I am a migrant working in the cultural sector. I moved to the UK more than 12 years ago as a mixed-ethnicity Romanian national on a visa, supported by a scholarship in my country.
I’ve had multiple legal statuses, due to transitional measures implemented in the UK following Romania’s accession to the European Union – restricting access to work and welfare – and relating to Brexit.
After moving here I became Eastern European, a term designating a vaguely defined region of Europe that includes countries within and outside the EU. Eastern Europeans are often at the centre of anti-immigration rhetoric, yet absent from diversity quotas.
Thousands of migrants work in the UK’s cultural sector. All experience first hand, and to different degrees, the effects of a xenophobic and racist immigration regime. This doesn’t just happen at the border, but is part of everyday experience.
This disproportionately affects non-EU migrants, people of colour and those with precarious legal statuses. Migrancy operates across legal status, nationality, race and ethnicity, yet is absent from Arts Council England and government agendas of inclusion.
I am part of Migrants in Culture, a support network and action group holding the cultural sector accountable to migrants, people of colour and all others whom the immigration regime affects. On October 30, we released our research report on the impact of the ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy on the cultural sector.
The ‘hostile environment’ policy is a set of legal and administrative measures launched in 2012, and legislated in the Immigration Act of 2014 and 2016, designed to make life in the UK difficult for people without leave to remain. It is definitive to the experience of migrant cultural workers and people of colour in the UK.
The policy operates by forcing employers, including cultural and educational organisations, as well as landlords, banks and healthcare professionals, to act as border agents, creating cultures of distrust, compliance and fear based on profiling.
The policy has manifested itself through refusing visas for visiting artists, racial profiling and racism experienced by those working in universities and cultural organisations, exploitation of black, brown and migrant cleaners and security staff, or restricted access to work, funding and programming opportunities that implicitly favour those who can prove indefinite leave to remain or British citizenship.
The policy has moralised migration, implying that there is such a thing as a good or bad migrant, and enforcing colonially rooted cultures of exclusion that privilege whiteness and monolingualism.
More than 600 respondents to our survey provided evidence on the lack of knowledge of the ‘hostile environment’ policy and the structural lack of support in the sector. Ninety percent of respondents said they were angry or fearful of the policy.
More than half of those who identified as migrants experienced emotional distress and discrimination, with 80% stating lack of support in their workplace or study and a quarter considering leaving the country. More than half of respondents who work in a position of governance or senior management said they lacked knowledge about ‘hostile environment’, while cultural organisations did not have policies for migrant staff.
We need a more informed cultural sector, aware of the ways in which the ‘hostile environment’ policy affects and implicates us all.
Compliance looks like: regularly undertaking passport checks; reporting student absences leading to their potential deportation; not offering financial, legal and pastoral support to migrants; restricting access to grants through residency status; profiling someone on the basis of their skin colour or accent; engaging in tokenistic programming; demanding migrants and people of colour to make palatable work.
We need to work together for a cultural sector that structurally supports migrants and people of colour, providing safe and welcoming environments in which to build new cultures.
There are many individuals, organisations, community groups and allies in the cultural sector and beyond working towards accountability and support for migrant cultural workers. These include Migrants Organise, Unis Resist Border Controls, the Voice of Domestic Workers, Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly, End Deportations (Stansted15), and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants.
Diana Damian Martin is a writer and academic working at the intersection between writing, politics and performance. She co-hosts Critical Interruptions, a Serbo-Romanian critical cooperative, and Something Other and the Department of Feminist Conversations. She is a senior lecturer in performance arts at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama