December 5, 2017 / 1:45 PM / a year ago

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei sees Brexit as a 'backward' step for Britain

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is a backward step that will make the country more exclusive, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei said at the UK launch of his recently released film on the global migration crisis.

Ai, one of China’s most high-profile artists and political activists, has become a vocal campaigner on migration as the number of people forced from their homes - largely by violence and war - has reached a record 65 million.

Over a year, armed with drones, his iPhone and about 200 crew members, Ai visited more than 40 refugee camps in 23 countries to make his first feature length film, “Human Flow”, which he hoped would spur people to help refugees.

Ai, 60, who was once jailed in China and has lived in Berlin since 2015, said he wanted the film to make people see refugees in a different light as they were victims of man-made problems.

Asked about Brexit, Ai said it was “not a good practice or strategy”, with his visit coming as the British government scrambles to thrash out a deal with the EU for after the UK’s withdrawal in March 2019.

“I think it is backward in terms of opening up globalization and will not do Britain any good but rather to become more conservative and more exclusive,” Ai told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the film’s launch in London on Monday.

British Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament in September that while immigration had been good for the economy, last year’s vote to leave the EU showed people wanted to control the flow of people coming into the country.

But companies, especially those in the catering, social care and retail industries which depend on the steady stream of workers from abroad, say they fear a restrictive immigration policy will leave them unable to hire the staff they need.

Britain’s central bank, the Bank of England, believes Brexit will reduce the number of migrants coming to Britain, pushing up pay and adding to inflation pressure.

Ai, who was forced from his home as a child during China’s Cultural Revolution, said the movement of people and the refugee situation was “as long as human history”.

“There are always refugees or people seeking safety and better conditions,” he said. “Unless we have a very profound understanding of the treatment then the solution will not really come out.”

Ai’s film, which was first shown at the Venice International Film Festival in September, is the latest act in his ongoing campaign so keep the migrant crisis in the public spotlight.

Last year he covered the facade of Berlin’s concert hall with 14,000 life jackets from refugees, many of whom lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean.

He also posed as drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, who washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015, for a magazine shoot for India Today.

Ai said the migration crises was not driven solely by war or religious conflict but also climate change and globalization.

“The only solution will come from humans because all these problems are created by us,” he said.

Reporting by Adela Suliman, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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