Last night, a panel of four British Turks explored the implications of ‘Brexit’ – the UK’s historic vote to leave the European Union. Event chair Ertanç Hidayetin introduced the event by describing the results of the referendum on 23 June as an “earthquake”.
Major differences of opinion emerged during the two-hour debate held at the Turkish Cypriot Community Association in North London, which covered a host of issues from xenophobia during the campaign, to the rise of racism since the referendum, and the Ankara Agreement.
Organised by T-VINE Magazine, the evening brought together four diverse speakers:
- Alp Mehmet a retired British ambassador. Originally from Cyprus, Alp was the first foreign-born person to be appointed ambassador by the UK. He is vice-chair of Migration Watch, whose facts on UK immigrants were heavily used by the Leave campaign.
- Dudu Ozoran a leading immigration lawyer with 25 years of experience. She works closely with the Turkish Consulate in Britain on pivotal cases involving the Turkish community.
- Mete Coban – aged 24, he is the youngest elected official for the London borough of Hackney and head of a youth mentoring charity. He campaigned to remain in the EU.
- Semra Eren-Nijhar: author, filmmaker and sociologist who has researched and documented Turks in Europe for the past 30 years.
On the Brexit campaign:
Semra Eren-Nijhar said voters were “fed false information”. This was countered by Alp Mehmet who said it was “patronising” to accuse 17.4 million people of being stupid for voting for Brexit. He added that “discussing immigration on the scale it’s happened in Britain is not xenophobic.”
Mete Coban referred to a recent report into the EU referendum by the Electoral Commission, which stated there were “glaring omissions” and people were “misinformed”. He also pointed to leading Leave campaigners who backed down from their claims the day after the vote.
Lawyer Dudu Ozoran said while there had been no change in the law, there had been detectable changes to the handling of visa applications since the referendum. “The Home Office is requesting more documentation and is far more thorough in examining cases,” she said. She believes the outcome of Brexit will curtail the flexibility of future Ankara Agreement applicants.
Audience members aired their concerns about the right to stay, with foreign nationals saying they were “scared” about their future. Even though it was not yet legally required, some EU nationals were already paying £65 and completing a 100-page form to try and obtain a UK residency permit. Alp Mehmet, a former immigration officer, said the Vienna Convention protected foreign nationals already in Britain.
The panel was asked why only the Lib Dems had made an official complaint about UKIP’s racist party political broadcast about Turkey. Mete Coban said he had personally objected to the advert and was disappointed his own party [Labour] had not. He added that, “people with issues against Turkey won’t speak up [when it’s targeted by racism]. Jeremy Corbyn has never been a friend of Turkey”.
Semra Eren-Nijhar highlighted how the UK’s far right had seized the debate on immigration to push their racist agenda. UKIP leader Nigel Farage and British National Party regularly cited facts issued by Migration Watch, including the cost of educating the children of immigrants, which was “almost £5 billion in 2009 alone; over £13 million a day”, yet failed to say how much immigrants contributed in taxes. She said these types of arguments had resulted in “normalising racism” in Britain.
Eren-Nijhar added that the explosion in racist attacks – both verbal and bodily assaults – since the referendum had created a “climate of fear” amongst minority groups including Turks. As chair Ertanç Hidayetin pointed out, only the previous week a Polish immigrant had been killed in Harlow for simply talking in his own language.
Semra Eren-Nijhar: ‘Far right used immigration debate to help normalise racism in Britain’
While most of the panel and audience agreed the Brexit decision was final and people should “look ahead”, local Lib Dem David Schmidt argued a second referendum was vital once details of the deal were known: “we had a vote to leave, but now we need to know where we are going and decide whether we want to arrive at this destination”.
On young people:
Mete Coban said it’s not clear what percentage of young people voted in the referendum, but yet again their future was being determined by the UK’s older population. Many were concerned Brexit would mean them losing out on student exchange programmes such as Erasmus Plus, which is popular among young Turks. He called on the government to ensure young people were involved in decisions that would affect their futures.
Audience members asked that these types of events be held more regularly so they could be better informed and mobilised as a community. It was also noted that very few Turkish community leaders and politicians had turned up to the debate. Coban said “egos” got in the way and some community leaders focussed more on “differences”, when the community shared much in common and there was more to be gained from working together.
The final word went to former British ambassador Alp Mehmet, who said first and foremost everyone in the UK is “British” and more needs to be done to integrate communities, not keep them isolated. He is excited about Brexit, arguing that it will give the UK “greater freedom” and “fantastic opportunities” to shape its own destiny.
Photos by Halil Yetkinlioğlu