08 November 2007

The UK Immigration Debate

This post is based partly on two postings I made on the weblog of BBC television's flagship current affairs programme: Newsnight. During late October and early November 2007 the print and broadcast media have been making much of announcements made by the UK government about the number of people without British nationality who are living in the UK. I have been very unhappy about the tone of the discourse, the tenor of which is to wish to reduce or relegate the validity of people not born in the UK to live and/or work in the UK. The pronouns most frequently used are "we" (referring to people born in the UK, with the strong implication that these people are white-skinned and speak English as a first language) and "them" (referring to people not born in the UK, with the strong implication that these people may or may not be white-skinned, but do not speak English as a first language). I do not wish to be categorised as part of the "we". I should much rather that the focus were on 'people living and/or working in the UK'.

I am fed up with hearing commentators endlessly repeat immigration statistics. I would much rather listen to an informed and intelligent discussion about the changing demographics of ecomically-developed and -developing states, about the desirability or otherwise of doing anything about the changing demographics, about an ethical analysis of migration (refugees, asylum seekers, poor people wanting a better life), about the pros and cons of classic nationhood in this
globalised world, and about the ways in which the news media and political parties address, or fail to address, these issues.

Myth-buster 1:
Britain is not a small island. Britain is huge: not only are there are vast, unpopulated tracts, there are many towns and cities in northern England that are under-populated with stagnant local economies awaiting revitalisation. Britain is far from the most densely populated economically-developed country. Greater Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York City, Monaco and the Netherlands, for example, are more densely populated than the supposedly over-populated south east of England, and they are social and economic powerhouses for that.

Myth-buster 2:
Indigenous culture is a determinant only for people who wish to make it so. Contemporary Britain has more in common with most of the economically-developed world than it does with Britain a century ago ("The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Hartley, L.P., London, 1953) The culture of a country is whatever the people who happen to live in that place make it to be, not what it used to be. Christianity was once alien to the islands now called Britain. Happily, few of the world's major cultures are now strangers to each other here in Britain.

Myth-buster 3:
I have neither a legal nor a moral right to determine who lives in my street. I do have a right to choose in which street I live. Many Britons choose to exercise that right by migrating to France, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and so on. I am happy that people from all around the globe choose to exercise their legal right to migrate to Britain. Rather than tightened, as the current political rhetoric would have, I should prefer that legal restrictions on migration were eased.

Listening to an edition of Newsnight broadcast on the evening of Thursday 8 November 2007, during which telephone callers were invited to offer their opinions, it became clear that few if any of the callers were interested in generalisable facts and statistics. They did little to demonstrate that their minds were open to rational argument. Instead they used slogans such as "Britain is a small island", and "We are an island nation", "Our country has been flooded with immigrants" and "We have become an ethnic minority". It was, at the same time, clear that many of the callers, speaking from their own experience, perceived no benefit to themselves from the presence of people who they considered to be from elsewhere ("foreign", "immigrant"). Whilst I am enthusiastic to live in a modern, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country, many people born in the UK would prefer to live in a society made up of English-speaking, white-skinned, anglo-saxons. Their intentions, as they so readily (too readily, perhaps) stated, are not (strongly) racist. However, they directly experience the discomfort of social change, including dislocation, but perceive themselves as receiving none of the benefits. Arguments such as "The NHS/London Transport/fruit picking would collapse without the work of people from overseas" are weak in their eyes for two reasons: many of the jobs undertaken by unskilled people from overseas are low status jobs, and are invisible in the way that homeless people on the street tend to be looked through (and being poorly recognised quite how many jobs of this kind there are, there is little sense of how vulnerable to collapse these sections of the UK economy may be); there are white British people who are unemployed who should be doing such jobs (with little attention being given to the location of the people versus jobs, and the health status of many unemployed people in relation to physically demanding jobs).

Migrant Workers

Some of the UK public debate about immigration focuses on the perceived value to the UK economy of people from other countries. The argument is that the British economy benefits from both the specialist skills, and also the lower wage expectations, of people from other countries. The debate revolves around the concept of migrant workers. The term is used largely to refer to people who are undertaking low-skilled, poorly-paid jobs such as fruit picking and other agricultural work, office and hospital cleaning, and low status care roles. At the high-status end of the spectrum, it would be unusual for a Chicago-born Managing Director of the UK office of a transnational corporation, or a young, Hong-Kong-born international banker working for a few years in the City, or a partly Frankfurt-based Commodities and Futures Manager who commutes to London for three days each week, to be referred to as 'migrant workers'. Perhaps intermediate in status are the specialist skills of a computer software engineer from, say, Bangalore, who takes a well-paid job in Bristol, Birmingham or Manchester, sending much of his salary to his family in India; or a dentist who has let her flat in Warsaw so that she can live and work in Nottingham for a few years, earning enough money to be able to buy a house in the southern mountains of Poland.

I am unhappy that people from other countries are being seen in terms of their economic worth to the British economy. To me, this view approaches the attitude of seeing people primarily, or even merely, as units of production. Ultimately this is the attitude that permitted (and in some cases still permits) the slave trade. People are, first and foremost, human beings.

Asylum Seekers and Bogus Asylum Seekers and Refugees

I am certain, although I cannot prove it, that in the minds of many people in the UK there is no distinction between the categories of refugee and asylum seeker, and there is an elision between the categories of asylum seeker and migrant worker (who in this context is more typically referred to as an economic migrant, which is considered synonymous with 'someone who is out for whatever they can get'). I am equally certain that, whilst there are occasions when the overall tenor of public discourse leads to more overt expressions of compassion for people fleeing disasters such as drought, flood, famine and wars, the duration of the compassion rarely extends to an enthusiasm to rehouse the victims of such circumstances in the UK. For example, when a volcanic eruption devastated the Caribbean island of Monserrat, there was a national failure in Britain to understand why the displaced people had to come to the UK. "Why can't they go elsewhere?" It was the same with refugees from the war in Bosnia. There appears both to be an unwillingness to accept that, along with every other country with UN membership, the UK has international legal obligations, and also a belief that Britain already does more than its fair share. There is also the perception, expressed most vocally in the 'red-top' press, that people claiming a fear of persecution as the reason for their need to leave their home country, are either lying or exaggerating, and are principally motivated by the simple desire for a better life. These so-called "bogus asylum seekers" are most charitably described as economic migrants, and much resentment is expressed by white British people who would like a better life for themselves. The fact that it may be very hard to leave the country in which one has always lived, the country in which one's relatives and friends (those that remain alive) still live, a country in which one fears that the police (e.g. Jack Mapange) or the military (e.g. asylum seekers from Rwanda and Burundi) or the death squads, will be watching the ports, and also that it is remarkably difficult to arrive in, and gain admittance to (see The Terminal starring Tom Hanks), the UK, is considered to be of little relevance. In The Net, the character played by Sandra Bullock expects to get her life back, which she does in the end, as do the characters played by Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, and by Will Smith in Enemy of the State. Life on the run in one's own country is lonely and miserable, and played by Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State.

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