I marched through London on the Refugees Welcome Here march on Saturday. The standing
around was awful, the walking, once we finally got under way, not nearly so bad. But to call
any demo a march is wrong; they are nothing so energetic. They are much more like a
structured meander. I thought at times that I would have to give up before we reached
Parliament Square… but I was buoyed up by the messages on the banners and the shouted
chants around me.
Banners, some printed, some hand-written said:
– Stop telling people to go home – (picture of the earth) – we are home!
– I welcome refugees
– Humanity over racism
– Get up. Stand up.
– Humans Welcome.
– Stop treating refugees as criminals
– People not Borders
– Fortress Europe, open up…
– Migrants and refugees are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved
– Choose Love (on tee-shirts)
– I have refugenes (tee-shirts)
– Compassion for all – Not another wall!
– Stand as One
– Open the borders. Fight Racism and Islamaphobia.
– Proud to protect refugees
– No-one is illegal.
One plump, tiny, female Londoner in an amnesty tee-shirt and head-scarf called out “say it
loud! say it clear!” and then we, the multinational, multicoloured crowd, responded with
“REFUGEES ARE WELCOME HERE!”. When her voice finally gave out a white-and- blond girl
took up the lead. She was pink in the face with calling – and I don’t know how they kept
going. I led the chant for about five minutes and went hoarse. I’m not a natural heckler,
obviously. Both girls’ voices had superb volume. Men’s voices don’t carry so well for rallying
cries – and they somehow sound angrier. It was mostly women who led the yelling…
I walked with a girl who arrived here two years ago, escaping from her country by going on a
professional development course – and then disappearing. I asked her why. She said that
after her partner was killed in prison – and the body dumped at the family home – police
detectives had come asking for her at her work-place. She has not one friend or family
member here. No-one.
I talked to people who had fled from religious persecution, political persecution, and those
who had been victimized and terrorized due to their sexual orientation. It should have been
a sad sort of march – but somehow all the sadness and the despair was turned upside down
by the unusual presence of so many hundreds, thousands, of individuals all in one place, all
in a situation which, for once, allowed them a sense of alliance and fellowship.
Refugees have almost no agency. They are blown about, rather like the floating feather
which is seen at the beginning and the end of Forest Gump. It is idiotic – and wicked – to
ascribe machination to people who have run to us in fear of their lives. I have several friends
who have sought refuge here over the years. Some are asylum seekers. Some have leave to
stay. Some do not. Some are “being processed”, revolting phrase.
We waved our placards, (mine said, “Be Human”), at people staring from the top of buses.
Some glared, some smiled, some gawped, some put their friendly thumbs up. And many
drivers honked in encouragement, and a few in exasperation, for we held the traffic up very
effectively round Hyde Park Corner, Pall Mall, Piccadilly, Northumberland Place and finally
What encouraged me about my very emotionally-charged day, was the enormous amount
of grey-haired white British (like myself) who were marching. I dislike very much being
lumped with the older Brits who are said to have Brexited us from Europe for racist or
nostalgically imperialist reasons. So to see so many decrepit white people breaking the
stereotype was soothing to me. Some of us were on walking sticks. Some of us were on
really very improbable-looking legs. Some of us seemed as though only our clothes and our
politics were holding us up. But we kept going, I suppose, on the loveliness of shared belief
and of surprise at how differently the same we all were.
Later in the day when we had arrived in Parliament Square someone was calling from the
stage “with no doubt, with no fear” to which we were expected to respond, “REFUGEES ARE
WELCOME HERE!”. But I couldn’t yell back to that. There is plenty of doubt and plenty of
fear surrounding the subject of refugees…
My doubt and my fear revolve around my developing notion of a shitty, self-serving,
graceless Britain. I want to believe that we are not a narrow, self-serving, bigoted, bitter
little place – but I have reasons to doubt it. And I fear that I have nowhere else that I want
to live as much – but that we are letting ourselves down so badly that I will be growing old
and dying in a country doing almost everything “not in my name”.