OROur weekly calls with my husband’s parents in France are strange, and not just because his brother made them download a game app to communicate. It feels like there’s a delay on the line – someone is always trying to catch up. First, they were tightly closed while we were still away from home; then they were playing tarot (an incomprehensible French card game) with friends as we enter our ninth week stuck on behind closed doors in front of the TV. But whatever our respective R numbers are, a question arises: when can we meet again?
I could happily live the rest of my life without witnessing more tarot (I was banned from participating years ago), but I miss my in-laws and the hearty meals in their sunny flat, where my mother-in-law once served a giant cake with the charred heads of little birds poking out of the crust (her brother broke them and shredded whole; could do without a repetition of that). Too long has passed: we miss them; they miss us.
But even if our Covid stars finally align, they, and we, have read the recent border horror stories. A young Italian woman visiting her family in a detention center; another Italian woman handcuffed and held in a van overnight; other European citizens treated as criminals for speaking badly or misinterpreting. The number of EU citizens denied entry has skyrocketed, from 493 in the first quarter of last year to 3,294 in the same period this year despite air traffic being 20 times lower.
Two retirees on vacation are hardly at risk, but I understand their fear and misunderstanding. I don’t want nieces and nephews to come to practice English with us now and risk spending a week at Yarl’s Wood; I’m not sure I dare to invite everyone for Christmas (and not just because cooking for 12 French is crazy). I also do not know when we will travel there, because my husband also feels the fear. What if a border guard disagrees with their pre-established status? Can you trust yourself to say the right thing or have the right paperwork and will they believe you? We can both genuinely imagine him being run by London’s St Pancras International, however “respectable” and “legitimate” that may be.
We didn’t just take free movement for granted, we lived it. Twenty-six years crossing the English Channel, a family life that developed into train travel, tunnels and ferries. And our situation is so ordinary: in In 2019 there were around 3.6 million EU citizens living in the UK.. There are millions of tangled lives throughout the continent; a tangled incarnation of the European ideal that is now seen here, institutionally and ideologically, as suspect, something to be discouraged. The decision to leave the Erasmus program, the incubator for so many European families and friends, was proof of this.
It should come as no surprise that the post-Brexit immigration system is inclined to take on the worst in people and then act accordingly. Our broader immigration policy lost its humanity and decency years ago. Last weekend’s report on the shameful treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers during their deportation on flight Esparto 11 is another example. But we’re surprised: the privilege of being white, white-collar, and decades of quiet made us complacent. If there is something positive in all this, perhaps having an idea of a fraction, and it is the smallest fraction, of what non-EU citizens have suffered for so long will make us more vigilant and vocal about the absurd and the injustice of the UK immigration system as a whole.
Covid has kept cross-border families apart, but it has also been convenient for hardliners of immigration and Brexit ideologues (and not just because they can point to “our” triumph of the vaccine). There have been far fewer of these embarrassing border incidents than there would have been otherwise, simply because so few people travel. On top of that, the boundary between hard-line border control as a desired and conscious approach to immigration and Covid preventive measures has been blurred, a point that became clear in the investigation into the Esparto 11 flight. Once, I think, it quenches the outrage. Perhaps, people wonder, are we simply seeing a Covid-related overzealousness? We are not. This is the policy: it is what the Home Office thinks the voters want. In time, that will become indisputable, and I hope that the reckoning will be delayed, not canceled. In the meantime, I suppose, with a heavy heart, I will unload the tarot app.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism