At an event to mark the end of Refugee Week I spoke about how proud I was of my home city, the city I’ve been given the honour of leading, having sent a message that it is an open, welcoming and international city this week. I spoke of how we welcome as we always have done those fleeing conflict, and pledged that we would take more children who have lost homes and family through war and give them a future. I said that we would do this to honour the memory of Jo Cox, who supported the Dubs Amendment, and that we would play our small part in continuing her work.
During the event a man came up behind me and shouted “don’t you know, the borders are now closed!” Clearly a reference to this week’s EU Referendum where for many, the motivation behind their vote was immigration. Now let me be clear that many who voted Leave are not racist, had a valid case for ending our membership of the EU, and who distanced themselves from some of the appalling rhetoric used by some during the campaign.
The worst was the “Breaking Point” poster unveiled by Nigel Farage in the closing days of the campaign, an image reminiscent of ones used by the Nazis of snaking queues of migrants, in this case refugees fleeing war in Syria on their way to Slovakia.
It is right that there is a discussion about migration, but it is very hard to keep that debate to the facts. Facts such as the net benefit to the UK economy and health service of migration, facts about UK residents migrating to other EU countries. The UK is not at “breaking point” in that our capacity to build and house a growing population exists, and that as the fifth largest economy – at least until last Friday – we can afford to play our part in receiving at least a fraction of the numbers of refugees as other states.
Elements of the media and groups like UKIP have for years fuelled a distrust and resentment of migrants, and the Referendum debate and result has exposed a deep seam of xenophobia and in some cases racism against anyone “foreign” or different, regardless of where they are from, how long they have been here or where they were born. Many people have, in the hours since the result, spoken of their fears, of the open abuse, of the uncertainty about their place in this country that they are now experiencing.
This cannot be our future; one built on the prejudices of the past. Not here.
Brighton and Hove is an international city, facing the European continent across the narrow Channel that separates us physically if not culturally or economically from mainland Europe. Our universities take in students from all over the globe, as do our language colleges. Eleven million tourists come each year, many to visit our historic Pavilion, built two centuries ago by a German prince to resemble an Indian palace on the outside, and a Chinese one inside. It isn’t, as some assumed, a mosque.
The vast modern European headquarters of American Express, completed in the past few years, employs more than any other business in our city, with a workforce blending the local and the global. Nearby work is underway on a £450 million hospital refurbishment that will create a regional centre for the 21st century, one that could not function without doctors, nurses and support staff from all over the world.
Our current and future conference centres depend on international convention business. Our creative digital industry sells to Europe and beyond. Our annual Festival and year-round cultural programme showcases arts from every corner of our planet.
Our city depends and thrives on tourism, healthcare, culture and businesses that in turn depend on being open to Europe and the world. We are indebted to those who come here, spend here, live here, pay taxes here, employ here, study here. I send out a clear message today that you are just as welcome tomorrow as you were yesterday.