Why the 'immigration debate' is so misleading

By Vaughan Jones
29 Apr 2010

Sections of the media have lost little opportunity in turning Gordon Brown’s recent embarrassment with Gillian Duffy into an opportunity to talk up ‘the immigration debate’ and to highlight ‘popular concern’ about it.

What they mean by this is a rather stale argument about whether the number of immigrants coming into the country is too many and the population getting too high. The assumptions and figures involved need considerable critical scrutiny.

The dominant opinion in Westminster and among the press is that population is a big problem. A group called the Optimum Population Trust approaches population from the simple premise that there are just too many people on this earth. The cross-party Balanced Migration Group, so-called, is calling for net migration to reduce to the level of the early 1990s (something stressed by the Conservative Party). It says that population in this country should be capped at 70 million. Labour claims that will happen anyway and in different ways all the large parties like to stress that they are, or would be, ‘tough’.

My own perspective is informed by the experience of heading an organisation which is one of the larger community-based agencies working with very vulnerable migrants. At Praxis we work on a day-by-day basis with people who are refugees, asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking, temporary workers, undocumented migrants and other people who are on the moved or displaced.

We are at the sharp end of immigration work. We are based in Bethnal Green, East London, but work in community centres, health centres, probation offices and prisons. We are well aware that whatever policy is pursued, whether it be relatively liberal or excessively draconian, there will be a human cost. That cost is masked by rhetoric and labelling – people are categorised and demonised, notably by the popular press.

Immigration is often seen as primarily an economic issue – how many people, with what skills and at what wage level do we need to maintain our economic output? It is also a social issue – how are we going to care for our elderly and how are people of different ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds going to live cohesively in increasingly tightly packed urban spaces?

Immigration is further portrayed as an issue of national and cultural identity. It is suggested by some that through engaging with people of other faith, culture and background we might be denying our own – betraying our ancestors.

This is an ancient fear. The Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an both make reference to the story of Cain and Abel, the first two sons of Adam and Eve. Cain was a crop farmer with a settled lifestyle in relation to land and Abel was a shepherd, a wanderer, a migrant. Cain kills Abel. I mention this, not to raise a religious issue, but rather to point out that the battle between those who settle and those who move is archetypal to the human condition.

Human beings are both migratory and sedentary. It is the tragedy of our condition that we have not yet learned to accommodate these different components of our makeup. But we must. This is not just an economic, social and cultural issue; it is a profoundly ethical one, going to the core of what it means to be human beings.

Debates around migration (usually just labelled ‘immigration’, note) are too buried in simplistic notions, making it all too easy for politicians, bureaucrats and commentators to have huge blind spots. I do not say that to be pejorative, but to highlight the fact that there are many aspects of this policy area which are overlooked and which result in real people and real situations being overlooked or caricatured. Yet there are important moral choices to be made here – complex and difficult ones.

For instance, when we are told we need an ‘optimum population’, what is being suggested should happen when we exceed that number? Do our institutions become Cain and cull the unacceptable and undesirable in some way? How many old people can we manage – do we just let some die earlier than they need? Do we forcibly limit the number of births, as in China?

What happens when our quota of immigrants for a given year has been reached? Do we refuse visas and if so for whom - overseas students, partners for arranged marriages, Indians or Australians, Latin Americans or North Americans? Are our decisions based on need or wealth, race or status? Immigration policy involves these ethical dilemmas which, because they are so difficult, are usually kept to one side.

It is simply not possible to have an immigration policy based on tight controls without there being an element of racism involved, even if it is not of the full blooded British National Party (BNP) variety. Neither is it possible to have an immigration system based solely on economic advantage which does not have some measure of human rights violation.

Once you inject these ethical questions into the picture, then you realise that there is something wrong and that there is a cruel blindness in our ‘debate’ which avoids some fundamental problems and actual abuses of human beings.

In the UK, children are imprisoned in maximum security prisons because their parents don’t have the right stamp in their passport. People are detained for as long as eight years without charge or trial. All this is justified on the grounds that ‘the public’ wants to see ‘tough controls’, or that we have to protect our shores from terrorism, or that public resources are scarce and cannot accommodate more people. But children are still being seriously damaged, no matter what the intention of the policy.

The real point is this. Managing migration through arbitrary limits and draconian controls will not change the myriad factors that encourage (and often force) people to move, frequently at great personal cost. They do not 'work'. But we can do things to significantly impact those factors which push people to move. Debates about climate change, economic development, conflict resolution, arms controls are all ones which have a significant – often overlooked, almost always underestimated – migration component.

Climate change will displace many people, so part of our strategies for adaptation must include agreements as to where people will go. The Indian army is camped on the border with Bangladesh to prevent climate change migrants coming across. The United Kingdom Borders Agency (UKBA) is well established in Dhaka to ensure they do not come here either. But where will they go? Someone has to plan for that contingency.

Equally importantly, economic development does require migration. Africa should not be turning away Chinese investment just as the UK has not turned away the investment of Asian business. But we need circular migration with some equity of exchange. At the moment, migrants in the UK send significant remittances to their countries of origin, but UK citizens resident abroad send far more back to us. How often do you hear that point raised?

Finally, we have to face the ultimate challenge. As long as war exists then there will be forced migration. Any new world order has to look again at the mechanisms of resolving complex conflicts and abuses of power without the sorts of conventional warfare which are too apparent. Although while we correctly focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, low intensity conflicts in Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Colombia have had a terrible toll with real consequences for migration.

In conclusion, I believe that seeing immigration from the perspective of numbers will always result in uncomfortable and unacceptable moral dilemmas. Managing migration on current terms, as debated by the main parties, is a difficult if not impossible task. The ‘debate’ is profoundly unrealistic.

However, we can and should factor migration into wider and more visionary economic, social and political approaches to the tough challenges of our globalised economy. In the meantime some of us have to make a moral choice – and that is to protect the victims within an immigration system that is failing them and causing huge damage.

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© Vaughan Jones is chief executive officer of Praxis (www.praxis.org.uk/). He is a minister in the United Reformed Church and an Ekklesia associate. He has written extensively on migration, human rights, religion and social justice issues. This article is adapted and updated from a speech given at a meeting on immigration in the Houses of Parliament earlier this year (2010).

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