We must fight the ‘leave’ side’s lies on migration, not support them

The remain campaign shouldn't pander to Leave's lies about migration.

Alex Scrivener
15 June 2016

the UK border at heathrow: dannyman/Wikimedia.

The EU referendum campaign has hit a new low. It was bad enough seeing the Leave campaign turn the whole referendum into a dog whistle campaign against immigrants. But now some on the Remain side are also jumping into the gutter with them. Alan Johnson has tried to make out that there will be more immigration if we leave the EU while Ed Balls has talked of the “need to press Europe to restore proper borders”.

Let’s get one thing clear. Trying out-scaremonger the Brexit camp on migration is never going to work. Very few people convinced that immigration is “too high” or that Britain “is full” (both wrong) will believe that voting Remain is the way to reduce immigration. If anything it will make the referendum even more about immigration and drive even more people to vote Leave.

Pandering to the right-wing populist line on immigration and allowing them to define the framing of the issue is a mistake. Progressives need to be bold in defending the free movement of people within Europe and push for more, not less, of this freedom.

In fact, more people need to reject the entire characterisation of what is going on in places like the Mediterranean as a migrant crisis. This makes it sound like it’s the people who are the problem. The truth is that there is no ‘migrant crisis’. There is a war crisis, a poverty crisis and an economic inequality crisis. The people trying to get to Europe are escaping war or poverty.

As we have argued in our recent briefing, the real solution involves dealing with these root causes. At the very least, we need to stop our governments pursuing policies that make things worse. That means not arming a Saudi Arabia that is aggressively bombing Yemen. That means not making dodgy deals with a Turkish government that is more interested in repressing the Kurds than stopping ISIS. That means not pushing unfair trade deals that lock poor countries into poverty.

Of course we also need to be taking our share of refugees. Remember that, for all the headlines, the vast majority of people fleeing conflict in Syria are not coming to Europe. If Lebanon, a country half the size of Wales, has taken in at least 1 million Syrian refugees, the UK should take many more than the tiny number (20,000 over five years) it has promised to accept so far.

The populist arguments against immigration don’t stack up. In fact, migration not only boosts the economies of poorer countries (through remittances) but also supports our public services. The NHS would collapse without immigration. The welfare state, contrary to tabloid lies, depends upon migrants who pay into the system.

We need to unravel unfair immigration rules that are breaking up parents from their children – and forcing teachers to leave the country because they don’t earn enough to stay. We need to end humiliating practices like asking gay asylum seekers to submit ‘video evidence’ of their sexuality. And we need to not only stay in the EU to fight the Fortress Europe mentality that is killing thousands on the Mediterranean and Aegean seas every year, but also join the border-free Schengen zone and campaign for its expansion so more people can enjoy the right to free movement.

But it’s not enough to simply make minor changes with the (frankly quite terrible) status quo. We need to go further and argue for a radical move towards a world without borders. After all, UK citizens can, provided they have the money for the tickets, breakfast in Istanbul, lunch in Paris and dine in New York. People from poorer countries have to submit mountains of documents and wait for visas if they want to visit family or friends abroad – and are often refused.

So we need to push for a world in which people everywhere have a right to free movement, regardless of where they are from. It may seem a long way off, but if we don’t at least begin to make the case, we risk ceding the debate to the forces of nationalism and xenophobia.

An altered version of this article first appeared in Global Justice Now’s supporter magazine, Ninety Nine.

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