The charity which campaigned to ban Syrian refugees from Britain

Meet the neo-Malthusians campaigning against refugees and for child benefits to be scrapped.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
23 September 2015

Wikimedia/Mstyslav Chernov, CC4.0

In January last year, there was a minor kerfuffle about Syrian refugees. It largely took place within the environmental movement and, at the time, a few of us got hot under the collar about it. Reasonably enough, most people didn't notice. It feels now, though, it's time to start asking again the questions which some of us were posing then.

Specifically, the questions relate to a charity you may well not have heard of called Population Matters - formerly the Optimum Population Trust. In late 2013 and early 2014, it published on its website stories arguing that the UK should accept no refugees from Syria. Britain, they believe, is full. Neighbouring Arab states ought to deal with the problem (never mind that if any country in the world is approaching “full”, it's Lebanon – and they haven't let that stop them accepting their fleeing neighbours).

Population Matters has a number of high profile patrons, including David Attenborough, Chris Packham and Jane Goodall. At the time, I contacted the latter two asking if they were aware that the organisation which they have given their smiley faces to is campaigning against people fleeing a brutal war being offered safe sanctuary in the UK. Packham got back promptly expressing his concern, and making clear that his worry about population relates only to global numbers of people and saying that he would quickly get to the bottom of the issue.

A few days later, I got an email from openDemocracy's then editor-in-chief, Magnus Nome. He had received a complaint about me from the charity. They didn't like being asked questions, and certainly didn't like their patrons being confronted with the views they had (I suspect inadvertently) signed up to have big photos of their faces beside (nothing makes an attack on migrant rights more palatable than putting it next to a big image of history's most travelled human). Magnus wrote them a polite reply explaining that it's my job to ask questions, but I never quite got round to writing the piece.

Of course, their comments about the Syrian crisis didn't come out of nowhere. Population Matters has long called for “zero net-migration” to the UK: essentially, “one in, one out” - a position more extreme than the BNP. It's not just them. Last year, the Swiss organisation Ecopop (as in “ecology” and “population”) launched a referendum campaign calling for net immigration to be cut to 0.2% of the country's population. Swiss people need, as they put it,lebensraum”. In their January 2015 magazine, the Swiss referendum campaign was the top item in Population Matters “international movement” section.

It's not just their extreme views on migration which are controversial. Among Population Matters' six policy proposals for the recent general election was a suggestion that child benefit and tax credits should be scrapped for third and subsequent children. With child poverty as high as it is in Britain, it must have been the only charity in the country celebrating as Osborne subsequently cut tax and universal credits for third and subsequent children. Many were surprised by the Chancellor's decision, but, as Polly Toynbee put it, “there was always a eugenic undercurrent in Tory thinking: stop the lower classes breeding.”

Of course, none of this is new. Malthusian arguments have been used to justify brutal policies ever since the British civil servant responsible for Ireland, Sir Charles Trevelyan, wrote that the great famine there was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population”.

This genocidal tradition is, of course, not represented in contemporary Malthusianism. But the broader questions of race and gender are uncomfortable for them. The organisation wraps itself in the flag of women's empowerment and concern for global poverty, and I am sure that for most of those involved in it, those are genuine worries. But any interrogation of these issues ends in a deeply problematic place. George Monbiot, as ever, puts it in the clearest terms: “People who claim that population growth is the big environmental issue are shifting the blame from the rich to the poor”.

If population growth is the cause of environmental problems, then by implication those primarily responsible are the people in the world who have the most children. The level of absurdity of this statement is revealed when we consider that women in Mali have on average 6.29 children each. Women in the USA have 2.1. Yet the average Malian family is responsible for 1/136th of the carbon of the average American family. As Fred Pearce has written:

“The world’s richest half-billion people — that’s about 7 percent of the global population — are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile the poorest 50 percent are responsible for just 7 percent of emissions”. The problem, in other words, isn't the population growing, it's the behaviour of the wealthy."

The organisation, to be fair to it, does talk about population in richer countries as well as in more impoverished ones: hence its focus on immigration into the UK. But this doesn't change the basic fact that the issue they highlight, population growth, is one for which poorer people are more responsible. Telling people that overpopulation is the primary problem therefore functions to shift implicit blame for environmental destruction from rich white men, who in reality are mostly responsible for and profiting from a global system built on stripping the earth, to poor black women who have children within that system. And as if this problematic politics isn't already clear enough, they helpfully spell it out with their scheme of “Population Offsets” where, for example, people who can afford to fly can buy forgiveness by paying for other (usually poorer) people to be sterilised.

Likewise, claims of women's empowerment fall apart at the simplest questioning. In reality, most of feminism has long been deeply critical of neo-Malthusianism, for a simple reason. Whilst of course all women ought to have access to family planning, feminist academic Kalpana Wilson asks the vital question: “who is planning whose families?” You aren't empowering women to make choices about the size of their family if you have predetermined the outcome of that choice any more than you are enfranchising people if you give them the right to vote, so long as they vote for you.

This is a particular problem in the global south. Population Matters argued in its 2015 manifesto that the British government should “increase the proportion of foreign aid spent on family planning services and the empowerment of women”. Yet before we ask questions about whether we in the West are best placed to determine how aid money ought to be spent, it's important to examine what the money actually spent already does.

A 2012 Human Rights Watch report on forced sterilisation in India found that “authorities aggressively pursue targets, especially for female sterilization, by threatening health workers with salary cuts or dismissals”, and there are already serious allegations that UK aid money has been used to fund forced sterilisations in the global south. As the Observer reported, “many have died as a result of botched operations, while others have been left bleeding and in agony. A number of pregnant women selected for sterilisation suffered miscarriages and lost their babies.” Population Matters are against forced sterilisation. But their demand that UK aid money be shifted further into family planning programmes can only really be understood in this context.

14 women died last year sterilisation camps in Chhattisgarh, India. Buried on the Population Matters website is a blog from a doctor blaming and condemning “assembly line” sterilisations, but the language in their manifesto isn't qualified by the concerns he raises. More importantly, as Kalpana Wilson wrote at the time: “far from giving poor women in the global south much-needed access to safe contraception that they can control, these policies dehumanise them as “excessively reproductive” and set targets that make atrocities like those in Chhattisgarh possible. While these policies are rooted in deeply racist and patriarchal ideas, they are implemented in the name of reproductive rights and choice.”

There are vital organisations which genuinely exist to empower women to make reproductive choices. None of this should be seen as a criticism of them. The point is that if your starting point is not empowerment but that “they” do what “we” want, you will always end up in the wrong place.

When Population Matters have been confronted with these questions, their responses have tended to be worrying. At a debate about this subject two years ago, Green Party activist Sebastian Power explained that he was concerned that neo-Malthusianism functions to shift blame from rich to poor, white to black, men to women.

Roger Martin, the chair of the organisation, gave a telling response. He replied that he couldn't be racist (which wasn't ever quite the accusation), because his whole motive for caring about population was that when he was a diplomat, his local chef had got pregnant. When he had congratulated her, she had said that she didn't want another child. He took her to the family planning clinic, and she was grateful. It was, in other words, wrong to ask questions about the racial power balance intrinsic to his politics, because some of his domestic staff used to be black.

Last week, I contacted Population Matters' press officer. I asked if they wanted to comment on their sister organisation Ecopop and its rhetoric. Given the stories about their opposition to Syrian refugees coming to the UK seem to have been taken off their website, is this still their policy? Would Simon Ross like to say anything more about his former cook? They told me that they don't wish to comment. I contacted them again yesterday morning to ask if they wished to comment on the issue of DfID money funding forced sterilisations. They replied to say that didn't. If they want to write a response to this article, we'll be happy to publish it here.

Why do I mention any of this? Why pick on a small group of well-intentioned (which I'm sure they are) if misguided people, trying to take action on an issue that worries them?

I have been involved in the environmental movement for most of my life, and Population Matters (/the Optimum Population Trust) has always been hanging around. When I used to organise conferences for student activists, they frequently tried to book a stall. They spend a lot of time targeting members of the Green Party, and have recruited a group of universally popular patrons whose names they use as a teflon shield against any criticism. Various friends and I have often raised one or more of the above issues at stalls and meetings. The most common response has been along the lines of “are you saying David Attenborough's racist?”.

It is vital, therefore, that environmentalists and Greens have a clear understanding that this isn't a cuddly organisation if with slightly different priorities. Their concerns for the planet and for people are I am sure genuine. But it's because of these things that they present an acceptable face of hard-right policies like zero-net migration, stopping refugees from coming to the UK and scrapping child benefits. They potentially provide cover for a government steering funding into deeply worrying sterilisation programmes for people in the global South.

If there is ever an effective movement for these chilling policies, it will be led by kindly old men with fuzzy beards, not ranting skinhead twenty-somethings. It will, in other words, look much more like Population Matters than the EDL. Progressives should have nothing to do with them.

You can read a response to this article by Simon Ross, chief executive of Population Matters, here.

This article has been amended since publication. In 2015 the government scrapped child tax credits for third and subsequent children – but it did not scrap child benefits, as was originally stated. And the chair of Population Matters is Roger Martin, not Simon Ross as initially reported. 

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