Migration is a fact of history. From the nomadic wanderings of pre-history through the upheavals in the European mainland in the early decades of the twentieth century to the increasing displacement of peoples in various parts of the world, migrants, like the poor, are always with us.
The British Isles are no stranger to both emigration as well as immigration. England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have known massive emigration in the past three to four hundred years, principally, though not exclusively, to other English-speaking countries. Lack of employment opportunities, fears of religious or political persecution and discrimination have all driven such peregrinations. We generally applaud people who undertake such ventures for their sense of adventure, courage and readiness to take risks in their search for better lives.
An awareness of their own historical realities makes it all the more sobering to think that governments in Britain and many other countries today appear to be against immigration. Certainly, there are massive challenges to be faced by all countries from uncontrolled illegal immigration. And yes, the work of criminal people traffickers needs to be curbed. About that, there should be no dispute.
Uncontrolled immigration undoubtedly threatens to overwhelm public services from healthcare to housing and schools. There is the problem of finding sufficient housing for large numbers of asylum seekers. Hence, the UK government’s consideration of finding third country hosts such as Rwanda, a country with a dubious reputation for human rights, especially LGBTQ+ rights.
There is also the irrational and unfounded fear that untrammelled immigration dilutes the values and social norms that have supposedly kept the host societies relatively free from criminal and corrupt behaviour.
The dangers of demonising rhetoric
Yet, despite such real and imagined threats to the fabric of society, I find it deeply disturbing that a Donald Trump, a Suella Braverman or a Giorgia Meloni spews out rhetoric which results in the demonisation of refugees and asylum seekers for the sake of political advantage: “These aren’t people. These are animals” or “We have people coming into the country or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them”; “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are” are examples of such rhetoric.
Even an innocuous remark such as “It’s not racist for anyone, ethnic minority or otherwise, to want to control our borders” has the effect of inflaming negative sentiment against all immigrants. Politicians need to weigh carefully not just the intentions behind the words they publicly declaim but the likely effect of such words on all their hearers.
“I will not allow the country [Italy] to become Europe’s refugee camp”, says Giorgia Meloni. She claims she is a Christian, yet the founder of this faith himself taught that whoever welcomed the stranger welcomed him. And at least one world faith leader, Pope Francis, exhorts people to care for refugees and asylum seekers when he says, “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation”.
In all these drives for what comes across as wishing to gain political advantage, right-wing politicians are in danger of inciting their audience to override the empathy which is the basis of our common humanity. Recent hints by the UK Conservative government that the country should no longer subscribe to the European Convention on Human Rights are a worrying example of the desire to downplay the moral dimension of acknowledging the plight of so many immigrants. Yet the UK was instrumental in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights after the Second World War.
While explaining the very real challenges that immigration represents to all countries, UK politicians need to continue devising creative solutions rather than just constantly reiterating the scale of the problem and seeking to shift the problem elsewhere to countries such as Rwanda or simply to close its borders. The idea of using disused cruise ships to house asylum seekers on a temporary basis was a creative suggestion but met an initial setback which could have been anticipated. But greater attention needs to be directed to ensuring that creative policies are implemented more effectively and then monitored more carefully than they are at present.
I am closely involved in a local charity that supports LGBTQ+ asylum seekers as they seek to achieve leave to remain in the UK. Many have escaped from death threats or unspeakable persecution in countries such as Iran. Most of them have an agonising wait for months or even years until their applications are dealt with by the Home Office.
The system is clearly not working and is taking up the valuable time of lawyers and Home Office personnel. A better system needs to be devised. Processing asylum applications before people arrive in the UK is one possibility. Pushing for widespread international agreements on quotas and greater global cooperation in processing applications is another.
Changing the narrative
Rather than simply portraying the issue of immigration here as a series of negatives, the attempt needs to be made to see the potential positives. Given current workforce shortages in the UK, why can’t such asylum seekers be allowed to work from the time they are allowed into this country instead of having to wait at least 12 months as they do at present? Many of them have professional skills that could benefit their host country. And why can’t volunteer hosts be recruited and paid as they have been with Ukrainian refugees? Money could then be saved on expensive hotel accommodation used at present to house asylum seekers.
Standing Canute-like on the shore hoping that the tide can be prevented from coming in is not an option. Dealing more effectively with mass immigration is one of the key policy challenges of the century. Governments everywhere need to start devising more effective ways of dealing with this challenge.