Migration fantasies: how not to debate immigration and asylum

We must talk about population movements in terms of gross inequality, unfair trade patterns, failed states, demographic change, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and American hegemony. [Reposted from openDemocracy, May 2003]

Ali Rattansi
28 September 2015
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Western Europe appears to be in the grip of a panic. The spectre haunting us is mass immigration, again. In Britain and elsewhere, especially in the wake of 9/11, the arrival of asylum-seekers and refugees – even attempts by national governments to recruit essential workers – is leading to heated debates about the impending death of national cultures and the prospect of white Christians becoming minorities in Europe.

Media hysteria and gains by the extreme right are feeding off each other. Meanwhile, the British home secretary David Blunkett has described the country as a ‘coiled spring’, a view which is echoed in the report of a recent parliamentary committee warning of ‘social unrest’ if the asylum and refugee issue is not tackled.

Suddenly, the ‘enemy within’ is everywhere. If the hordes are not already inside, it is only a matter of time before the misguided believers in ‘airy-fairy civil liberties’ – another choice phrase from Blunkett – will have allowed them to overrun us. There is even some momentum behind the idea that Britain should no longer abide by the 1949 Geneva convention on refugees. Blunkett, following leads given by some other Europeans and also the Australians has been proposing ever more inhumane ways of treating refugees in an attempt to deter them from thinking of Britain as a safe refuge.

Many current assumptions driving the panic can be found in Anthony Browne’s ‘The Folly of Mass Immigration’, which appeared on openDemocracy web site on 1 May 2003. But the real folly, I believe, would be to neglect subjecting his views to close inspection.

What such an exercise reveals, as we shall see, are a series of misleading rhetorical devices, half truths and questionable assumptions; in short, a typical example of the debate surrounding immigration and asylum. There is an important debate to be had on all these questions. But pieces like Anthony Browne’sare an obstacle to serious discussion.

The language of evasion


Browne complains about the ‘linguistic trickery’ and lack of honesty of the People Flow document produced by Demos and openDemocracy. Let us see how his own argument fares using the same criterion.

‘Whole villages from Bangladesh are relocating to northern England’ he says. The exaggeration is, to say the least, palpable. He invites us to contemplate a world where ‘those who can, live in the west, while those who cannot live in the rest’ (his emphasis), and tells us that while he likes London’s Chinatown and the contribution of Britain’s Indian community, he does not wish to open ‘my country’s borders…to 1.3 billion Chinese and 1.1 billion Indians’. This is scaremongering – there is no evidence that even a substantial proportion of those countries wants to come and settle in Britain or Europe. This rhetorical device invokes fear of invading hordes. Is this the norm of honesty Browne claims should frame the debate?

Moreover the idea of whole Bangladeshi villages relocating to northern English cities is introduced in the context of Browne’s own rather selective spin on the history of migration. While admitting that there has of course been migration in the past, he immediately adds, ‘especially of an invasive sort’, heroically resisted by people sacrificing their lives to ‘defend their way of life’.

Oddly enough, while he mentions Arab invasions of North Africa, Moghuls invading India and Romans, Normans and Viking invasions of Britain – although neither India nor Britain existed in the form those modern names imply, indeed what we now know as India and Britain were formed by those invasions – he simply ‘forgets’ to mention that his own has been the greatest invading nation of modern times.

Such amnesia is helpful to his argument, for it allows him to imply that Bangladeshi immigration to Britain is part of a modern trend in migration whereby whole sections of a foreign populace are introduced ‘to radically different cultures whose populations have a completely separate history and character’. So, the Indian sub-continent has a completely separate history to that of Britain: the British Empire never existed? Presumably, Niall Ferguson’s widely-watched history of this Empire on Channel 4, and his claims that it was instrumental in forging the modern world, were sheer fantasy.

The ‘threat’ to national culture


Let us turn to his argument regarding the threat that current trends and forms of migration pose to western European national cultures. Without drastic measures, he argues, these national cultures as we know them will be overwhelmed and destroyed. Is the quality of the analysis here worthy of a serious contribution to the debate?

Note that the issue for Browne is not only one of culture. It is quite blatantly racial. The threat is to ‘British-born white people’. The significance of the racial element becomes even clearer when the question of religion enters the equation. White and Christian are yoked together, leaving no room at all for black British Christians. No matter that Britain’s most enthusiastic church-going communities are black. To genuinely belong to Browne’s Britain you have to be white. To all intents and purposes, this is the British National Party’s (BNP) position – except that it advocates repatriation.

Browne’s mention of the second world war carries the implication that the British did not defend themselves only to hand the country over to foreigners now. There is no mention of the millions of Caribbean, Indian and other non-whites who fought and sacrificed their lives to save Britain in that war. Somehow the contribution of the non-white British population to Britain’s post-war prosperity – the building and continuing survival of the cherished National Health Service (NHS) and other public services, for example – is conveniently overlooked.

I am not suggesting that Anthony Browne is a sympathiser of the BNP, but rather something even more frightening – the growing convergence in views between establishment thinking and that of the extreme right, one of the most worrying developments in European politics.

Browne’s overt racialisation is overlaid with a strong dose of the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis. In Birmingham, the second city of a nation where the majority are nominally Christian, Browne says that ‘Islam is now more worshipped than Christianity’. There is obviously a quite deliberate ambiguity in this proposition. It gives the impression that the city has been overwhelmed by Muslims. But given that nominal Muslims are nowhere near a majority in this city, this is another rhetorical device creating panic about the supposed threat to the national culture. The real issue here is the secularisation of Britain’s Christian population – the reason why Islam might be more worshipped in Birmingham.

What kind of debate?


I will highlight two final problematic features of Browne’s argument. First, the notion that societies have always had the fundamental right to determine who should belong to them. This is at best a half-truth. Amongst many other things it ignores the fact that what was regarded as so odious about the Nazis was precisely their claim that Jews had no legitimate claim to belong to the German nation. Even a democratic decision to opt for supposed racial purity is not one that is ethically defensible or acceptable within contemporary global norms of human rights, themselves an outcome of the fight against Nazism.

Second, there is Browne’s assertion that he likes ‘Ireland because it is Irish, Sweden because it is Swedish…’ The suggestion here that each nation has a completely unique, somehow unchanging and self-contained national character is not even a half-truth; to say the least, national cultures are complex, internally heterogenous and externally open to the modern world.

There is a serious, reasoned debate to be had about the new forms of population movement that result from a world of gross inequality, unfair trade patterns, failed states, demographic change, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and American hegemony. It could, for example, profitably begin with the evidence presented in the new publication by the London-based Institute of Public Policy Research. During the Kosovo crisis in 1998-99, the largest group of people seeking asylum in the UK from one country, apparently, were from the former republic of Yugoslavia. In 2001, during the war against the Taliban, the largest group of asylum-seekers came from Afghanistan, and in 2002 the largest group of asylum-seekers came from Iraq.

Just to stay with Britain, such a debate could go on to separate the issue of current refugees and asylum seekers from the question of the previous round of post-second world war migrations which led to Britain’s settled ethnic minority communities. It could contest the tabloid idea that Britain is an especially ‘soft touch’, something of which the asylum seekers are supposedly aware. As both the IPPR report and the Guardian’s recent detailed investigation revealed, asylum-seekers have little knowledge of the different policies towards refugees of the countries to which they are being taken by traffickers of various kinds.

In my view, the linguistic and argumentative manoeuvres that characterise Browne’s piece – common enough in the tabloid press and extreme right thinking and now also in the statements of dominant opinion – constitute a powerful obstacle to serious, reasoned debate.

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