of people in between who, whilst seeming to sound supportive, their support came with a caveat: that I “should be allowed to stay” because I provided them with a service that they needed (helping their children with mental health problems). All of a sudden, I felt I had stopped being a person, with a life, with my own dreams and desires, and I became a thing, a thing that should be kept because I was useful. And the underlying message was that had I not been useful to them, I should not be allowed to stay. It was the first time I had come across what I would later term “commodifying people”.
I don’t entirely blame those people for thinking that way, because I think that many people just trust what they read in the papers without thinking much about it. I do, however, think that the blame lies mainly with the politicians and many mainstream media. The majority of politicians suddenly got on the bandwagon of “wanting the brightest and the best” to stay in the country and that was the message Theresa May, then Home Secretary, was putting out to the public. The government was hell-bent on reducing net migration, a flawed measurement, and their argument to back visa refusals was to separate the chaff from the grain. Keep the useful ones, discard the rest. So we stopped being people, and became commodities. And our value was based on what assets we brought to the country, not who we were as people.
This then led to another realisation. From that rhetoric of “the brightest and the best”, came an emerging trend in the media and even many of the associations, think tanks and forums supposedly in favour of immigration. That is, the idea of “the good immigrant vs bad immigrant”. Suddenly, immigrants were being pitted against each other, and some were deemed “deserving” whilst others not. Deserving of what? When I openly asked that question, the answer was invariably “the privilege of living in the UK”. Why was living in the UK a privilege for me? Why was it for anyone? I think about my own situation – I came from Australia, I brought lots of money into the country, I brought my skills and knowledge here. How was that a privilege for me? Why did I have to prove my worth over and over again, and beg to stay? And what about the asylum seekers? Was seeking safety really a privilege? Is that how people see it? I thought it was a human right. I thought giving asylum to someone in danger was the decent, humane thing to do. And what about the so-called “economic migrants”, the ones who come from poor countries to earn money and do the jobs that nobody here wants? If that was such a privilege, then how come I never see white British cleaners at Victoria station, cleaning the crap and the piss off toilet seats? It just didn’t make sense to me.
But we immigrants fell for the rhetoric , too. In the lead up to the Brexit referendum, I was not only shocked to hear white, British friends of mine tell me that they were voting Brexit “because of all those immigrants pouring into the country”, taking jobs but scrounging benefits, ruining the NHS and filling up schools, buying homes but taking council houses, but I also heard friends who were immigrants themselves say the same thing. I heard Jamaicans born in Jamaica say that they were voting Brexit because of the immigrants, I heard Nigerian friends say the same thing. Hungarian friends complaining how blacks and Muslims were overrunning the country. And I also saw how immigrants had bought into the idea of the “good immigrant” vs “the bad immigrant”. I saw posters go up saying “I am an immigrant” with a picture of a doctor, a nurse, a lawyer, a university graduate. I didn’t see one of the toilet cleaner.
If you read the links, or if you know my story already, you know that I eventually went to court and that the judge ruled in my favour. But it was a hollow victory. I didn’t get Indefinite Leave to Remain. Instead, I got a 30 month visa, which is soon to expire. So I thought about going through that whole process again – of having to prove my worth, of having to beg for the “privilege” of staying here, of always having to do something “useful” rather than just being left to live my life as I see fit. I thought about the change I have seen in this country in the last 5 years. I thought about the divisions amongst people here and the increasingly overt racism even in London. And I thought about all the times I have been told, “If you don’t like it here, go back to where you came from”. In Australia, we have the same things happening, it’s true. We have our own Nigel Farage in the shape of Pauline Hanson, we have racism and race hate crimes, and we do terrible things to refugees there. Don’t get me wrong; I have met some really wonderful people here. I have made friends that I truly love. And I have had support from kind, generous people that I never expected. There are good people everywhere and the UK is no different in that sense. But back in Australia, I can go back to just being a person, and not a commodity. I can openly say I don’t like something, and even do something about it, without being told, “If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from”.
I thought about all those things and realised that because of them, I fell out of love with the UK. Like any broken romance, I went through a period of sadness and loss, then anger and bitterness, then finally acceptance. The truth is, no, I don’t like it here anymore and so yes, I am going back to where I came from.