Thursday, 20 August 2015

Immigration: time to get the question right

In 1951, Rosalind Franklin took a series of pictures of DNA which a colleague, J.D. Bernal, described as “amongst the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.” They led to the finding of the double-helix structure of DNA.

In 1995, Michael Portillo reached the pinnacle of his political career, when he was appointed Defence Secretary.

In 2004, Kelly Holmes took gold medals in both the 800 and 1500 metre women’s races at the Athens Olympics, the first time a British athlete had won two golds at one Olympics since 1920.

What do these three stories have in common? They all concern Britons of immigrant stock, remote or recent. Franklin came from a long family of British Jews. Portillo is the son of a Spanish refugee from Franco. Holmes’s father is Jamaican.

Admire them or not, they’ve all notched up significant achievements in Britain. We need to remember them especially in today’s atmosphere, when all we seem to talk about is the terrible danger posed by immigrants gathering ominously in Calais and threatening to invade our shores. You’d think they were a latter day Wehrmacht, from the tone of the debate, ready to undermine all we hold dear to us.

They are a “swarm” to Prime Minister David Cameron, they’re “marauding” according to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

The joy of an immigrant camp in Calais
In reality they are 5000 underfed, ill-lodged, unfortunates trying to find somewhere they can rebuild their lives after fleeing their homes. Most of them come from Iraq, Syria, Lybia, Somalia. These are countries devastated by war, often initiated or sustained from outside, by nations such as the US, Britain, Russia, even Kenya.

You might think that those at least whose homelands have directly suffered at the hands of Britain, notably Iraq and Libya, might expect more tolerant treatment. But our behaviour towards them is shameless: we bombed you into the dark ages, we seem to be saying, now live with it.

In any case, it’s extraordinary what a fuss we’re making about them in Britain. Only a small proportion of those 5000 will ever make it across the Channel. By contrast, Germany is expected to take 750,000 asylum seekers this year alone. And yet Britain squeals as though mortally wounded by a somehow unique crisis.

Our response is simple, too. We invest money in building more fences in Calais. We send over police to enforce the law. We treat what’s happening as a security problem, not a humanitarian one. In that respect, I’m reminded of the “war against drugs”, perceived almost entirely as a law and order issue. We make penalties more stringent, we lock up people for longer. We pay no attention to the evidence that all this effort is producing no useful results, and drug consumption stubbornly refuses to go down.

We’re coming up with the wrong answer, because we’re asking the wrong questions. The right questions are about protecting people from exploitation and helping them to find a better solution. The wrongs ones are about police action.

That’s equally true of immigration. Fences and police won’t do it. Indeed, the problems are going to get a lot worse, as immigration grows many times in the face of the effects of global warming: violent weather, food shortages, even lack of water.

Do we really want to do something about it? Then we need to make a genuine effort. Above all, on ourselves. Principally by learning generosity.

First, we need to stop making such such casual, ill-judged use of military force. Many of the migrants in Europe today have been displaced by our incompetent interventions in the Middle East.

The Iraq War:
solved nothing and contributed to the migrant problem
Next we need to invest more in the countries from which most migrants come. It’s true that as well as refugees, there are economic migrants trying to get into the advanced economies. Well, help develop their home economies and fewer of them will go looking for a better future in strange countries whose language they don’t speak and whose customs they don’t know.

So if you’ve ever whinged about overseas aid, now would be a good time to stop. It’s money well spent, and we need to spend more. As much for our sakes as for the recipients: it takes the pressure off our borders.

The other form of generosity is even more important. We need to treat incomers with humanity. They need help, and we should provide it, because we can. Who knows, some of them may turn into tomorrow’s Roger Bannister or Mo Farah, the immigrants we can celebrate. Even if they don’t, we’d do well to emulate a German woman I heard this week. As she dropped off a donation at a refugee camp, she told the BBC that there was already more than enough evil in the world, and showing a little kindness to the most unfortunate would make it a better place for all of us.

That attitude would be a great starting point to work out the right questions about immigration. Because for now we’re coming up with entirely the wrong answers.

No comments: