The new “respectable racism” needs to be challenged more

A new exhibition has opened in Roast restaurant in London’s Borough Market, founded by a distinguished friend – and generous supporter – of the Migration Museum Project, Iqbal Wahhab. Here Iqbal talks about the circumstances that provided the unfortunate inspiration for the exhibition.

No one really knows what’s going to happen post-Brexit. But we do know what’s happened post-referendum. An ugly antagonism towards Europeans has somehow unleashed a respectable racism – respectable, because it reflects the will of the people. Physical and verbal attacks have become common, and it was an incident in Roast, the Borough Market restaurant I created 11 years ago, that triggered the collaboration of the Migration Museum Project (MMP) for an exhibition currently on display on our walls.

This is what happened. A senior waitress told me that, soon after the vote, a customer had asked her where she was from; when she replied that she was from the Czech Republic, he asked her: “What are you still doing in our country?” I was repulsed when I heard that, angry that such ugliness was allowed to manifest itself with no filter for decency. That anger triggered many more thoughts, the first being that, apart from the rise of Islamophobia, Britain lives in a more racially tolerant time than when I grew up in the 1970s around south London, when Paki bashing and the National Front were the order of the day.

I’d hoped that no community would ever have to face what we had had to endure.

Workers sorting potatoes on a Lincolnshire farm. According to a National Farmers’ Union survey, almost 85 per cent of the seasonal workforce in British agriculture was from Romania or Bulgaria as of September 2016. Photograph © Jason Bye

Yet here, in a smart central London restaurant, an elderly man in a business suit deemed it legitimate to talk in such a fashion. It occurred to me that us so-called liberal elites have largely kept quiet about what is happening all around us. The Brexiteers won the vote, but how many of them would have predicted the opening of this can of vicious worms is hard to tell. I told the hardline Brexit campaigner Daniel Hannan MEP about this incident, and he was genuinely shocked. In London, many of us are. But what are we doing about it? How are we challenging the prevailing prejudice?

I hear many horror stories of how French, Spanish and Italians in London are being treated, but it’s those from eastern Europe who are facing the brunt of this ugly resentment – for taking “our jobs”, jobs, we all know, that it would have been hard to find candidates for from locals. So I asked the MMP to help me, in our own small way, to make a subtle but powerful message – that eastern Europeans have, like all previous migrant settlers here, made huge contributions to British culture and our economy. Our exhibition, Unsung Stories – Eastern Europeans in Britain, communicates that message.

Three-quarters of the team that brings you the very British experience at Roast are European. This was taken by Egle Puzaraite, who comes from Lithuania, was previously a head waitress at Roaast, and is now a professional photographer. ©Egle Puzaraite

At Roast, 75 per cent of our team are European. People from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic are, ironically, the driving force behind the country’s most successful traditional British restaurant (founded by someone born in Bangladesh). This delicious diversity should make us hold our heads high with pride, yet we find ourselves bowing our heads in shame. Whatever happens with Brexit, we must conduct ourselves with greater dignity. The exhibition is a celebration, and we have much more to celebrate than we have allowed ourselves to do.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, immunologist and vice-chair of Cambridge University, was born in Wales to parents who were Polish refugees of the Second World War. Photograph © Phil Mynott

Born in Bucharest, Romania, Alina Cojocaru joined the Royal Ballet School in 1997 and is now principal dancer with the English National Ballet. Photograph © Richard Cannon


Unsung Stories – Eastern Europeans in Britain is on display in Roast until late autumn; eight of the nine photographs are on sale. The restaurant is normally open for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 7am to 10.45pm, with short breaks between meals; on Sunday the restaurant is open for lunch. As a result of the tragic events of Saturday 3 June, the restaurant will be closed until Monday 12 June.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE, distinguished friend and supporter of the MMP, moved into the restaurant business after an early career in the media. He is the founder of two influential restaurants, the Cinnamon Club and Roast, and the author of a number of books, most recently Charity Sucks.

No Turning Back – diverging paths in Britain’s migration history

Standing at a crossroads

What have been the pivotal moments, the forks in the road, the lines in the sand in the history of migration in this country? And was the referendum on 23 June 2016 one of those moments?

