International Migrants Day: What it means to be a migrant in the West Midlands
International Migrants Day takes place on Sunday 18 December, with this year’s theme being “It takes a community”.
On 18 December 1990, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
Each year on December 18, the United Nations uses International Migrants Day to highlight the contributions made by the roughly 272 million migrants, including more than 41 million internally displaced persons, and the challenges they face.
This global event examines a wide range of migration themes, Social Cohesion, Dignity, Exploitation, Solidarity to advocate for migration guided by the principle that humane and orderly migration benefits migrants and society.
In the UK and elsewhere, migrants contribute to society with their knowledge, networks, and skills to build stronger, more resilient communities. The global social and economic landscape can be shaped through impactful decisions to address the challenges and opportunities presented by global mobility and people on the move.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “On this International Migrants Day, we reflect on the lives of the over 280 million people who left their country in the universal pursuit of opportunity, dignity, freedom, and a better life.
“Today, over 80 per cent of the world’s migrants cross borders in a safe and orderly fashion. This migration is a powerful driver of economic growth, dynamism, and understanding.
“But unregulated migration along increasingly perilous routes – the cruel realm of traffickers – continues to extract a terrible cost. Over the past eight years, at least 51,000 migrants have died – and thousands more have disappeared. Behind each number is a human being – a sister, brother, daughter, son, mother, or father.
“Migrant rights are human rights. They must be respected without discrimination – and irrespective of whether their movement is forced, voluntary, or formally authorised. There is no migration crisis; there is a crisis of solidarity. Today and every day, let us safeguard our common humanity and secure the rights and dignity of all.”
So, why do people migrate to Birmingham and the West Midlands and what does it mean to be part of the migrant experience?
Here are the views of five individuals whose personal or family lives have been impacted by migration as they’ve made their journey to settle in the United Kingdom.
Sarmad lived a prosperous life with his family in Iraq as a child, before the US bombardment and invasion of the country in 2003. Having already lost his father, this forced him and his mother to flee to Jordan before having to migrate once again. Unfortunately, they were forced to separate with Sarmad ending up in the UK and his mother in the US.
After years of not being able to see her, he was granted British citizenship and able to travel to see his mother, only months before she tragically passed away due to health complications. He has since started a new life in Birmingham, where he has lived since arriving in the country, and is working hard to become a filmmaker.
“I would describe my heritage as my legacy actually, that’s number one. It’s very important to see and be in different countries as you can share your culture and discover new cultures.
“To be a migrant, for me it is a journey to discover myself, and to reach a new different level in my life. It’s about experiencing different things towards a better life. There are many things that I want to achieve, so I have to adapt to the environment and adjust myself.
“Being a migrant in the United Kingdom is better than any other country, because here the atmosphere and the environment allows you to meet and mix with people from many different backgrounds and cultures, that also helps us to not feel strange and out of place; which is why England is the best place to migrate, because the different cultures respect each other.
“The negativity is minor in the UK. Yes, we see some racism and some communities reject some other communities but everyone has different circumstances, different opinions, different experiences and a different understanding of what it means to be a migrant. Some people see it as having an impact on the country which affects the economy, while other people know it’s a good thing that raises up the country’s development through people’s hard work and skill sharing.
“Everyone tends to see it from their own perspective but sharing each other’s cultures and traditions helps people expand their viewpoint. I think there should be more education for people about how migrants benefit our society. There are always more positives than not.”
Magdalena, known simply as ‘Mags’ or ‘Magda’, has been in the UK for 12 years. Originally from Poland, she has found she has a stronger connection to her home country since she left, and has developed greater affinity with her Eastern European neighbours while living and working in the diverse communities of Birmingham.
She acknowledges her privileges as a white European but is also acutely aware of the universal struggles faced by most migrants in the UK. Much of her activism is centred around migration, both in her role as an Advice Coordinator at Polish Migrants Organise for Change; and as EU Settlement Scheme adviser at SIFA Fireside.
“My migrant heritage is definitely Polish and Eastern European and I can say that I didn’t really appreciate it until I left Poland.
“I would say it’s pretty important for me. Since I left Poland I learnt so much more about Poland and Eastern Europe than I did when I actually lived there. I would say it’s a massively important part of my identity. Especially when we live away from our home countries, we can see how much culture there is in everyday things that we do, the way we talk that we never even paid attention to when we lived back home.
“Being a migrant is complicated, being a migrant means mostly to me, never really feeling at home anywhere because once you leave your home country, you don’t really belong there and you never really, really belong here.
“It’s not just about the way you feel about it, it’s the way the media and public discourse keeps reminding you about it. It’s also about this feeling of having one foot here and one foot in your home country, you’re always torn between the two.
“You want to go back but you came here for a reason. For a lot of us it’s monetary reasons, our countries are not the best when it comes to money, the job market isn’t great so that’s why we came to the UK.
“Migration is a good thing for the UK just in the same way it’s good for every other place. I think it’s important that in the 21st Century we can travel everywhere, we can meet lots of people that we would never have been able to meet one hundred years ago when transport wasn’t as accessible.
“It’s important to exchange ideas, points of view. There are those differences in how people greet each other in different countries, how they speak to each other, and the way that communication can be direct or indirect. There are lots of things you can learn about the world just from people around you who come from these different countries.
“Everyone who comes to the UK or any other country they migrate to brings a wealth of knowledge but also certain wisdoms from their own country.
“I don’t really get many negative reactions to being a migrant. Sure, there are some micro-aggressions but being from Poland means that I am a white woman who comes from a majority-white country. Obviously the dominant religion is Christianity here as it is in Poland so we’re not seen as ‘those outsiders’, people who are massively different to British people.
“I don’t get many negative reactions and I know it’s because I am white, I know that this is why so many other migrants do have these negative experiences and I’m very conscious of it, that I am perceived as the “good migrant”, I am the migrant who has a job, who speaks good English, who doesn’t have a strong accent, that is ‘not annoying’ when I speak; because people around us pay attention to those things, so I don’t get a negative reaction to being a migrant but sometimes you are made to feel not unwelcome but made to feel like you should know your place.”
Mary is from Zimbabwe but has made the UK her home. Living in the West Midlands, she initially struggled to settle in but her faith kept her resolute.
Over the years, she has slowly found her community and built her base; through her local church where she met her husband Frank, and through migrant classes and training workshops which have empowered her to set up her own social enterprise as a local businesswoman designing and creating clothes. She is proud of her heritage but understands there are still a great deal of misconceptions around people like her which need to be challenged.
“As an African and having migrant heritage, I feel empowered. Having two nationalities makes me feel empowered as I came here as an African and now I’m a British citizen.
“I came here as a ZImbabwean but now my mind is open because I have meant different people here not only from other African countries but people from England, Wales, Scotland and not my mindset is broader than it was before.
“Being a migrant means you are an outsider, you are a foreigner, sometimes you don’t feel belonging, you feel like someone who doesn’t feel like they belong there depending on the treatment you get but sometimes you just have to ignore it.
“Migration is good for the UK because if you look at the NHS, the nurses, the doctors, the footballers, the bus drivers; in every sector you can see that it’s being built and held by migration, it’s being strengthened by immigrants so migration is good for the UK.
“Being a migrant can sometimes be a pain you feel hurt but sometimes you just have to ignore the hate. I think especially on social media, you can see that people are being attacked, being told to go back to where they come from even when they were born here. For a lot of young people born here, this confuses them.
“For example, footballers are often told to go home when fans are unhappy with their performance but then they are heralded as British when they play well. Being a migrant or of migrant background can be a struggle.”
Althia takes pride in her Caribbean heritage but doesn’t feel it’s at odds with her British identity. Living in the UK since 2002, she works towards championing migrant contributions to society and has developed her skills through empowerment workshops to become a writer, editing her own magazine for Black History Month and currently writing a children’s book.
Community is vital for her and social spaces have encouraged her to come out of her shell in recent years, helping her develop a small business producing her own soaps and creams using ingredients native to her home nation of Jamaica.
“I’m originally from Jamaica and travel there regularly but Britain has been my home for a long time. Migration is normal as it has been going since the time of human existence, most of us are where we are due to migration, yet some people seem to be hostile to it. The idea of gatekeeping boundaries and creating borders simply because you were born somewhere by chance seems like an odd concept, but it is a global reality.
“I migrated from the Caribbean to the UK for much the same reasons most people migrate. For work, for opportunities, to be closer to family, for a better life.
“My birth country is very important to me, and so is my adopted country. Both of these identities are part of who I am now, we shouldn’t have to choose between different parts of what makes us whole. Personality politics, forced labels, racism and xenophobia are the things that lead to a broken and hostile society.
“Being a migrant helps us to meet and access different cultures and a wide diversity of people. It creates life-long bonds and better understanding of each other. It helps us learn, love and live as one. Humans need greater solidarity and unity to thrive.
“Migration is very important to the UK for many reasons, including our labour force, our cultural variety, our languages, music and food; all building a diverse nation.”
Mariana identifies with several countries, all of which give her a sense of cultural richness and influence as she continues her journey in Birmingham. Born in the Republic of Moldova, she also identifies as Romanian and embraces cultural influences from Russia, France and the UK. For her, sharing and embracing different cultures is the best way to break down barriers and challenge negative perceptions around migration.
“I would describe migrant heritage as a collection of memories you have, through books, music, art, culture, writings, food, sports, dances and so on, and I think it’s a very, very broad umbrella which covers all of these aspects.
“It’s important for me to identify myself with different countries that I’m from. I’m originally born in Moldova but I also hold Romanian citizenship because I identify myself as Romanian from Moldova due to the fact that Moldova was part of the Soviet Union and there is a lot of Russian influence in Moldova. But I also became British last year so it’s important to me to have different experiences from the countries where I was born, where I’ve inherited cultural aspects but also where I am at the moment and how my transformation is happening as a migrant.
“I also actually lived in France for eight years when I did my studies, my university degree, so French culture is an important part of me and this can be seen in my food, how I cook and select the food I like and so on.
“Being a migrant means that I’m actually rich in all of the experiences that I’ve had, all the people I’ve met and the fact that I can understand different languages because I speak these languages. It means I can try different foods from different countries and the fact that I can listen to different music from different countries, which is a richness in itself; so being a migrant means that I am rich.
“Migration is a good thing for the UK because first of all it brings different skills from different countries, so we’re not here to steal somebody’s job but here to contribute to what the UK has to offer. The stereotype that we’re stealing jobs is completely unfounded and untrue, hence I founded a Romanian association to fight and reduce those stereotypes about our communities. Migration is a good thing because it brings all the necessary skills to cover the gaps where the UK cannot find the skills required. But also in terms of culture, art and music, it’s fantastic; not only bringing the economical aspect but also bringing the soft skills and the cultural aspect.
“Dealing with negative reactions to being a migrant, there are only two ways. You are either in defensive mode and throw back with the same negative attitude and comments, or you’re taking the matter in your own hands and becoming an ambassador of your own possibilities to share your story. I’ve chosen the latter and have invested myself in promoting Romanian culture, its rich history, dances, food, traditions and I feel that we are actually much more alike than different.”