Today on the blog, Bloomsbury author Linda McDowell from the University of Oxford talks about her forthcoming book, Migrant Women's Voices: Talking About Life and Work in the UK Since 1945 in relation to the current debate about migration in Europe.
"The war came and we have to climb the mountains… to Albania. I took my children on a plastic boat from south of Albania to Italy, just a private boat. We have to pay the money. 23 people in the boat and everyone was squeezing the children…"
-- Fitore, born in Kosovo
Fitore’s journey across the Adriatic was in 1999. In 2016, similar journeys dominate the news. Shocking images of children washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean, cold and frightened people walking across Europe and xenophobic responses as states erect fences or close borders all seem to herald a new and distressing crisis.
A little thought, though, and it is not hard to recollect that Europe has been here before. At the end of World War II, about seven million refugees were homeless; after Vietnam, the ‘boat people’ became UK residents; and after the war in Kosovo at the end of 1990s, queues of the disposed, walking across borders, became common again. The UK Government’s response to asylum seekers has not always been as disappointing as it is at present. Jewish women were given a home and work in the 1930s; women and men from the Baltic States were transformed from asylum seekers into what were termed ‘European Volunteer Workers’ and employed to assist in the post-war reconstruction efforts after 1945; refugees after the Hungarian crisis in 1956 came to the UK; and from the mid-1960s thousands of East African people of South Asian heritage, including the people expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972, were allowed to come to Britain despite increasingly restrictive immigration legislation.
Once settled, refugees and asylum seekers often become workers. Others come to the UK explicitly as economic migrants, already with a job offer or ready to seek work as soon as they enter the country. These migrants - the majority once from Britain’s former empire, but currently from an increasingly diverse range of countries - often find work in some of the least secure and least prestigious parts of the labour market. Typically low paid, especially the women among them, they labour to care for the sick and the elderly, for children, as British mothers also enter the workforce in growing numbers, working in hospitals and care homes, on the buses, in factories making car components, stitching collars onto shirts or assembling soft toys in their own homes, waiting at tables, or, for the more fortunate or better qualified, teaching in schools and universities or working in banks, in libraries or operating theatres.
In the increasingly rancorous debates about the impact of migrants and possible Brexit, women migrants are seldom heard. In my book Migrant Women’s Voices, my aim is to begin to challenge their silencing: to let them tell their own stories of dispossession and migration, of hunger, of violence and rape, of severe hardship, and of hard labour in the UK - but also the joy of rebuilding lives, establishing families and re-cementing former community ties. Between an introductory and concluding chapter, more than 70 women from Latvia, Kuwait, Uganda, Colombia, Ireland, Trinidad, New Zealand, Brazil, India, East Timor and 12 other countries tell their stories in their own words, revealing the enormous contribution they have made to this country, not only through their waged work but by helping the UK to become a more diverse and tolerant country - at least until recently. My hope is that these inspiring stories of ‘ordinary’ but exceptional lives will help to challenge negative preconceptions about the impact of migration into the UK.
Migrant Women's Voices by Linda McDowell is published on 25th February 2016, and is available to pre-order on the Bloomsbury website.