In January 1972 the Industrial Correspondent of the Western Mail accompanied three Welsh businessmen on a holiday to Moscow, which they’d won in a competition run by the newspaper. Upon arrival in Russia, the lucky prizewinners cleared immigration without a hitch; but the Soviet authorities, no doubt instinctively suspicious of any British journalist, declared there was an inconsistency in their travelling companion’s paperwork, and promptly sent him for an overnight stay in a chilly Moscow cell.
It’s a tale I’ve been told many times, since the journalist in question was my father. I don’t remember a time when I hadn’t heard the story; and while I must have been too young at first to understand the full workings of a totalitarian regime and its attitude to visits by foreign nationals, it ingrained me with a sense that the Soviet Union was a Bad Place. Not that my father himself seemed to bear them any ill will, but from my perspective they had nearly prevented my ever existing in the first place. When Ronald Reagan later labelled the USSR an “evil empire”, a 9-year-old listener in Cardiff nodded in decisive agreement.
This morning’s edition of La Repubblica carries a report about a young Italian woman, Marta Lo Martire, who had travelled to London a few weeks ago to visit her family and seek work as an au pair. Unclear about the hastily-convened new post-Brexit rules, she arrived at Heathrow Airport without the complete set of paperwork: a clear example of the teething troubles we’ve been hearing so much about, and surely an entirely forgivable and easily rectifiable error given the circumstances.
The rest of the story is shocking to any British citizen who flatters themselves that we still live in a civilised country. Miss Lo Martire was sent to Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre – simply and unambiguously categorised on Google Maps as “prison” – where she was searched and kept under constant guard until being sent on a flight back to Italy. Her incarceration lasted 24 hours, but she reports that another Italian inmate at the centre had already been there five days, since the UK authorities were unwilling to arrange a return flight which cost more than she had initially paid. Personal items, including her smartphone and passport, were confiscated and she was given only a non-functioning basic mobile phone in return. By comparison, in fairness to the Soviet gaolers they at least allowed my father an ageing copy of the Reader’s Digest for company.
I suppose we’re naive to be surprised – after all, the current Home Office attitude to arrivals from elsewhere in the world, recent and historical, has been openly hostile and proud of it. And the Government has been very clear that one of the intended consequences of Brexit is that all nationalities will be treated equally upon arrival in the UK. It’s just that it’s a shock for the penny to drop that they meant, treated with an equal lack of basic civility and humanity.
And rightly or wrongly, for it to be happening to Italians makes it hit home even more brutally. It’s impossible to spend any length of time living and working in Italy without falling in love with the place and its people. Trying to get anything done there is utterly infuriating, sure, but it’s also the most beautiful kind of nothing you’ll ever get done. One of the greatest pleasures of being in London over the last decade or so has been the increase in the number of Italian voices you hear out and about every day. When I lived in Fulham, I’d often see a whole famiglia out for a walk along the Thames at the weekend, unmistakable by the pride of place given to a jet-haired Nonna in the family phalanx. And there have been many summer days where I’ve sat sweltering pinkly on a tube in my shorts and string vest, only to look up and see an impossibly glamorous couple, tanned and impeccably dressed, just being fabulous. They could only be Italian.
Marta Lo Martire has made it safely back to her family in Italy, hopefully without carrying too many psychological scars from her brief visit to these shores. But the point is this: that will now be her story, which she’ll tell as often as my father still recounts the saga of his visit to Moscow. And in this more recent version, the identity of the Evil Empire has changed. It’s us.
Well, so what, you may cry. Who needs Italian au pairs and Polish plumbers and American opera singers anyway? Pull up the drawbridge, two fingers to Giovanni Foreigner, and Believe in Britain!
All very well. But soon enough, as pandemic travel restrictions ease and industries such as my own lurch clumsily back to some sort of life, many British workers will be making the reciprocal journey. And Italy in particular is one of those countries where visa requirements are complex, often less than crystal clear, and very much open to the subjective interpretation of whoever happens to be manning the immigration desk on any given day. That one of my British colleagues will have their paperwork found incomplete or unsatisfactory is a question of when, not if. And at that point, they’ll be hoping to be treated with a damn sight more basic decency than we are currently dishing out to those who arrive here.
The Government has said that in order to assist British workers in maintaining and furthering their global careers, their approach will be to engage in bilateral talks with individual nations, rather than pursue further negotiations with the EU as a whole, in order to smooth out the process of obtaining visas and work permits. But how in God’s name do they expect that to have the slightest chance of success if at the same time they’re incarcerating and deporting the citizens of those very same countries for the slightest discrepancy in their paperwork?
The more time I spend examining this brave new post-Brexit world, the more I have to admit that I have no idea what “Global Britain” is even supposed to mean. But this sure as hell isn’t it.
Update 14th May 2021: The Guardian reports similar incidents involving travellers from France, Bulgaria, Greece, the Czech Republic and Portugal, many of whom seem to have been following the stated rules to the letter. And to reiterate, none of this should surprise us given the Home Office’s established approach to travellers from across the globe, not to mention refugees and asylum seekers. But the shock to see it being rolled out remains legitimate.
All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback, Kindle and audiobook editions from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy