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How many people have to die before we start talking responsibly about immigration?

Last week’s deaths in the Mediterranean were directly linked to xenophobic politics in Britain.  


Wrecked boats in Lampedusa. Image: Marco Molino

It’s easy to forget, when a dehumanised mass of “immigrants” is invoked in political debate, that these are people no different from you and me, our families and our friends. The Guardian cites “one survivor of a [migrant boat] sinking off Malta [who] recounted spending several days clinging to a buoyancy aid along with a teenage Egyptian whose hope was to pay for heart medicine for his father. The youth drowned before they could be saved”.

In the space of last week alone, an estimated 1,200 such people died in two separate disasters in the Mediterranean. And we need to be crystal clear about this: there is a direct line between those deaths and the increasing virulence of Britain’s anti-immigrant politics. These were not passive tragedies but the result of conscious policy choices made in an atmosphere of noxious xenophobia. 

Over recent years, millions of people have been forced to escape wars, state collapse, political repression and economic desperation across the Middle East and North Africa. The overwhelming majority have been displaced within the region, but thousands have also sought safety and refuge in Europe. Due to legal routes being systematically closed off, many have resorted to crossing the Mediterranean in dangerously flimsy or overloaded craft provided by people smugglers. Following high numbers of deaths, the Italian government put a search and rescue operation in place at the end of 2013. “Operation Mare Nostrum” is thought to have saved around 150,000 lives over the course of last year.

When Italy asked EU states for financial support for Mare Nostrum, UK Home Secretary Theresa May reportedly “played a leading role” in the decision to respond with pressure on Rome to scrap the scheme instead. “When there were signs that the Italians were reluctant to wind down Mare Nostrum, May [again demanded], along with others, that it be ended immediately”. The monstrous logic articulated by British government ministers was that saving people from drowning represented a “pull factor” that encouraged more to attempt the crossing, ignoring the horrific conditions that left migrants regarding the lethal dangers of the sea as the least bad option available to them. The search and rescue effort was thus brought to an end, despite warnings from Amnesty International that this “would put the lives of thousands of migrants and refugees at risk”.

According to the UN refugee agency, 3,500 people died last year trying to cross the Mediterranean, whereas this year, in the absence of Mare Nostrum, around 1,600 have died already. The numbers attempting the journey have not decreased because people are being pushed, not pulled, with desperation forcing them to accept the risks involved. All that has changed is that hundreds more are now dying, as Amnesty and others predicted. 

Hours before the second of last week’s disasters, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Italy, Laurens Jolles, warned that an “incredible” level of “extreme and very irresponsible” anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe was creating the conditions in which rescue was being denied to the victims of these mass drownings. Twelve months ago, I drafted a letter that was subsequently published in the Guardian, signed by over 150 academics, writers, activists and concerned individuals, highlighting the dangers of the rise in anti-immigrant politics in Britain. The letter concluded with a warning that “if the resurgence of racism and xenophobia is not confronted now, the consequences will become uglier still”. 

This was not based on clairvoyance. Last week’s deaths were no more unpredictable than the fact that a celebrity columnist now feels able in the current climate to describe migrants as "cockroaches", "feral" and a "virus" in one of Britain's leading newspapers. Or the fact that similar language was used by guards at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, who referred to the appallingly treated female inmates as "animals", "beasties" and "b**ches". The dynamics of prejudice, dehumanisation and maltreatment are hardly without historical precedent. 

In a way, we have been heading towards this point ever since Tony Blair’s first administration responded to a tabloid scare campaign against asylum seekers, not by defending those vulnerable people who had come to us seeking sanctuary, but by forcing them to use a degrading and paltry system of vouchers, rather than an adequate cash allowance, to support themselves through the eternity it took to process their applications. Labour’s consistent approach from that day on has been to validate and pander to prejudice on asylum and immigration, with the xenophobic right subsequently thriving in the absence of any prominent challenge. The dynamic, and the direction of travel, has been clear enough for at least fifteen years, at least to those willing to recognise it. 

According to YouGov, 26 per cent of the public now want the government to “encourage” immigrants to leave the country, including family members like myself who were born here. Only 43 per cent of those polled disagree. Amongst UKIP supporters, the proportion favouring “encouraged” repatriation rises to 51 per cent, with only 24 per cent opposed. Yet centre-left commentators and politicians have been falling over themselves to assert that the rise of UKIP is down to “legitimate concerns” about migration, rather than prejudice about which of us counts as a proper member of society. 

It is long past time to address this. It is legitimate (to put it mildly) to be concerned about insufficient wages, lack of affordable housing, and the underfunding of public services. It is not legitimate to scapegoat foreigners. Britain is the sixth richest country in the world, and one of the most unequal countries in the Western world, where the richest 1,000 people have a combined wealth of a ludicrous half a trillion pounds. In such circumstances, you address concerns about the provision of housing and public services by democratically redistributing the national wealth to ensure those needs are met. You address concerns about wages by legislating for a living wage, and reforming Britain’s regressive union laws so employees of whatever background can work together to bargain effectively with their employer. Human beings who happen to have been born somewhere else should not become collateral damage because the right is too selfish and the Labour Party too craven to deal seriously with social injustice.

And while it is unpleasant to engage with the cold logic of the right that reduces people to their value as economic units, one cannot stand by and allow the national debate to continue on the assumption that foreigners are a drain on society. We have no choice but to point out that those coming to Britain from new EU member states – the ones UKIP blames for all Britain’s problems, and Labour has the nerve to apologise for – have been major net contributors to the British economy. The assumption that they were otherwise is nothing but prejudice. Now personally, I’m comfortable arguing that there should be a presumption in favour of human beings living wherever they like on our planet on grounds of principle rather than economics, and I welcome having that argument with those who claim they “just want to talk about immigration” but are somehow prevented by the awesome oppressive forces of political correctness. But let us at least ground that discussion in accuracy and truth, however inconvenient. 

When the politics of immigration are steeped in prejudiced views of a threatening “other”, and this discursive dynamic escalates and feeds off itself year on year, it eventually becomes possible to dismiss people as “cockroaches” and leave them to drown in the sea. The hate and hysteria of the right-wing is one aspect of this, but the other crucial component is the response of the left, because it is the two together that define the parameters of conceivable policy and debate. When Ed Miliband makes a show of being “tough” on immigration, when he makes an election issue out of the infinitesimally small number of people who don’t speak English, he is creating a situation where, left or right, “everyone knows” that immigration is a burden, a threat, and a problem to be dealt with in a tough and decisive manner. 

When a minor row erupted a few weeks ago over Labour selling a mug emblazoned with the slogan “Controls on Immigration”, the New Statesman reported that “privately, Labour strategists are relaxed about a few bruised feelings among lefty activists on Twitter”. One wonders if they are equally relaxed about contributing to a political atmosphere that results in the drowning of an Egyptian boy who only wanted to help his sick father. One wonders if they have given a moment’s serious thought to the dangerous dynamics they are feeding into, and the social cost of the games they are playing. 

Politicians and journalists like to pretend that public opinion is a static given which they simply respond to. In reality, it is varied and contested space, continually shaped and reshaped over time. The public are not passive, malleable subjects in this, but they are certainly not the ones with the power. The power to speak, to set the agenda, to frame the discussion, to entrench unspoken assumptions, or to change them, lies overwhelmingly with those who have the wealth and privilege required to create, or gain access to, a platform to speak from: be it a newspaper, or a prominent position in party politics. It is this class of people who bear primary responsibility for the mean, shrivelled, and nasty mood that now prevails on the subject of immigration, and for the ever darker consequences that are flowing from that.

Following last week’s horrific events, a simple and direct question must now arise: how many people have to die before we snap out of this? Exactly what number of drowned human beings will it take to shock us out of a discourse bounded on the one side by hatred and prejudice, and on the other by complacency and moral laziness? How many people have to die before the right develops a conscience, the centre-left develops a backbone, and Britain starts talking about the subject of immigration like a country of responsible adults?

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