People Are Told To "Go Back" In The UK Every Day, As These Women Know Well

Photo courtesy of Nimo Omer.
Upon hearing the phrase "Trump racism scandal," you might wonder, which one? The US president has been accused of racism and xenophobia more times than we can count, stretching back decades to when he was a businessman in New York. As far back as 1973, his family housing company, of which he was president, was accused of discriminating against black applicants and racism has been a thread running through his various business ventures, inflammatory campaign rhetoric and policies as president.
Among countless other comments, Trump played a central role in demonising the Central Park Five, and the anti-Obama "birther" conspiracy; he's called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, all undocumented migrants to be expelled from the country and condemned Mexican immigrants as "rapists". He described people marching alongside white supremacists as “very fine people.” The latest Trump/race scandal has sparked worldwide outrage and brought some uncomfortable truths into sharp relief in the UK.
Tweeting on Sunday morning, the president told four US congresswomen of colour to "go back" to the countries they came from "whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe", accusing them of "viciously" criticising him and the US.
Three of the Democratic politicians to whom he was most likely referring, who call themselves "the Squad" – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley – were born in the USA, while Ilhan Omar, one of the first two Muslim women ever elected to the US Congress in 2018, came to the country as a refugee aged 12. The racist trope of "go back to your country" has long been used to demean, marginalise and threaten immigrants and people of colour.
In a press conference on Monday, the women said the tweets were "a disruptive distraction" away from important immigration and policy stories happening right now, and cautioned the public to not "take the bait." Nevertheless, Trump's remarks have been seized on and condemned widely in the US and abroad, with prime minister Theresa May calling them "completely unacceptable".
But it wasn't long before British people noted that May, in fact, had pushed an eerily similar narrative during her time as home secretary in 2013, with vans that ordered people to "go home or face arrest" if they were in the UK illegally being driven around six London boroughs with high migration. What's more, the vans were a part of her wider "hostile environment" strategy for illegal immigration, which, now widely perceived as a failure, left migrants in desperate situations (including being deported and detained), and culminated in the Windrush scandal.
Indeed, the "go back to where you came from" trope has rarely been far from the immigration debate in the UK – in recent history alone, see: Norman Tebbit's "cricket test" for migrants, David Cameron's English language policy and the popularity of UKIP, for example – and it's only ramped up further since the 2016 EU referendum, which triggered a wave of hate crime against immigrants. Prime ministerial candidates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, both of whom supported May's hostile environment, both condemned Trump's latest tweets, but stopped short of describing them as racist. Hunt claimed the president's comments were "totally un-British" and that he "hope[s] that would never happen" in the UK – showing himself as completely out of touch with the lives of huge swathes of the British population whom he's hoping to serve.
Meanwhile Johnson, the man hotly tipped to become the next PM who has compared Muslim women to letterboxes, black people in Africa as bearing “watermelon smiles,” said "that kind of language about sending people back to where they came from... went out decades and decades ago and thank heavens for that." To which British people of colour, and immigrants in the UK, were quick to respond and set the record straight.

I was on the bus and a man starting quizzing me on my ethnicity, my nationality and what languages I spoke

Youssra Elmagboul, 22
Photo courtesy of Youssra Elmagboul.
Youssra Elmagboul, 22, co-president of equality and liberation at SOAS student union in London, who identifies as mixed (Indian-Sudanese) British, was told to "go back to where [she] came from" on Sunday. "I was on the bus and a man starting quizzing me on my ethnicity, my nationality and what languages I spoke, including how to say ‘thank you’, and the proceeding to tell me that I was ‘making it up’. The conversation, predictably, ended with 'why don’t you just go back to where you came from?'," she tells Refinery29.
"The problem with that question is the complete lack of awareness of historical context. Whether I was born here or not is irrelevant, the same people who question the validity of us being here are the same people who colonised the countries from which we came – at no point did they ask permission. It's the same people who actively encouraged our people to immigrate and to become manual labourers in the UK post World War II," Elmagboul continues. "I am genuinely baffled at the fact that people can be so wilfully ignorant to the work and culture that immigrants bring to the UK; how do people think the country would even function if every single person of colour would leave?"
Photo courtesy of Faridah Abike-Iyimide.
Faridah Abike-Iyimide, 20, a children's fiction writer, is British Nigerian and based in northern Scotland. Being on the receiving ends of such comments is "frustrating [as] the UK is the only home I've ever known,' she says. "I've been told a few times on social media to go back to where I came from in response to my tweets criticising the racism in both the UK and the US. One guy messaged me saying, 'Looks like you people are really enriching Britain. You people are the same no matter where you live. Anywhere you find blacks you find poverty, crime, violence, massive unemployment, corruption, hunger, disease and no progress. It's your nature'," Abike-Iyimide recalls.

It’s usually men in vans – perhaps the safety of the vehicle means they don’t have to really think about what they’re doing.

Nimo Omer, 20
"There have been many people like him who have blamed the issues with Britain on people like me rather than racism itself – like with what Trump is doing," she added. More people have also told her to "leave the country" in real life since the EU referendum.
Even when you weren't born in the country in which you now live – like congresswoman Omar – being told to "go back" to where you originated is an affront. Nimo Omer, a 20-year-old student in Manchester, is Somali and a Dutch national who was born in the Netherlands after her parents became refugees after the civil war in Somalia. She moved to the UK when she was three. "I have been told to 'go home' in every single way imaginable," she says, adding that the demand has usually come from "older white men in the street looking to intimidate me".
The last time, she remembers, was in late 2018 when "some men leant outside their van and yelled at me as they drove speedily away. It’s usually men in vans – perhaps the safety of the vehicle means they don’t have to really think about what they’re doing." While classmates and acquaintances are more likely to "insinuate and allude to the same sentiment", she adds. "If I complain too much or come across as just a little too critical of this country I am confronted with the same 'why don’t you just leave' hostility."
Omer's experience mirrors that of the four progressive congresswomen, to whom Trump tweeted again on Monday evening: "If you are not happy here, you can leave! It is your choice, and your choice alone. This is about love for America."
The impact of comments like Trump's, Omer says from personal experience, is to "remind me that many believe I don’t belong, and that I could never really belong." She says that for a long time they triggered an "inner conflict" that made her ask herself: "Where do I fit? Who are my people? I spent a long time agonising over these questions. But as I grow up I find comfort in the liminal space of these identities, so it hurts a little less when some angry man yells at me to go home or when my classmates interrogate my self-proclaimed Britishness."

More from Global News

R29 Original Series