"My grandparents escaped the Soviet Union to get away from state prying. Now it looks like I'll be leaving the UK for the same reason
When I moved from my native Canada to the UK in 2003, I thought it was ironic that the Doctorows had returned to Europe. My father was born to Polish-Russian parents in a refugee camp in Azerbaijan just before the second world war ended. My grandparents – deserting Red Army conscriptees – destroyed their documents and became, in the parlance of the day, Displaced People.
When the war ended, they went west again, but when they reached Russia, they kept going. When they reached Poland, they kept going. They moved with the great refugee herd into Germany, to a camp near Hamburg (where my aunt was born), before boarding a refugee boat and sailing to the port of Halifax, where an immigration official truncated their names – Doctorowicz became Doctorow – and gave them a train ticket to Toronto, where my great-uncle Max and his family lived.
My grandmother is still alive, and sharp as a tack. I asked her recently why they didn't stay in the Soviet Union. Despite her aversion to military service, she was a war hero. She had gone through her adolescence as a civil defence worker during the hard years of the Siege of Leningrad, digging trenches and hauling bodies as a girl of 12, until she was evacuated to Siberia at the age of 15. Her family still lived in Leningrad – mother, father, baby brother. Leningrad is a majestic city, cosmopolitan and vibrant, even with the war scars on its face. In Toronto she knew no one, didn't speak the language. Her years as a refugee would stretch out for decades until she could truly consider herself a Canadian.
I asked her why she didn't stay, and she shook her head like I'd asked the stupidest possible question. "It was the Soviet Union", she said. She waved her hand, groped for the answer. "Papers," she said, finally. "We had to carry papers. The police could stop you at any time and make you turn over your papers." The floodgates opened. They spied on you. They made you spy on each other. Your grandfather wouldn't have been allowed to stay – he was Polish, they wouldn't let him stay with the family in Russia, he'd have to go back to Poland...
A few years later, I was living with my partner, and had fathered a British daughter (when I mentioned this to a UK immigration official at Heathrow, he sneeringly called her "half a British citizen"). We were planning a giant family wedding in Toronto when the news came down: the Home Secretary had unilaterally, on 24 hours' notice, changed the rules for highly skilled migrants to require a university degree...
My partner and I scrambled. We got married. We applied for a spousal visa. A few weeks later, I presented myself in Croydon at the Home Office immigration centre to turn over my biometrics and have a visa glued into my Canadian passport. I got two years' breathing room. My family could stay in Britain.
Then came last week's announcement: effective immediately, spousal visa holders (and foreign students) would be issued mandatory, biometric radio-frequency ID papers that we will have to carry at all times. And I started to look over my shoulder...
Now, we immigrants are to be the beta testers for Britain's sleepwalk into the surveillance society. We will have to carry internal passports and the press will say, "If you don't like it, you don't have to live here – it's unseemly for a guest to complain about the terms of the hospitality." But this beta test is not intended to stop with immigrants. Government freely admits that immigrants are only the first stage of a universal rollout of mandatory biometric RFID identity cards. What happens to us now will happen to you, next.
Not me, though. If the government of the day when I renew my visa in 2010 requires that I carry these papers as a condition of residence, the Doctorows will again leave their country and find a freer one. My wife – born here, raised here, with family here – is with me. We won't raise our British daughter in the database nation. It's not safe."
It's a really powerful essay and should be read and inwardly digested in full