Hardeep Matharu speaks to Romanian-born Labour county councillor Dr Alex Bulat about damaging political narratives around migration, the insidious nature of British prejudice and why she has always felt more at home in the UK

People with negative views towards migrants should put themselves in their shoes and ask themselves how they would feel if British people studying and working in other parts of Europe were scapegoated and stereotyped by politicians, the press and public, a Romanian-born Cambridge county councillor has told Byline Times.

Dr Alex Bulat first came to the UK aged three for seven months when her father – at that time a junior doctor – was invited to work in an NHS hospital in Leeds.

Having moved back here to study aged 18, she is now a Labour representative on Cambridgeshire County Council, as well as the co-founder of Migrants4Labour group and the co-chair of the Young Europeans Network at the 3 Million – a campaigning group to protect pre-Brexit rights for EU citizens.

Speaking to Byline Times, she said that one of the key aspects missing from politicised debates about migration – which could challenge people to reconsider their negative views in a constructive way – is people “seeing themselves in that situation”.

“Would they say similarly about British people living, working and studying in Spain?,” she asked. “What if the Spanish Government said those same horrible things about British people. Would they be happy? Of course not – therefore we’re not happy that those things are said about Romanians in the UK.”

Although Dr Bulat was very young when she first came to Britain, she said she always had a sense of wanting to return because of her early memories of the UK being “very welcoming”, diverse and “tolerant” – a view she admits has been “challenged at various points in my journey later on”.

“When I came here as a child, I didn’t really know anyone, I couldn’t really communicate for the first days,” she told Byline Times. “But all the children were really welcoming and we all made very good friends. I had this impression of the UK as being a very welcoming place, which was also a very multi-ethnic group.

“I grew up in a very white Romanian area and the only people who were migrants were the students who came for medical school from Turkey, Greece and other nearby countries. So, I didn’t grow up in a multicultural environment but that’s what I liked about the UK – a very tolerant country, which welcomes all cultures. So, I had only a completely positive image of the UK as a country.”

In 2012, aged 18, she moved to the UK to study a sociology and media studies degree at Sussex University. She then went on to complete a Master’s degree at Cambridge University and a PhD at University College London on political sociology and migration studies. Brexit and the weaponisation of migration – now a central pillar in the Vote Leave Government’s ‘culture war’ agenda – has served as the backdrop of her time in the UK.

Politically disengaged when she arrived, Dr Bulat said that changed when debates around the 2016 EU Referendum started. “It was the first moment when I realised that decisions in this country will affect me directly – if the vote goes to leave the EU then this will ultimately affect my rights in the country so I should pay attention to politics,” she said.

After the referendum result, she volunteered to advise Romanian migrants in the UK about their rights, at a time people were “scared”, “confused” and didn’t know what to do.

“One of the things I will always remember was that I was watching the referendum results on the TV in college with other students and one of my French colleagues said – after we found out the result – that it was the first time she felt like a migrant in the UK,” she told Byline Times. “I asked her ‘what do you mean?’ because I always felt as such or I have been made to feel as such.”

The 27-year-old said that the reaction to her presence in the UK has always been mixed and that this didn’t really change with the EU Referendum.

“In my first months in the UK, I do remember people asking me where am I from and some people would be ‘lovely, I’ve been to Romania’ or ‘I have Romanian friends’, but some people were quite negative,” she said. “They were saying the usual stereotypes about coming here to steal jobs or benefits or Romanians being criminals or negative views about the Romanian Roma community. It was not that I was always perceived as positive and then Brexit happened and, suddenly, I became this undesirable migrant.

“But I also speak from the perspective of a Romanian and Romanians have always had quite a negative image in the UK. The worst moment for me was actually 2014 because Romanians were suddenly given full rights to work in the UK and I remember all the tabloid media – especially on the right like the Daily Mail, Daily Express and so on – having the big headlines about ‘millions of Romanians invading the UK, coming to flood the job market’.”

She said that it took her time to understand the under-the-surface, insidious nature of prejudice which operates in Britain, whereby “some people have negative views towards migrants but they didn’t express them openly”, and believes that “Brexit often offered a platform for some people to express them more openly”.