The pivotal moments in a person’s, or a country’s, life are always compelling hooks to hang narratives on, and fertile ground for speculation. What if Hitler hadn’t turned his attention away from Britain and towards the Soviet Union in 1941? What if the Spanish Armada had had better weather and organisation? What if King Harold hadn’t had to face the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge a mere three weeks before facing the Normans at Hastings? What if England hadn’t beaten Germany in the 1966 World Cup final? The bookshelves in the historical section of bookshops and libraries are full of books that either speculate about what might have happened if the outcome of these events had been different or use the outcomes themselves as a means of defining the particular character of our country.

An image illustrating a French dragoon forcing a Huguenot to convert to Catholicism, following Louis XIV of France’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and his sanctioning of these intimidating ‘dragonnades’.

Literature and personal stories are full of such moments, too, ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost being one of the best known:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In terms of this country’s relationship with Europe, two roads certainly diverged last June, and continue to do so, and the road we have taken as a country has made all the difference as far as campaigners on either side of the referendum are concerned. But what will the long-term difference be in terms of our attitudes to people born outside the UK? And are there comparable moments in our history where, faced with a stark choice, we took one road rather than another? And (last question for a while), if so, what were the outcomes of those decisions?

The original caption to this cartoon, printed in the wake of the 1905 Aliens Act, has Britannia saying “I can no longer offer shelter to fugitives. England is not a free country.” ©The Jewish Museum

These are some of the questions we plan to explore in a new exhibition called No Turning Back: Seven Migration Moments That Changed Britain, which we hope to open in the autumn of this year in our new space at The Workshop in Lambeth, London. The earliest of these seven moments is 1290, when, under the reign of Edward I, all Jews were banished from England; the most recent (if you can apply that adjective to a future date) is 2020, the date at which it is estimated that mixed-race Britons become the largest minority ethnic grouping. Moments in-between include the Huguenots, the East India Company’s arrival in India, the 1905 Aliens Act, the first scheduled long-haul jet service and Rock against Racism.

We’ve selected these seven moments because they seem to us to define key moments in our history but also because they echo so much of what is happening today. The expulsion of the Jews in 1290 was the only point in our history (so far) when we expelled a whole race or creed – but it has obvious parallels with what is happening today, both in the wake of post-referendum calls to East European residents and others to ‘go back to your own country’ and in the more negative connotations of ‘reclaiming our borders’. The arrival of the Huguenots in 1685 and after is cited as one of the great success stories of immigration – but how different was the reaction then to that mass arrival of foreign labour from the reaction now to today’s migrants, economic or other? And what are the factors that lead to one immigrant being accepted or successful while another is deported or deemed to have ‘failed’ to integrate?[/caption]

The title of our exhibition has since been appropriated by our prime minister and the advocates of a hard Brexit – but actually, when you take the long view of history, for all the defining moments from which there seemed to be no turning back there were a significant number of others when things just happened or changed because of a technological development (such as the availability of affordable, long-haul air transport), or an environmental disaster or because of the human capacity to form attachments. History is nothing if not unpredictable.

One of several blue plaques around the country that mark places associated with Jewish communities before their expulsion in 1290. © noli’s on Flickr

We’re conscious that others will argue that there are seven better moments we could have chosen for our exhibition – and we’d like that discussion to be part of the exhibition. There will be facts and figures, of course, but there will be many more personal stories, ideas and reflections – and we’d like that to be part of the visitor engagement in the exhibition, too. As with everything we’ve done so far, we are planning to enrol the visitor as much as possible in the content of what is on show.

For each of these moments we are already working with a team of academic and artistic advisers, teasing out the human stories of the event and attempting to reveal the consequences of that moment. As with our most recent exhibition, Call Me By My Name: Stories From Calais and Beyond, this will be a multimedia display with much new material, and with each section involving an interactive element for visitors to engage with.

We would love to hear from you if you:

  • • would like to volunteer for the exhibition (or for the project)
  • • would just like some more information

If you would like to get in touch, please contact Aditi Anand (, Sue McAlpine (, Andrew Steeds ( or Faiza Mahmood (

Brexit Ground Zero

One of the more unpleasant effects of the referendum result has been a spike in anti-immigrant activity, with abuse hurled at Poles in the street and graffiti daubed on cultural centres run for and by EU migrants. This change in atmosphere, allied to the uncertainty of their future status in a UK divorced from the EU, has led to understandable anxiety among immigrants from other EU countries. In this guest blog, taken from his Free Movement blog, Colin Yeo sets out the legal consequences of last week’s momentous decision. Colin recently took part in our panel discussion on ‘The Ethics of People Smuggling’, one of the activities run as part of our recent Call Me By My Name exhibition in Shoreditch, London.


