Someone said that EU citizens living in the UK did not care about citizens rights until it personally affected them. Since I have heard this charge of narrow self-interest before (the “Oh now you care” charge), let me respond in this piece.

First published in November 2019.

It is true that prior to 2016 many EU citizens living in the UK did not know about the Hostile Environment. The excesses of the Hostile Environment were not as well known as they are today. The Windrush scandal had not broken out for example.

Some people knew (I knew a bit about it because of non-EU citizens who were colleagues) – but I can understand why some people did not. The UK government also made it very untransparent and hard to know about it (prior to the Windrush scandal).

But it is plausible that people indeed care most about things that personally affect them. That’s why movements for women’s rights are headed by women, movements for LGBTQ+ rights headed by LGBTQ+ people, movements for black people’s rights by black people. It would be weird if it were otherwise.

Being personally affected provides you with more insight into the situation and hence makes you a more effective advocate for change.

Feminist standpoint epistemology has been saying this for a long time, and provides the following fitting analogy:

Elliot (1994) “Person A approaches a building and enters it unproblematically... she sees something perfectly familiar which... she might call ‘The Entrance’. Person X approaches the same building and sees a great stack of stairs and the glaring lack of a ramp for her wheelchair.”

Is the person who doesn’t care about accessibility of the building for wheelchair users being callous? She does not see the obstacles involved in getting in. Of course, ignorance at some point can become lazy and blameworthy.

Still, the fact that even as I am now writing many UK citizens (but not EU citizens – a point to which I will return) don’t know about the Hostile Environment is cause for optimism.

Consider an alternative scenario...

Where many UK and EU citizens in the UK, in fact, know about the Hostile Environment, about Skype families, about people being deported in the middle of the night, about sick people being put on planes with medics for their deportation.

It would be quite shocking if UK and EU citizens knew about all of that and would not care. But I don’t think that’s the case fortunately. Indeed, even in 2018 I have heard UK citizens tell EU citizens that they should be fine because they are married to a Brit. Now, maybe those people are arguing in extreme bad faith. But I don’t think so – it is a lack of care for lack of being personally affected. I don’t think that it is laudable but I don’t think that it is as morally depraved as knowing full well and still not caring.

So, what is the solution to this problem, the problem of standpoint epistemology – the problem that you mainly care about something if it personally affects you?

I think the solution is twofold:

Solution 1:

Give more people a voice in the democratic decision-making process. As Medina argued in this excellent book, democracy is superior to other forms of government in that you can have many different voices, including many interests, represented.

The problem is that immigrants, including EU citizens living in other EU countries, are systematically disenfranchised. So, their interests are not only not represented, they are also used as a handy political tool, an easy scapegoat that politicians can use for their own ends.

Solution 2:

Use one’s own experiences to become more aware of the situation and advocate for the rights of others. This would mean, for EU citizens, that they would also need to become more aware of the plight of non-EU citizens – including refugees and people on visas.

I think this is the right way to go. But I also know some EU citizens in the UK resist this, and instead say that the rights of EU and non-EU citizens in the UK are two different things because the former involves Freedom of Movement – a reciprocal right – and the latter doesn’t.

I think that’s wrong. We really should use our experiences to help advocate for people even more vulnerable than us. It is a mistake to try to safeguard our own rights and then say, ‘Okay, case closed, mission accomplished.’ Fortunately, most EU citizens in the UK don’t think like this.

I have seen people such as Elena Remigi, founder and director of the In Limbo Project, also advocate for people from the Windrush generation and for refugees, while simultaneously also advocating for the rights of EU citizens in the UK.

There is nothing wrong about advocating for your rights when they are under threat. It is your duty to yourself and to people in the same situation. Charges of “now you care” are misguided because they don’t recognize that duty to advocate for oneself.

But I believe that, next to the duty to advocate for yourself, as a way to not only help yourself but also make society around you better, you need to use that knowledge and further advocate for others too. I know this is hard, because fighting for one’s own rights is tiring and people only have so much time and energy for things they are not affected by. Still, we owe it to ourselves and to others to do this.

Many EU citizens do argue strongly against the Hostile Environment and against divisive tactics of politicians to separate “good” from “bad” immigrants. I think that’s laudable.

So, now we care, and that is a good thing.🔷

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[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 12 November 2019, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Dreamstime/Milkos.)