“Growing up in Romania, some of my neighbours and people quite close to me, had negative views about migration and I grew up in quite a monocultural society,” she said. “So often you hear quite xenophobic or racist views but in Romania they were always, always expressed very openly without any shame. So then people could say ‘that’s wrong’ or debate it, but it was never hidden.

“And that’s what I realised [in the UK] when I was in conversations where people were like ‘it’s not about you, you’re okay, you’re studying, I’m not racist, it’s the others’ and I realised that there was something, culturally, I hadn’t understood before. The more I lived in the UK, the more I understood the nuances of this. When I arrived here, I thought if no one says anything negative to my face it means they’re okay with me, but that’s not always the case.”

Putting party politics aside, what she finds most upsetting about the leadership of the likes of Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Michael Gove is their detachment from the impact of their decisions on real people’s lives. For her, one example of this was their promise, before the 2016 referendum, that the rights of EU citizens in the UK would be secure – before later announcing that they would need to apply for settled status. Another is Boris Johnson not knowing that most migrants have ‘no recourse to public funds’ and therefore cannot claim benefits.  

“A lot of the people in power in government right now are not interested in, let alone have, that lived experience,” Dr Bulat told Byline Times. “They don’t actually listen to the people who are affected by their policies. A hostile policy gets created but then a lot of the people involved have no idea how it will impact people on a day-to-day basis. It is disappointing to see people in politics who are very far removed from the realities.”

This is why she entered politics – to get issues such as immigration, from the viewpoint of migrants, on the agenda. “If you don’t have those voices in politics, change will be very, very slow,” she added.

Hardeep Matharu explores Priti Patel’s hardline approach towards other immigrants on Byline TV

The response to her political role has been mainly positive. “I never encountered anyone questioning my right to stand for election, my accent or where I’m from,” she said. “But I represent an area in Cambridge which is a very multicultural city, it is very different politically from the rest of the country.”

Online, Dr Bulat finds it’s a different story. “I encounter a lot of racist, xenophobic comments online. The classic ‘why should you have the right to stand for office when you weren’t born in the UK?’ or ‘obviously she wants to be in politics to bring more migrants in’ to just very personal, negative comments about me as a person. When people are not in front of you, and don’t have to say those things to your face, I think that makes a difference.”

One of the main narratives on migration in Britain, according to the councillor, is that migrants will be tolerated rather than welcomed. Even during the Coronavirus crisis, she says, a political choice was made to side-line their contributions.

“A lot of the press debate is ‘well, of course we want doctors and nurses and students – we just don’t want those low-skilled migrants’,” she told Byline Times. “And we have seen how this completely shifted in COVID times, when so many of our politicians suddenly realised that, actually, our hospitals can’t function without doctors, but they also can’t function without cleaners. So, the previously low-skilled, low-paid, undesirable people became the ‘key workers’ – but we still don’t hear a lot about migrant key workers.”

Having obtained settle status, Dr Bulat is also now a British citizen. When she first told friends she was applying for it, some of them asked her: “Why would you want to be a citizen of a country that treats migrants so badly?” But she sees her identity as very much connected to Britain.

“For me, it’s not only a practicality – you feel safer with citizenship – although I’m not so sure with this Borders and Nationality Bill now, but I genuinely consider myself part of the UK and having both British and Romanian citizenship reflects my identity,” she said.

“Growing up in Romania, I never particularly felt attached to a certain nationality. I’m not the person who follows all the Romanian traditions. I do post a message for the Romanian national day and so on, but I’m not the person who eats the traditional food and participates in all the Romanian events and celebrations. I was a bit remote from that even growing up. I felt differently from how my other colleagues or friends did.

“When I moved here, I came with the intention to move permanently. I think this does shape your identity. Because if you come with the intention of ‘this is the country I chose to live in and I will do everything possible to stay here and build my life and career here’, then everything works along those lines.

“All of my life is here. I’ve never worked in Romania, ever. So, if someone said to go there, I would really struggle.”

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