What next?

The people of what is currently the United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union. What happens now? Here I am going to take a quick look at the immediate consequences for EU nationals living in the UK.

In short, there are no immediate legal consequences that flow directly from the referendum result. The law of the United Kingdom only changes when Parliament enacts a new law through the full Parliamentary process and no such law has been passed. David Cameron, who is stepping down as Prime Minister, has stated that he will not immediately trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, so there will be no immediate change to free movement laws either.

The longer answer is that we just do not know what will happen in the weeks and months ahead.


Even before the referendum on 23 June some advertisements – such as this deliberately provocative ad put out by Operation Black Vote – were being criticised for focusing on immigration in a way that was bound to incite animosity.

The Immigration Law Practioners Association put together a series of briefings on different Brexit issues which may be of interest. These are largely speculative, though: no one knows what is going to happen now.

If the new Prime Minister does trigger Article 50, then the UK will leave the EU within a two-year period and will at the point of leaving cease to be subject to EU law, including free movement law.

There is some optimistic talk of Article 50 not being triggered and instead a further renegotiation taking place, and perhaps another referendum. That seems politically very unlikely, and it is hard to see how internal Conservative Party politics would allow for such an eventuality. With the pound plummeting, UK government debts to be downgraded, Scotland to demand a further referendum and perhaps with an exodus of big employers to be announced, I guess the politics may change as people realise what they have done to themselves and their country. But I seriously doubt it. It is done.

It seems certain that some generous provision will be made for EU nationals currently resident in the UK.

There was some talk during the campaign of EU nationals automatically retaining “acquired rights” under the Vienna Convention of 1969. That sounds like legal nonsense to me and Professor Steve Peers seems to think so too. Some specific legal provision will need to be made under UK law in my view. If the Government has any decency and any sense, an announcement on this will be made very quickly.


In the week following the referendum, there had been a five-fold increase in the number of hate crime incidents reported to the National Police Chiefs Council (as of Thursday 30 June).

It seems certain that some generous provision will be made for EU nationals currently resident in the UK. There are around 3 million EU nationals living here, all of whom would need a new immigration status. Many of them do not have residence documents because under EU law residence documents are optional for EU nationals and their family members.

My best guess is that free movement laws would be incorporated into UK law. At the very least this would apply to those who are already resident in the UK as at a certain date. The law would take effect automatically without anyone having to make an application as such. On a sliding scale of ever worse possibilities, the existing rules might be tweaked to make it harder to qualify for settlement and easier to deport, family members of EU nationals might not be treated as generously as EU nationals themselves or, worst case, all 3 million EU nationals would suddenly be required to make new applications under UK immigration laws. This last possibility seems extremely unlikely.

The UK may end up staying in the European Economic Area, like Norway, in which case free movement laws would continue to apply as they do today, including for future residents from the EU. However, given that immigration seemed to be the decisive issue in the referendum — much to our collective shame — joining the EEA seems like the worse of all options, as it would mean continued free movement rules but also continued payments into the EU and no control over the rules to which the UK was signed up.


There is widespread concern that the referendum result appears to have legitimised racist activity.

In the meantime, many EU national residents will be extremely concerned about their position. Family members of EU nationals may be even more concerned. Many will want to apply for residence documents, for permanent residence and for naturalisation as British. I’ve previously written blog posts which may be helpful (all of those below are up to date) and also put together an ebook guide on making EU free movement applications.

On a personal level, let me end this piece by saying how sorry I am to any EU national readers. I am sorry that our country has put you in this position. The vote is an awful, terrible result not just for the UK but for Europe and I am so desperately sad at the outcome and what it says about us.


Other blogs on residence applications by Colin Yeo

How to make a permanent residence application
Home Office confirms that official EEA series application forms are not necessary
Waiting times for EEA residence applications
Expediting an EU residence document application
EU nationals must apply for permanent residence card for British nationality applications

Colin Yeo is a barrister specialising in immigration at Garden Court Chambers who recently took part in our panel discussion on ‘The Ethics of People Smuggling’. This blog was first posted on his Free Movement blog, the widely respected blog on immigration law.