The migration ‘debate’ has lost its humanity

By Vaughan Jones
25 Nov 2008

It is far too easy to dismiss as ‘naïve’ the latest calls to consider an amnesty for unregistered migrants. London Mayor Boris Johnson and Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor are right to raise the issue, but sadly the knee-jerk reactions tell us that trying to have a reasoned debate in this area is very difficult. We must persist nonetheless. These are matters of basic humanity, and in too many cases life and death.

We should remember that amnesties are only one tool to use to deal with significant numbers of migrants who have been made vulnerable by the immigration system. They do not replace the need for an ongoing regularisation such as that proposed by the Liberal Democrats. The Cardinal has spoken in terms of citizenship.

Looking at the real-world situation we face, it is more naive to think that it is possible to continue with current policy than it is to contemplate change. The economic, social and personal costs are just too high as things stand at the moment.

Governments are tempted to talk and act tougher and tougher as the tabloid media and anti-immigration groups stoke anxiety and politicians then turn these prognostications into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But neither the talk nor the action works. Just as our financial order needs a new architecture, so do international approaches to migration and development. An amnesty could only be a small part of a new human rights policy and framework on migration and global issues.

But in addition to a sensible conversation about Mayor Johnson's proposals, the most important step for those of us who want a just, sustainable migration policy is for government to accept that a migrant is a human being. That ought to be obvious, but if you look at the language people are using, it is not. Migrants themselves are treated as statistics; their stories are pushed aside. And the actions of the state undermine any commitment they make to human rights in statute. They deny health care, imprison children, break up families and take away protection from criminals.

This is why the ‘numbers game’ (which ironically shows a small decline in net migration at the moment!) runs way ahead of the serious issue of behaving with human compassion and justice, and why Immigration Minister Phil Woolas (who has recently told us that he does not accept the decision of the courts on asylum appeals when they go against his wish to exclude people) calls the Mayor a “nincompoop” for his suggestion - if you can believe the Daily Mail.

Only when the humanity of the migrant is a given of the debate, its central premise, can we proceed with discussions about how to honour the rights that should belong to human beings, and especially those who are most vulnerable. Until then, with or without occasional amnesties, a migrant is not a human being in law… and has therefore become a commodity.

Contrary to the assertions in Mr Woolas’ outburst last week, it is therefore quite proper and legitimate (vital, indeed) for the law to defend the rights of asylum seekers and other migrants, and for people of good will to advocate for and support those in need, especially when they are prey to exploitation and potential victims of miscarriages of justice. Attacking the defenders of human rights is another way of reducing our humanity and shrinking our politics.

The activities of civic and faith groups in this area should not be repudiated simply because they take a different stance on migration. A mature debate does not begin with mud slinging but a genuine search for the common good.

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(c) Vaughan Jones is a United Reformed Church minister in East London and Chief Executive of Praxis, which has worked with displaced people in London since 1983. He is an Ekklesia associate. See also his paper, ‘Are Immigration Controls Moral?’ - http://ekklesia.co.uk/research/280405immigration

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